Surround your kids with books, let them choose the pages they want to turn, and you’ll inspire them to think big and never stop.

boy reading book in clear bubble chair
Priscilla Gragg
| Credit: Priscilla Gragg

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, my aunt asked me what part of parenthood I was most excited for, and I said, "Bedtime reading." After all, so many happy memories from my own childhood involved books: sitting on my dad's lap in his big chair while he read me Little House on the Prairie; lying next to my mom in bed and imagining myself discovering a magical hidden door in a wall as she read The Secret Garden; and hiding a flashlight under my pillow so I could stay up late to read the latest Baby-Sitters Club book.

Of course, I don't remember the hours they must have spent reading and rereading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, just as my daughter Violet demanded I do nightly, starting 18 months after that prenatal conversation. And our parents didn't have to make books seem as appealing as iPads ... or every cat video online. Seven years into this motherhood gig, I can say that having kids who love books continues to be one of my biggest joys—but that doesn't mean it happened effortlessly.

There are plenty of practical reasons to make this goal a priority. Young kids whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard 1.4 million more words than kids who aren't read to, according to a study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, and one's kindergarten vocabulary predicts future academic success. Books are meaningful as both mirrors (letting kids see themselves reflected in a story) and windows (so they can understand someone else's experience). "It's incredibly important for parents to choose books that allow children to look into and reflect on the diverse lives of people from other cultures," says Riana Elyse Anderson, Ph.D., assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan.

Reading helps kids build empathy, lengthen their attention span, develop impulse control, think critically, inspire their creativity, and spark curiosity. But when my 2-year-old, Beatrix, snuggles up with her well-worn copy of A Stone Sat Still, I'm not thinking about her vocab. I'm inhaling the sweet scent of her toddler curls and appreciating the delight she takes in spotting a tiny family of mice that appears on one particular page. "That's the Beatrix mouse," she tells me, pointing to her favorite one. "And that's the mommy mouse and the daddy mouse and the sister mouse!" Reading together is how she makes sense of her world, but it's also a source of comfort. Here's how to foster that love of the written word—and build magical memories—at any age.

Establish Reading Rituals

Beatrix and I read her favorite "stone book" almost every morning after breakfast. To be honest, we started this routine to keep her occupied while her older sister was getting ready for the school bus. But building this kind of easy reading ritual into your day from the time your children are babies is a key way to ensure they'll crave books as they grow. Bring some along on errands or to the doctor's office, and offer to read while your kids are in the tub.

"Don't worry if your 2-year-old wants to play while listening to you read, or she changes her mind midbook and tells you to read something else," says Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D., founding director of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center for Literacy. "This is part of how she's learning to pay attention. And reading half of three books and two pages of a fourth still counts as reading!"

As kids get older, your family's reading rituals can evolve with their needs. If your preschooler is dropping his nap, replace it with quiet time looking at books in his room. But keep reading to your kids even after they learn to read independently. They'll enjoy listening to more complicated books—and your reading aloud continues to expose them to more sophisticated vocabulary.

Like lots of kids, Violet has had phases of not wanting bedtime stories. So I've tried a tip from Parents advisor Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., professor of education at Stanford University: "Let your child read to you, or bring a book of your own to read lying next to her while she reads her book," she says. "I kept up 'bedtime reading' with my own daughter that way until she was 16."

Keep It Low-key

You likely learned to read in first grade, but teachers now start working on literacy skills in preschool, and some children begin to read fluently in kindergarten. "Starting earlier gives kids a longer time to master the complex skills, which some are ready to do at age 4 and others not until 5 or 6," says Dr. Shanahan. Although this should take the pressure off, parents can worry whether their kids are learning quickly enough.

However, when we break out the flash cards and nudge our kids to complete their worksheets and timed reading sessions, we can undermine the pleasure they take in books. "I think reading logs teach families to lie about reading," says Parents contributing editor Colby Sharp, a fifth-grade teacher in Parma, Michigan, and dad of five. "Reading should never have winners and losers because once we create that negative association, it's that much harder to help a kid connect with books."

