10 tips to get into the habit of reading to your children: A child psychiatrist's perspective

Olivia is a 31-year-old woman expecting a child. At the end of her mental health wellness visit, she lowers her head and states: “I don't like to read and I have problem at work because of it.” Olivia brings this up to me because she is aware that reading is important for her child’s growth and she is already worried that her child will have the same struggles as she has had. How do we help parents who struggle with reading prevent this cycle and encourage reading with their own children?

Reading, in general, can provide several benefits, ranging from academic success to connecting with the world; from stress reduction to one of the best hobbies; and from keeping one's brain active to gaining empathy and a better understanding of humankind. For this reason, it is easy to understand why Olivia wants to emphasize reading for her child. Further, reading to your children and encouraging a love for reading from a young age has huge rewards. It helps build vocabulary, and improve analytical and critical thinking. In this busy world with competing priorities, it can be a challenge to find the time to read to our children. But there are things we can do. See my ten tips below and, please, share your wisdom and experience.

1. Remind yourself of the benefits of reading: As it is true for many things, reminding ourselves of the benefits of reading to our children can be one of the first steps when working toward a regular habit. Sally, a mother of two, reported to me that she has her children write several benefits on labels and stick them to the fridge and the walls throughout the house.

2. Think of reading to your children as one of the best investments: As stated above, reading to our children can be one of the best investments we could ever make in their future. Framing it like this can be a compelling way to see it as more than just a chore. Karen, a 34 year old, mother of three, once said: “We are still on the move in search of a good school district for our children. However, reading so far has been helping us make up for many things they are not getting in school. I strongly believe that reading to them is one of the best investments. It really pays off.”  

3.    Make reading a priority: You are convinced of the benefits of reading to your children and you are clear it is one of the best investments. How do we find the time to juggle so many things and add one more thing to our to-do list? The answer-make reading a priority.

4.    Start small: A journey of 10,000 miles is said to start with one step, and just as we do to let go of old habits and incorporate new ones, the best way to regularly read to your children is to start small. In fact, just start reading. Start by reading a page before bedtime, then read a few more pages, and then for five more minutes, as long as you have a rhythm. The most important thing is to make a start.

5. Quality and consistency instead of quantity: Just as it is true of spending time with your children, when it comes to reading to your children, quality and consistency by far trump quantity. Instead of reading to your children for 30 minutes once a week, it is more beneficial to read to her/him for 10 minutes a day. Do not worry about missing a day. It may also be good to skip weekends if you choose to. Simply remember, it is quality and consistency rather than quantity.

6. Model for your children: It is common knowledge that your children are more likely to do what they see you doing, not just what you say or ask them to do. This is true when it comes to reading. Try to read for pleasure, before bed, on weekends and on vacations. Your children are watching more than you may imagine. If you don't like reading, try to get into the habit by slowly reading magazines or something related to your interests or hobbies. Start small and connect it with your daily activities. After all, very few hobbies can be better than getting lost in a book.

7. Encourage your children to read to you: A bit of control may empower your children and having them read to you may help them appreciate the value and the fun of active reading. One thing you can do, you can actually alternate who does the reading. You can alternate by day, by page, or by paragraph. After all, this is meant to be fun.

10 tips to get into the habit of reading to your children: A child psychiatrist's perspective

8.    Encourage your children to take a book with them: Besides bedtime, there are many occasions during the day that may be great opportunities for you to read to your children or for your children to develop the habit of reading. Time spent commuting, waiting at the doctor’s office, dining out at a restaurant, or even waiting in line at a store are all good examples of "extra" time for reading. All these times add up, and making use of these 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, can sum up, to reveal more time for reading.

9.    Incentivize: Who says you cannot incentivize your children around developing a great reading habit. After all, one of the best ways to shape any behaviors in children is through incentives. Provide a good and healthy incentive. Discover what really motivates them and be willing to use it to encourage reading.

10. Connect reading with the reality: I know a couple who make sure to read to their child about a different state, country, or culture, each time the family or close friends travel. The child's curiosity spikes, lots of emotions are involved, lots of questions are posed and the child just wants to learn more and more. If traveling is not your thing, you can read to your child about his or her favorite hobbies, characters, or interests. What matters is to connect the reading with the reality, make it more palpable, and increase your child's curiosity.

Lastly, what are your thoughts? What experience or wisdom would you like to share for further tips on reading to your children?

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