Dinner+bath+story=bedtime is the magical formula that most parents dream about usually starting right after nap time. Or, depending on what kind of day it is, sometimes right after breakfast. As a mother, teacher and avid reader, this was our nightly ritual from the time my oldest was on a regular routine. But to assume this formula is standard in every household is showing my privilege. The 2020 State of Babies Yearbook was just released, and according to the California stats, children aged 0-3 are only read aloud to by parents in an average of 28.2% of homes (the national average is only 37.8%). Infants being read to by parents is a key indicator of positive early learning experiences and helps contribute to overall life long learning and success. To someone like me, reading to babies seems like a fun, simple and relatively inexpensive way to help start your child towards a positive path of learning. But this belief must not be that widespread, or the highest state average would not be only 59.4%.
So what are some of the reasons why parents may not be reading to their babies? Access, ability and time may all factor into this dilemma. I hope to provide some resources that we teachers and parent advocates can share with our families so that we can get that percentage up and empower more parents to read with their children.
First, access. To me it seems like a simple solution: to go down to your local library and apply for a library card and voila!!! Buildings and buildings full of free books! But to get a card you need a proof of address as well as an ID and that may present challenges for some families. Or, parents may be worried about the dreaded library fine. However, many local libraries do not charge fines for children's materials, and some library systems have eliminated fines altogether. If you can not check books out, you can still sit and read books together while you are there. Most libraries have created very welcoming spaces for children and families, no shushy librarians allowed!!
And what if you want to build your own home library? Books can be expensive and not every home has equal access. Like food deserts, book deserts exist across most of North America. Even here in San Francisco there are neighborhoods whose homes have 0-10 books. Luckily most thrift stores carry childrens books, and the price usually ranges from fifty cents to two dollars. If you are in San Francisco The Children's Book Project provides free books for both families and child care centers. Another program that provides free books for centers (who then can pass the books on to families) is The Lisa Libraries. And Dolly Parton's Imagination Library will mail children free books from birth to age 5.
So now we are getting books into parents hands...now what? It may not be as easy as just turning the first page and starting reading. According to the latest research, approximately 52% of all Americans have basic or below basic reading skills, and at least 4% are non literate, meaning no reading skills at all. Very hard to read to your baby if you don’t feel comfortable reading by yourself. Many libraries have adult literacy programs, such as SFPL’s Project Read. Also, I would like to stress that, as we have mentioned before at The Magical Library, sticking to just the printed word is not mandatory. Parents can describe the illustration to their child, point out the colors and objects, or make up their own story. The benefits of early reading with babies goes beyond the author's words, and have more to do with the exploration of language, hearing the sounds and creating that safe, warm space that allows the brain to build neural connections. Also, reading doesn't have to be relegated to only books. Read street signs, read store advertisements, read the back of a cereal box, turn on the captions and read the TV!!
Which brings me to the last factor, time. While a snugly story before bed may be the ideal, reading can happen any time, anywhere. For a parent that works the night shift, bedtime may not be realistic. Who says you can’t read a book at breakfast? During the bath, or on the bus on the way to school? Any time parents and children are together can be a time for reading. The more you set aside priority time to read with your child, the easier it will be to find those little pockets of time to share a story. And in the long run, the small amounts of time you can find to read together during those first three years, will provide a multitude of benefits.
But this article isn’t just for parents. As I stated at the start, if you work with families and children,by knowing about these statistics and reasons parents may not read to their babies I hope you will find ways in your centers or classrooms to advocate for your families and help them overcome these obstacles. Think about your communities and create pathways to help empower parents so that all children can have a brighter future.