In a time where mental and behavioral disorders among children are at an all-time high, our children are reading less than ever.
Although reading is not the cause of such problems; it may, however, be a way to prevent them.
Neuroscientists have likened reading to ‘the brain’s gym’, since it has been shown to strengthen brain functions and reduce the risk of mental disorders.
However, just like actual exercising, reading by itself does not guarantee health; it ultimately depends on the quality of the exercise.
For a very long time, reading has been associated with study and schoolwork.
This has made it feel more of a chore than a fulfilling activity.
It undermined both the immense enjoyment and benefit that reading can cause.
That is why in this article, we will try to reimagine reading as we go through ten important reasons why it might be the most transformative habit your child can embark upon.
- A magic door to experiences
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads live only one.”
—George R. R. Martin
Some people tend to think: how is reading the story any different from watching the film?
Both tell the same events, after all.
The answer is simple.
Both engage the brain differently.
When your child is watching a film, he is mostly passively receiving, and reacting to, a story that is handed down to him.
Reading, however, is a more active and complicated process.
It involves various regions of the brain, including language, memory, and perception.
When your child is reading a story, he is given its script, but his brain is both the director and the audience.
Studies have found that the stories we read tend to come to life through our mental representations.
These representations can impact us emotionally and even physically.
A study by Mar (2004) found that, while reading, people produced “motor activations” that mimicked the actions of the characters they were reading about.
It also noted how readers adopted the characters’ points of view and mirrored their emotional states.
These are just some ways reading a story can engage your child’s brain more intensely. His favorite stories become as real as they can get.
- A field-trip anytime, anywhere.
With my students, as well with their parents, I love to use the field-trip analogy when talking about books.
Most parents have the same problem: they can’t get their children to read.
My advice for that is always to stop thinking of reading in terms of something we ‘get’ our children to do, and to think of it in terms of a field-trip which they always have the option of taking.
I tell them to focus instead on where they think their child would want to go.
If your child is fond of animals, then stories rich with animal characters will probably captivate him.
If you daughter loves to hang out with her friends more than anything, she will probably enjoy reading about other people’s friendships.
I have taught kids, who, for years, were resistant to any forms of reading, only to watch them consume one book after another once we started tapping into their worlds of interest.
Treat a bookstore visit like an adventure, a quest to find the one and true book, and you will soon notice a shift in your child’s attitude.
Flip together through tens of books, discuss what they each talk about, and I guarantee you, the one book that they refuse to let down will be a book they will end up reading.
It is important to remember, though, that timing is everything.
Yes, field-trips are generally exciting, but just like no place can be equally exciting for everyone, it always depends on where we would rather be at any given moment.
- A safe way to learn about life’s darker truths
There always comes the day when we need to talk to our children about dark topics like death and sexuality.
Doing so can be very hard, so hard that many parents can sleep on it until it becomes too late.
If a child has a first bad experience with something as sensitive as their sexuality, it can scar them for life.
We cannot afford to let that happen.
Here, reading can also play a critical role, because it can help prepare children for such new experiences by exposing them to similar ones, albeit vicariously.
For instance, before you begin to talk to your child about death, they can first read stories about characters who lose someone or something close to them.
This will help them observe and navigate similar emotions from a distance.
It will also allow you to be there when it first happens.
- A way to learn and grow from conflict
As children engage with different fictional narratives and perspectives, conflict inevitably happens.
Children will often encounter perspectives different from those they are used to, and this can cause what cognitive psychologists call a ‘disequilibrium’ or an ‘imbalance’.
This temporary state of imbalance is actually very important.
It is considered by cognitive scientists as one of the most powerful forces that can drive learning and growth (Wadsworth, 2004).
When children confront information that contradicts their own, their minds are challenged to creatively reconcile both the old and the new.
This often spurs them to update, or strengthen, their existing knowledge and beliefs.
- A path to emotional intelligence and empathy
Young children are often egocentric; they hardly think about what others think or feel.