Do reach out to your child's teacher if you think your child is really struggling, since early intervention is key to the treatment of dyslexia and other learning differences. But your main role in all of this is to foster good feelings about reading, not to teach the mechanics of reading itself. "Ironically, to help your child excel academically, you need to treat reading as a leisure activity that has nothing to do with school," says Maria Russo, coauthor of How to Raise a Reader and an editor of children's books. When British researchers studied the reading habits of more than 17,000 people, they found that those who still read for pleasure at ages 10 and 16 performed better on vocabulary, spelling, and math tests.

daughter sitting in mothers lap reading harry potter book
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Be a Reader Yourself

Two years ago, I went to a dinner party and someone asked me what book I'd loved lately, and I answered, "Ramona Quimby, Age 8." For the record, that was totally true—but it also underscored how much more time I was making for my kids' reading habits than my own. Even if you've been a lifelong bookworm, the odds are good that parenthood has curtailed your own personal reading by ... a lot. This is a bummer for both you and your kids because research has shown that children read more when they see their parents reading.

Of course, the idea of curling up with a novel while your toddler entertains himself may seem laughable. But you're actually emphasizing the value of reading anytime you tell your kids stories about your childhood or ask them questions to encourage them to express their own ideas, says Daniel Willingham, Ph.D., a psychology professor who studies literacy and learning at the University of Virginia. As they get older, you can encourage them to look up answers or words they don't know. This helps them appreciate what language is for and how it helps us learn about the world. Feel free to define your own "reading" just as loosely: It could be paging through cookbooks, treating yourself to a homedesign book that's mostly photos, or picking up a magazine (like this one!).

Leave Books Everywhere

Last year, my husband built a Pinterest-worthy reading nook in our upstairs hall with floor-to-ceiling shelves, comfy beanbags, and tons of children's books I arranged in rainbow order. The day we finished it, Violet wanted to read her new library book ... at the kitchen table. We do use the cozy spot, especially before bed, but if we relied on it too much, we might inadvertently limit our reading time.

"Keep books anyplace where your kids might get bored," suggests Dr. Willingham. Put a book basket in the car and the bathroom, and leave a stack on the coffee table. Indeed, research has shown that the strongest predictor of a child's reading may be the sheer number of books present in his childhood home. So host "book swaps" with friends, give books for birthdays and other holidays, and make book wish lists for relatives. "Think about how Netflix is always adding shows to entice you to watch more," says Sharp. "Kids need a steady stream of new books to stay engaged."

Let Your Kids Choose What to Read

My friend Liz's 7-year-old son has long struggled to connect with books—but he's passionate about lawn mowers and power tools, so he and Liz read a Tractor Supply Co. catalog every night. Before we adopted our puppy, Violet was only interested in dog-training manuals. If you want to raise readers, you have to show kids that whatever they love, there is a book (or a catalog!) for that. Don't worry whether they're choosing ones that are "challenging enough" or push classics on them if they aren't receptive.

Above all, embrace the fact that your child may want to read the same favorite over and over. Rereading is a useful literacy skill whether it's your toddler asking you to read The Snowy Day for the five thousandth time or your first-grader relishing the same Fancy Nancy book. "I tell kids there's a 'best-friend book' out there for everyone," says Katherine Applegate, the author of Wishtree and other children's books.

Make Reading the Reward

Little kids often beg for one more story, and we want to continue to cultivate that attitude as they get older. Studies show that when children have to eat certain foods in order to earn dessert, they like the "healthy" foods less. So don't let books turn into brussels sprouts.

You'll usually read the text as written, but you can also make up games like spotting every ladybug on the page. Offer a trip to the library or bookstore (as soon as they're open again) as a prize after a dental checkup. Extend your kid's bedtime so he can stay up "late" to read. Instead of setting a timer and saying that he "has" to read for 15 minutes, take five enthusiastic minutes as the win. "People who love to read get pleasure from books they can't get in other ways," says Dr. Willingham, "and we want our kids to enjoy that with us."

two children wearing headphones listening to audio book
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

What about digital books?

If the goal is to get kids reading anytime, anywhere, you may wonder if an e-reader would make it easier. Even though many schools have been dependent on digital books this year, experts say that paper ones are still preferable for young kids. It's best to limit digital books for babies and young toddlers, who don't need the screen time, but if you have an older child who's enticed by an e-reader, go for it. "A teen who has the Kindle app on her phone will always have a book with her," says Dr. Daniel Willingham, of the University of Virginia.

Audiobooks are great for kids of all ages—especially for car rides or times when they might otherwise hop on a screen. "They offer kids an enjoyable read-aloud experience, and they have similar benefits in terms of language development," says Dr. Willingham.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2020 issue as "Raise a Child Who Loves to Read" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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