Monday, March 23, 2015

Bedtime Reading

I agree with C. S. Lewis's pronouncement that "reading oneself to sleep," is a "deplorable practice," but I do think that bedtime reading can serve other purposes.

When I reflect on my childhood, straining to recall my earliest memories, one that surfaces most distinctly is bedtime reading. My mother, whether consciously or unconsciously, fulfilled the role of "Super Mom." She worked full-time, kept an immaculate house, made all meals fresh and from scratch, served on countless committees, sang in the church choir, managed a picture-perfect lawn and gardens, never brought home a "store-bought cookie," and flawlessly pressed every garment we put on. Lest I overwhelm you, I will not continue this list further except to add that one of the other necessary tasks she unfailingly included in her daily round was reading to my sister and me at bedtime. Besides for meals, it is the only time I remember her sitting down.

And we loved it. We counted on it, one unchanging certainty of life, like the sun setting each day. I'm sure my growing up could have been just as happy if we had had dirty floors or rumpled dresses, but in retrospect, the gift of nightly reading was critical to our future. The earliest book I recall, so well that nearly every rhyme is still perfectly memorized, was Mother Goose. We sensed her relaxing from the toil of the day as her voice gentled and softened into the repetitive cadences, gradually matched by our rhythmic breathing as Wee Willy Winky lulled us to sleep.

Mother Goose is one of the essential elements of a child's introduction to literature. Along with Bible stories, Cinderella, and A Child's Garden of Verses. Other classics like Goodnight Moon, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Story about Ping came along in due time. Later on there were chapters from longer books like The Secret Garden and Little Women. Thus it was that we were slowly acquainted with the sound of our written language, had our first practice at imagining the pictures words create, and came to understand the meaning of them and their endless variations and power to weave fresh stories - all of this an enticing invitation to live inside each one.

This life-long pleasure became a habit that we never grew out of and that rejuvenates and sustains our daily lives still. I count it among the most precious gifts a busy mother could have given.

The benefit of bedtime reading, it seems to me, extends far beyond building an appreciation for language and story for a child. It brings each day to a quiet point. Bedtime reading is a bridge between the busy day and all its tensions of work and play and learning, and the resting time their bodies and minds require. The presence of a mother or father reading helps children shift from the day's interactions to the solitude of night. Like pulling the shade and turning out the light, the routine is a comforting way to settle down - and not just for the child. Most of all, it offers a natural way to strengthen the parent-child relationship. The regularity of it lets them know they can count on you.

For those who have not yet instituted this practice, I offer a few suggestions:

1. Keep the time limited to 10 to 15 minutes for young children. You are more likely to keep the commitment if it is short, and it will increase their attention while allowing them enough time to transition to going to sleep.

2. Select quiet stories. It is not the time for high action adventure thrillers, life-threatening monsters, or completely new or foreign ideas. The steadiness of rhyme, peacefulness of poetry, and reassurance of well-known favorites suits best.

3. Keep rereading their well-worn oldies. The books they have perfectly memorized are a reassurance to them. Knowing them is what they delight in.

4. Encourage them to listen and not look. Imagining, especially when they are already well acquainted with the accompanying pictures, is valuable for them.

5. Continue bedtime reading even when your children are older and can read Homer and Dante on their own. Bedtime reading can be the best time for teens to shrug off the preoccupations of the day also, and often provides the opportunity for them to share heart troubles. My 16-year-old son was becoming resistant to this practice as part of his growing independence, but we have persisted, consider it as normal as bedtime prayers, and have been secretly amused at his silent interest in the current novel (The Princess and the Goblin), noted by his lack of protest when his younger brother begs "read one more chapter." Sometimes, waiting quietly after closing the book is the moment when questions and concerns are confided in you by an older child.

Bedtime reading is only one aspect of a reading life, not a squeezing in of what should be a more pervasive practice throughout the day, not to be used as a sleeping sedative, but rather, a familiar, comforting closeness between parent and child that is simply a benediction at the close of day.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Thank you for your encouragement! It's great to hear that reading aloud is one of your memories. It makes the daily sowing seem extra worth it even when we can't necessarily see the fruit. :)

    1. Faith is the belief in things not seen. I'm sure my mother thought we weren't paying much attention most of the time too. Never mind. Keep on.