I had a friend once describe running as one of the most efficient means of exercise there is. He pointed out that it requires no equipment (except a good pair of running shoes), no commute to the gym, burns a lot of calories, gets you a dose of vitamin D, can be done anytime, and gives you a great cardio workout. Like me, my friend does not particularly enjoy running, but he does enjoy being physically fit. So running is part of his regular routine.
What running is to physical fitness, reading is to child-rearing. Reading is one of the most efficient things we can do every day to contribute to our relationship with our children and help them flourish. This is true for every child, but it is especially important for those of us caring for children in foster care. Here’s why:
Reading aloud to a child contributes significantly to their language development, which is fundamental to most other areas of cognitive growth and mental health in a child. This is important for all children, but it is especially vital for children who have experienced early childhood neglect and a delay in language development. This study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that, “Neglect is the type of maltreatment most strongly associated with delays in expressive, receptive, and overall language development.” The study also finds that, “Children who are unable to communicate effectively may not have the necessary skills to negotiate or resolve conflict and may have difficulties understanding and relating to others. Psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder are highly associated with language impairment, and a combination of these problems may lead to poor social functioning as these individuals enter adulthood.”
According to Rhode Island’s Reach Out and Read, “Reading aloud is widely recognized as the single most important activity leading to language development. Among other things, reading aloud builds word-sound awareness in children, a potent predictor of reading success.” This is good news for those of us who parent children who experienced neglect early on. While they may have gotten a late start, reading aloud to them every day can have a repairing effect, essentially making up for lost language learning time.
Reading aloud fosters a child’s sense of imagination. From birth to about two years of age, children are learning about the world around them primarily through their senses: they want to touch and taste everything they can get their hands on (if you have ever worn glasses while holding a one-year-old, you know just what I mean!) But from age two to age seven or so, a child’s imagination is starting to grow. They begin to understand things symbolically and metaphorically, and listening to stories encourages this development (as does imaginative play).
Children who have experienced early childhood neglect often experience a stunted imagination. However, reading aloud daily can, once again, repair that deficit and fuel their imaginative brain function. Asking a child questions that help them reflect on the stories they are hearing actually helps to exercise their imagination and carve important neuropathways in their brains.
Reading aloud provides a great means of connection between a child and a caregiver. It is no surprise that children who have experienced broken attachments, meaning they have been separated from a primary caregiver (i.e. a parent), struggle to bond and attach with others. However, attachment is a vital part of emotional and mental development. Children learn how to have relationships through their attachments, they experience a sense of safety and security through attachment, and they learn emotional regulation through modeling after their caregivers. When those attachments are broken, the damage can be catastrophic, with life-long affects.
While there is no way to totally repair the devastation of attachment disruptions in children, reading to a new foster child is a simple and non-threatening way to bond with them. Sitting together on a couch and reading aloud to your foster child is a natural way to connect physically, mentally, and emotionally. Laughing together at something silly (such as Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie stories or any number of other good books for children) releases endorphins, which are considered the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain, making laughter truly good medicine.
Books can also provide a non-threatening way to address hard topics that are common for children in foster care. Books like The Night Dad Went to Jail, Tommy’s 2 Mommies, and Stellaluna allow children to talk about hard things they have experienced without talking about themselves. I have watched children in my care open up about the characters in these stories, when they would never offer to talk about their own experiences directly.
Reading aloud daily (or nightly at bedtime) also provides a wonderful opportunity for a child to exercise some personal autonomy. By inviting your child to choose a book (or two or three) each night, they get to experience a hit of power, which contributes tremendously to a child’s sense of personal agency and satisfaction.
Simply put, reading aloud to your foster child every day is one of the very best things you can do for them. If a child is with you for six months, and you read to them every day of their placement, that’s 168 opportunities to contribute to their language skills! If a child is with you for a year, and you read one book to them every day, that’s 365 chances to foster their imagination! And if a child comes to you at age seven and you read to them every night until they’re thirteen, that’s over two thousand excuses to sit and snuggle and bond with your child. And for the record, there is no reason to stop reading aloud to your children when they become teens. Reading aloud is something I love to do with my eldest daughter, who came to us when she was fifteen!