by By Thomas Wartenberg
I remember being amazed nearly two decades ago that I could read a bedtime book to my son Jake while my mind was elsewhere, thinking about all the things that remained to be done before I could go to sleep.
Today, we’d all routinely call this kind of thing multi-tasking, but I’ve often wondered whether I was really doing Jake a service. I knew that it was important to read to him; research shows that reading to kids is the best way to guarantee that they’ll become lifelong readers. But I wonder now if perhaps there wasn’t a better way to put my son to sleep.
Here’s a suggestion if you share my quandary: Talk about a book with your child.
Most of us are so concerned with getting kids to sleep that we resist doing anything to stimulate them, praying that the drone of “Good night room. Good night moon. Good night cow jumping over the moon” will put them down.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
Picture books often contain puzzles that intrigue children. Take Dr. Seuss’s zany book The Cat in the Hat. After you’ve read about all the things that cat has done while the kids’ mother is away, you might ask, “Do you think the Cat in the Hat is real?” The notion that the two children might have invented the cat may surprise you. But what else could account for the wild antics that appeared to take place while their mother was away and had left them on their own? Clearly, this is a book from an earlier era of parenting!
Once your children consider whether the Cat is just a product of the children’s imaginations, you might go on to ask how they can tell if something is real or imagined, whether they have imaginary friends, or whether their teddy bear ever really talks to them.
Using reading time as thinking time will enrich the bedtime experience for both of you. Not only will you connect with your children, but you’ll also give them an opportunity to think about and come to terms with questions and issues in their own lives that might be difficult to understand.
Many picture books pose mind-bending issues. For example, Leo Lionni’s beautifully illustrated book Frederick raises the question of why some people’s work is physically exhausting while other people get to just sit around and think.
Picture books are beloved, in part, because they can focus on profound issues in a charming, non-threatening way. Once you begin to take the books seriously, you’ll see their interesting intellectual puzzles. So tonight, when you lie down to read that story for the thousandth time, ask your child to think about whether a cow really could jump over the moon.