As they grow, their ability to understand how others think, to predict their behavior, and to connect with them, grows as well.
This might take a very long time for many; for some, it may never happen.
Research has shown that reading fiction can help children understand the mental states, intentions, goals, and emotions of others (Frith & Frith, 1999).
Reading has been directly shown to improve empathy.
It also helps children to develop self-awareness. Engaging and identifying with other’s narrated experiences can help readers navigate their own better.
It gives them the tools to both recognize emotions in themselves and to express them (Bartolucci & Batini, 2020).
- Develops healthy habits and attitudes
Getting used to them makes your child seek the kind of fast-acting pleasures that mimic the dopamine rush they get from their phones.
It is a little like getting too used to eating candy and fast food, that every other food becomes tasteless.
This sabotages your child’s ability to be both patient and able to delay instant gratification for future gain, both of which are indicators of lifelong success.
Unlike the harmful pattern of behavior that is learned from social media apps and videogames, reading is a habit rooted in both patience and delaying of gratification.
The pleasure from reading is often one that simmers slowly.
It pays dividends more towards the end, when the child is fully absorbed in the world he has come to build.
- Imparts (better) knowledge
This one sounds obvious enough.
The more we read, the more we learn.
There is more to reading than just knowledge accumulation, though.
Reading develops the habits of mind that influence the quality of knowledge being learned.
The more a child reads, the more he is used to looking for underlying meanings behind discourse.
This improves his ability to create meaning, detect bias, and analyze information.
A good reader will always have a more penetrating and critical lens than the average onlooker.
So, yes, the more we read, the more we learn, but also the better we are at learning.
- Fosters intelligence and cognitive development
A study has shown that having good reading skills as a child predicts higher intelligence as an adult.
Reading, as we mentioned, is a complex mental activity, one which involves many brain functions such as sustained attention, planning, perception, memory, and reflection.
The more these functions are utilized, the sharper each of them naturally becomes.
That is why reading is like taking your brain to the gym: the more we do it, the stronger and healthier our brains become.
- Improves academic performance
One of the most accurate predictors of academic success is how often a child reads.
Studies have found a correlation between reading for pleasure and higher academic achievement in all subjects, not just language.
And the earlier the child starts to read, the more exponential the gains.
Most strong readers had parents who read to them in the first five years of their life (Duursma, Augustyn & Zuckerman, 2008).
It has also been found that the amount of reading a preschooler have been exposed to have been linked to higher reading, spelling, and IQ scores (Stevenson & Fredman, 1990).
- Helps you bond with your child
Reading to/with your child is an incredibly strong way to bond with them.
If you turn it into a regular fixture, it can be the kind of shared event both you and your child will look forward to.
And unlike watching TV together, reading with your child is a very intimate activity, since you and your child get entangled in the story’s world building.
You raise your voice, spread your arms, and the words you read start taking on totally different meanings.
Your child sways with you above the clouds of a world that is readily available to just the two of you.
It’s an indescribable connection.
Bartolucci, M., & Batini, F. (2020) Reading Aloud Narrative Material as a Means for the Student’s Cognitive Empowerment. Mind, Brain, and Education. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mbe.12241
Duursma, E., Augustyn, M., & Zuckerman, B. (2008). Reading aloud to children: the evidence. Archives of disease in childhood, 93(7), 554-557. Retrieved from:
Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (1999). Interacting minds—A biological basis. Science, 286, 1692–1695. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/download/39301786/F_FSci.pdf
Mar, R. A. (2004). The neuropsychology of narrative: Story comprehension, story production and their interrelation. Neuropsychologia, 42(10), 1414–1434. Retrieved from:
Stevenson, J., & Fredman, G. (1990). The social environmental correlates of reading ability. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31(5), 681-698. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1990.tb00810.x
Wadsworth, B. J. (2004). Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. New York: Longman.
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Please note that these techniques are not intended to replace professional care and are for entertainment purposes only.