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Reading Is Fundamental, Indeed

Reading to your kids, literally from day one

When I was growing up, there was a public service announcement that ran frequently during kids' television shows. The ad was sponsored by Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a nonprofit children's literacy organization that works to get books into the hands of children. Every year, they give away 15 million books to the children who most need them. In the ad I recall, the actor Ed Asner sat on some steps with a group of kids, promoting the mission of RIF and reading in general.

I still remember the tag line of the ad, where Asner said something like, "Hey, you're pretty smart! How'd you get to be so smart?" and one kid in the ad replied, "Reading!"

Encouraging parents to get their kids to read has continued to today. Some years ago, when our friend Heather (who lives in Newton) first became pregnant, she shared with us a brochure she had received on how to get your children interested in reading. The brochure suggested that perhaps you, the new parent, might purchase a handful of books and scatter them around your home.

Nomi and I shared a laugh with Heather upon hearing this advice. The brochure was clearly not aimed at us. Our home is so cluttered with books it can sometimes be hard to walk around. I'm reminded of a story I once heard about the famous scientist Marvin Minsky, who lives in Brookline. Supposedly, his family bought so many books that they would pile up all over the house. Eventually, Minsky would balance out the height of four piles and put a slab of glass on top of it, thus creating a coffee table.

And then they would pile books on top of the coffee table.

It turns out to be an apocryphal story, but Minsky shared the real story with me, which is a much better one. As it so happens, he and his wife are also parents to twins, and when they first moved to Brookline in the 1960s, they had many boxes of books and no time to unpack them. So they set up the boxes in one of their rooms to form the boundary of a playpen for their toddler kids. Their kids literally grew up surrounded by books.

It sounded a lot like our home. I knew that of course I would be reading to my kids once they were old enough. But I didn't expect "old enough" to be as young as barely a day.

 Shortly before Muffin and Squeaker were born, I came across a piece of advice about reading to your kids. One of the parenting books given to us by our friend Beth (who lives in Florida), Baby 411, urged reading to your kids literally from the day they were born. "Set aside reading time EVERY DAY until your child packs up and goes to college" reads a line of advice about how to encourage the development of a newborn. It was advice I took to heart, as ridiculous as it seemed.

Picture, if you will, Nomi and me in the hospital the day the kids were born. She's lying in her bed, still weak from the surgery. The kids are in separate wheeled bassinets. Like all newborns, they kind of just lie there, not really able to move around or do much of anything. As far as I know, they can't even see much of the world yet.

And there I am, standing over them with a board book in my hands, reading aloud Sandra Boynton's "But Not the Hippopotamus."

In their first month of life, we continued to read to them every day. They lay in the co-sleeper next to our bed, and we read to them. When we took them into the living room, we read to them. As they grew older, and transitioned to cribs, we read to them. We read to them as they sat on our laps, as they fell asleep in their cribs, and after they woke up in the morning. Furthermore, we modeled reading for them ourselves; rarely would Nomi and I not be reading in front of them if they were playing on their own.

I felt very silly reading to them from day one, but in truth, it worked. Books have become the kids' favorite toys. When I bring home new books for them, they rush over to take them and then sit in separate corners, quietly exploring the new adventure in their hands. And if either Nomi or I start reciting the text from one of their books, they rush to the book box, find the book, and ask us in one-syllable words to read the book to them again.

The kids aren't even two years old yet, and I can't say that they know how to read on their own. But they are definitely heading in that direction at an early age. For example, one evening as I was reading "Goodnight Moon" to Squeaker, I asked her to point to the kittens. I assumed she would point to the picture of the kittens. Instead, she pointed to the word "kittens." (I suspect this was helped along by my always pointing to the words in their books as I read aloud to them. It's my own version of "follow the bouncing ball.")

I suspect that we're not alone among Brookline parents in wanting our children to love reading. As Brookline Patch reported two months ago, . An educated population is presumably one concerned with reading and their own children's education.

We are fortunate to live in a town with plenty of resources for kids' books. Nomi and I regularly pick up books at and . And of course, as one of your elected Library Trustees, I would be remiss if I omitted mentioning that the Public Library of Brookline has an incredible wealth of children's resources.

If you're about to become a parent, read to your kids from day one. It really does pay off.

This week’s column is written by Michael A. Burstein.


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