Read-Aloud Rituals Are Always In Season
By Pam Leo, Family Literacy Activist

“Rituals are positive things we do in our families that are unique to us and have a secret capacity to bond and strengthen loving connections among a family.” - Maggie Dent, Author and Parent Educator

I sometimes wonder if parents hear the message so often that they “should” read to their children, that reading a story feels like one more parenting chore to be accomplished. There are indeed many good reasons we should read aloud to children. Although reading aloud is the best way to build children’s early foundation for learning to read, this article is about an even sweeter reason to read aloud. Mem Fox, author of Reading Magic, Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, says, “When I say to a parent, ‘Read to a child,’ I don’t want it to sound like medicine, I want it to sound like chocolate!” It is the “chocolate” of reading aloud that I am writing about today.

We create the chocolate experience by turning the routine of reading at bedtime into a “ritual.” The difference between a routine and a ritual is how we do it, and how devoted we are to doing it. Reading at bedtime is instantly transformed from a bedtime routine to a read-aloud connection ritual when we name it our “special” time together. The manner in which we do rituals is very specific. Since it will be your ritual, you get to create it. Maybe you sit in a special chair each time you read or perhaps you always read three books, making sure to end with a current favorite. You might read two books in the chair and the final story in the bed. Read aloud rituals can be as different as each child and each parent. What makes it a family ritual is that it belongs to your family. When children talk about their family’s rituals they usually say, “In our family we...(do it this way).”
Whether you have several children and have already been reading bedtime stories for a few years or have just welcomed your first child, creating your own special read-aloud connection rituals benefits the whole family. Having routines and family rituals creates the predictability young children need. When we do our read-aloud connection rituals the same way each time, we create a feeling of security. The more secure children feel, the more they can be flexible when circumstances require it. So even if we can’t read in that special chair, like usual, we can read like usual and it’s the reading part that maintains the feeling of security. When hearing a story becomes a security for your children, you have spun gold out of paper. You can read a story anywhere. You can even read a story from your phone if there are no books where you are. When children are used to listening to stories, you can “tell” them a story to create that calming sense of security. Your voice becomes your child’s oasis of calm in the doctor’s waiting room, in line at the grocery store, in an airport or on a bus –– you now hold the golden ticket!
For parents with new babies, now is the ideal and easiest time to create read-aloud rituals. Babies who have been read to since birth are easier to read to as toddlers. By the time they are toddlers they already associate the parent “reading” voice with snuggles, joy and the feeling of connection. Reading together is an ideal way to reconnect when we come back together after being separated by work, child care or school. A story also creates a gentle reentry for the parent who has been gone for the day. Part of the read-aloud connection ritual can be picking out the welcome home book your child wants to hear each day.

Some of the read-aloud rituals parents have shared with me are reading a story in bed before their child gets up in the morning, reading at the breakfast table and even reading in the bathtub. Creating read-aloud connection rituals gives children and parents three very important gifts. It gives children both the richest literacy foundation for learning to read and the motivation to want to learn to read because of all their positive associations with books. For parents, reading-aloud becomes the golden ticket to creating a feeling of calm and connection any time of the day or night, wherever they may be.

One of the read-aloud connection rituals I love best is reading books that are “in season.” We always read books about maple sugaring in March and books about gardening in the spring. We always read Blueberries for Sal and A Handful of Stars, before we pick blueberries in the summer and Johnny Appleseed in the fall. We read The Mitten in the winter, and holiday books for each holiday. The key word is “always,” which is what makes it a ritual. Since most children’s favorite of all holidays is their birthday, the book I have chosen to feature is Joni Rubinstein’s, The Night Before My Birthday. This book focuses on the anticipation children feel the night before their most special day. It was written to be read each year on the night before a child’s birthday as a way of creating a new birthday ritual. I actually found this book the night before my own birthday while writing this article and knew immediately it was meant to be the feature book.

One of the things I researched for this article was the difference between rituals and traditions. We often use those words interchangeably, but I learned that they actually mean different things. A ritual is “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set, precise manner.” A tradition is “a belief or custom handed down from one generation to another.” One of our family rituals was always going apple picking in the fall. I am delighted that our apple picking ritual became a tradition in both my daughter’s families! This means I still get to go apple picking every fall with my children, grandchildren and great-grandson at our family’s favorite apple place, Doles Orchard in Limington. Reading seasonal books aloud together can become a family connection ritual that is always “in season!”

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."