3 Reasons to Read to Your Foster Child Every Single Day

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!

For more information and inspiration on reading aloud with your kids, including book recommendations for kids of all ages, check out the wonderful resources at Read Aloud Revival. And share your favorite books to read with your kids below!

The Power of Showing Up

Two years ago was a real turning point for me as a parent. As I have already shared, it is important for foster parents to deal with their baggage and figure out what makes them tick so they can be supportive and emotionally stable for their children. Two years ago was when I got serious about my self care plan, and it was when I started developing positive parenting tools that really work.

Two years ago was also when I started thinking in terms of being a Fully Present Parent. In fact, I have thought for some time now that, if I were to write a book for foster parents, it would be about being a Fully Present Parent. Being “fully present” to my kids has directed pretty much everything I’ve endeavored to do these past two years, because I realized that one of the things my kids need most is me—my attention, my compassion, my support, my example, and, well, my presence.

Well as it turns out, I probably will not be writing my book after all, because the Dynamic Duo of Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, have already written it (and it’s way better than anything I would have come up with). The book is called The Power of Showing Up, and it is now part of my (growing) list of Must-Reads.

According to Siegel and Bryson, “Showing up means bringing your whole being—your attention and awareness—when you’re with your child.” Phone down, computer closed, fully present. “When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child in that moment.” The authors describe what showing up looks like as helping kids feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure (they call these the Four S’s). When we accomplish these things for our kids consistently (if not perfectly), we help them develop “secure attachment,” which is the goal of parenting.

After a fantastic opening chapter, which serves as an introduction and will sound very familiar to fans of these authors’ existing body of work (including The Whole Brain Child), the remainder of the book explores in depth what each of the Four S’s look like and, perhaps more importantly, why some parents are less inclined to be fully present parents. The authors address the importance of understanding our own past and identifying how some might want/need to parent differently than how they were parented. “History is not destiny,” they write. “Our past can be understood so that it doesn’t dictate our present and our future.”

One of the things I found surprisingly helpful in this book was the series of drawings depicting interactions between parents and children. Like holding up a mirror to my own parenting style, I saw myself in those scenarios and recognized my own tendencies toward disconnection, judgment, and commanding/demanding postures when I’m frustrated with my kids. Just in the past week, I have reflected on several interactions with my children that I recognized in the pages of this book. It is with a heavy heart that I see how I missed opportunities to “show up” for my kids—to help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.

I can do better.

And with the help of this book, I think I will do better.

Another thing I really appreciate about this book’s approach is that the parents are still the parents. Whether one is a natural parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent, we must create and enforce rules. Showing up as a parent is not passive or permissive parenting. For example, “soothing” should never be confused with “coddling.” The authors reiterate that they “are big believers in setting clear, firm boundaries for children and even having high expectations for them, particularly when it comes to being respectful of themselves and others.”

Appealing to a growing body of scientific research in the area of child psychology and brain development, the authors make a strong case for the benefits of a secure attachment. These include higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, greater academic success, better coping skills in times of stress, better relationships, and other competencies. As I often say, when it comes to parenting, “More is caught than taught,” and that includes modeling respect, empathy, compassion, and what it looks like to be fully present. If we want our kids to exercise good screen habits, for example, we have to model good screen habits. If we want our kids to show kindness toward others, we have to show kindness to them. If we want our kids to have healthy emotional regulation, it starts with us modeling healthy emotional regulation.

This book belongs on the shelf (or bedside table) in every foster home. We often face the reality that we are caring for children who come with a complicated history. They usually lack secure attachment, and because of that, they struggle with self-esteem, emotional regulation, social interactions, and trust. Many times, we don’t know where to start. We see the challenges they face (and the challenging behaviors we face!) and feel at a loss for where to begin to address their issues.

What our kids need, we are assured by these authors, is not perfect parents who do everything right. Instead, what they need are caregivers who show up (and keep showing up). “To give your kids the best chance for healthy and optimal development, all you have to do is help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.” This takes time, of course, but if we stay the course and continue to show up for them, we will give our foster and adopted children the best possible chance at developing a secure attachment and enjoying the benefits thereof.

Image: Used by permission via Creative Commons Zero

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” [Disclaimer Credit: Michael Hyatt]

My Foster Care Must-Reads and Should-Reads

Yesterday, I received the following message on Facebook:

My family have just started the long journey of assessment to become foster carers in Australia. I love your page and find it immensely resourceful. If it is not too much trouble, is there any chance you could share your top 10 books on foster care related issues?

I receive this question a lot, and as it happens, I just updated my web site recently to reflect my recommendations for books and other resources that I have found very helpful as a foster parent. I replied to this viewer, but I thought some of you might find these helpful too!

In talking with other foster parents, I sometimes wonder how helpful these books are before you’re actually foster parents. I don’t know how much of what is in these books is helpful theoretically; I came to most of them as a foster parent with two or more children in my care. Their greatest value, I think, is as a practical resource for those who are looking for something to help them understand their kids and feel more equipped to love them well.

But it’s always a good idea to gain knowledge and prepare as best you can. It’s possible that some of this content is interesting before you’re a foster parent but imperative once you’re actually in the throes of being a foster parent.

At any rate, I wanted to shared these with you. There are a lot of books I could have listed—my reading list over the past five years has been long, and until last year, it has almost exclusively dealt with parenting, trauma, trauma-informed parenting, positive parenting, parenting with love and logic… you get the gist.

Click here to see my list of Must-Reads and Should-Reads.

How about you? What are your Must-Reads or Should-Reads as a foster parent? What other resources have you found helpful?

Please share in the comments so we can all learn from one another!