There’s very, very little that I’ve done in more than nine years of parenting that I would absolutely, unequivocally say that I’ve gotten right as a father. I’m not always consistent. I can get talked into things by my kids if they pester me long enough. I’m more likely to say yes to dessert than Mom even if my brood hasn’t quite finished all their broccoli.
However, there is one thing I may have accidentally nailed.
Several years ago, when my son was perhaps 5 or 6, I had the random thought one night that we should read a book—I’m talking a novel, a real book—out loud before bed each night. At that point, I was becoming increasingly aware of how he loved and internalized stories. And I wanted to make sure that we got some good ones in the mix for him.
So we plunged into Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. Was it perhaps a bit much for a little guy? I wasn’t immediately sure how to answer that question. But he loved it. And he didn’t have nightmares or anything like that, which was one of my key benchmarks for assessing whether or not it was going to be OK for him. So each night we’d read a considerable chunk before bed. Over the course of a year or so, we made our way through the entire trilogy, then looped back to pick up The Hobbit after the fact. After that, we did the same with C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew (which I actually hadn’t read before).
Somewhere along the line, though, we finished a book and didn’t immediately start another. A few days passed, then a week, and then, well, I’m not even sure how long.
Several months ago, it occurred to me that we had suspended what had become a delightful part of our bedtime routine, and it was time to read another book. Without giving it a huge amount of thought, I pulled down Terry Brooks’ mid-1970s ode to all things Tolkien, The Sword of Shannara. Since then, Brooks has become one of the towering titans of fantasy literature—so much so that MTV just launched a series called The Chronicles of Shannara (a subject I’ll return to in a moment).
The Sword of Shannara was a big undertaking, something like 750 pages or so, and it took us a while to read it out loud. It’s incrementally darker than Lord of the Rings, and its worldview is not grounded in the Christian faith in the way that Tolkien’s and Lewis’ beloved tales are.
But here’s the thing: Reading this story out loud together has given us natural opportunities to begin talking about worldview. Where we encounter spiritual ideas that don’t quite line up with what we believe, I’ll stop reading and we’ll talk about that. It’s been a great springboard to talking about the fact that not everyone in the world—and not all the stories we encounter—jibe with our spiritual convictions.
Sometimes, of course, that means we simply avoid those stories. But other times, these tales offer an opportunity for us as parents to model critical thinking regarding how our beliefs differ from what we’re seeing in a given story, whether that’s in a movie, on TV or in a book. Reading together provides a natural, easy avenue to do exactly that.
In addition, there are several other intertwined facets of reading together that I’ve come to really cherish.
First, it’s very relational. My son recently told me that reading together has become one of his favorite moments of the day. And I feel the same way.
Second, it’s analog: no screens involved whatsoever. In a world drenched in technology, there’s something truly delightful about the old-school charm of turning paper pages in a book and discovering what dramatic twists and turns await on the next page.
Third, it’s immersively imaginative (or perhaps imaginatively immersive, take your pick). Most of the time when I’m reading, my son closes his eyes. One night I asked him about it, and he said he did that so he could picture the story in his mind. I love that reading gives him that outlet to engage his imagination instead of just ingesting the images screen-based entertainment prefabricates for him.
Finally, reading out loud together fuels my son’s desire to read on his own, too. In fact, most nights he spends some time reading something else before our story time “appointment.”
For Christmas, I tracked down a signed copy of the second book in Brook’s main fantasy series, The Elfstones of Shanarra. We’re a hundred or so pages into that one, and there have been no shortage of engaging narrative moments … and teachable moments, too.
It’s completely coincidental that we happen to be reading Elfstones even as MTV’s new series debuts, drawing the broad brushstrokes of its storyline from that very book. My son is aware of the series, but it’s not something that I have any intention of watching with him at this point—in part because it reportedly has a much ansgty-ier young adult vibe than the books themselves do, and in part because I have no desire to introduce someone else’s visual rendering of a story that my son is doing just fine imagining all by himself. (Plugged In will be reviewing the series in the coming weeks.)
I’d like to close, then, with this encouragement: If you haven’t picked up a good story to read to your kids for a while, give it a try. You might be amazed at the relational connection you reinforce with them, the teachable moments that arise and, finally, the sheer joy of plunging into a great story with your children in a wonderfully old fashioned way.