I wish I had known about the reading “gap years” when our boys were in them. These are the ages from about 7 to 13 when kids can read by themselves but would benefit far more as readers if we parents continued to read to them. (Read Part 1 of this posting for some additional background.)
I so enjoyed our boys’ pajama-clad reading time when they were little and wish it had lasted longer. On the other hand, I also remember being dead tired myself at their bedtimes, and many a night struggling to stay awake in order to read to them.
I feel guilty admitting this, but I remember being a bit relieved when my sons took the books themselves. Am I alone?
The reading gap years for children happen during the mountain-climbing years for most parents. When children are between 7 and 13 years old, parents are often working their hardest and longest to advance in their careers, all the while rushing to soccer games, recitals, social obligations, and their own business obligations.
While most parents might understand and like the idea of continuing to read to their children, the good intentions may fall into the wish bucket with lots of other wishes.
Where, then, can parents turn for help?
Terry Flynn, a marketing professional I met at an industry conference, told me he records stories for his two young daughters to play when he’s out of town. “I started doing this a couple of years ago when I started traveling a bit more than I liked,” he said.
His CD is a lovely thing. It has Terry’s creditable narration of Score One for the Sloths by Helen Lester, and Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. These were spaced with beautiful music tracks, including "Baby" by Bobby McFerrin.
Now that his girls are 8 and 9 (solidly in the gap years), he finds reading is more give-and-take. “They now enjoy reading to me and showing off their own reading styles,” Terry says. But they still ask him to read to them. “I always record the books in private so that the first time they hear the story on the CD, it's a surprise,” he adds.
Hit play, hear book
When my own two sons were in their gap years, it happened to be when I got hooked listening to audiobooks in my car. Since I regularly drove the boys to school, they ended up hearing my books in haphazard fragments.
(Okay, just so you don’t think I’m a total selfish reptile of a parent, I would always listen and talk if they wanted, but sometimes they were just in some other place and I figured, “Well, it won’t hurt them to hear this for awhile.” I’d give them a little background and then hit the play button.)
The other day I asked our younger son, 18-year-old Corey, if he remembered any of this. He thought about it awhile.
Yes, he did remember a few things. He remembered Churchill’s “joke to that lady about being sober in the morning but her still being ugly” (Manchester’s biographies), and that sometimes it’s not medicine but laughter than can get you better when you’re sick (Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness). And he remembered Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, about the iconoclastic physicist.
Our older son, 20-year-old Cal, who’s studying in China, responded by email. “I think the books on tape were a big part of growing up and got me into reading. I am listening to Tim Weiner’s book on the CIA now, and it reminds me of all the ones I heard in the car on road trips and on the way to school each day.”
He remembers some of the books his brother mentioned and also Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charlie, as well as “Stanley shooting some native crossing a bridge” (The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley).
So I guess by some sort of audio osmosis, our sons took in some adult books during their gap years. In retrospect, had I been more savvy about the comprehension gap, I might have had them choose some books and played them only when we were riding together—a kind of rolling story hour.
Today there are far more audiobooks available for every age to choose from. Teens are the fastest-growing segment of listeners, according to the Audio Publishers Association, with just over 50% of them reporting that they have heard an audiobook, compared with just over 25% of adults.
The human touch of togetherness
I don’t want to suggest that audiobooks or even your own voice recordings are better than physically sitting together and reading, but audio recordings are marvelous tools getting better all the time. Still, if you’re lucky enough to have family and friends close by, these can be the best substitute for frazzled parents during the gap years.
Rose K. Goldsen, one of my professors in grad school, lived in a communal home called Long House in Ithaca, New York. Rose had no family of her own and was near retirement, so having her own apartment connected with other families of all ages was perfect for her.
I remember how much pleasure she gained from reading to the little children of Long House. She explained that it didn’t much matter what she read—the children just loved the togetherness and the physical part of sitting with a book and hearing the sounds connected to the words Rose pointed to.
Being a sociologist, one day Rose tried an experiment. She picked up the phone book and began reading the first name her finger landed on. Then she paused. Almost immediately, the little girl in her lap piped up.
“You forgot to read the number.”
I’ll always remember Rose’s triumphant face as she told this story. “Even the phone book!” she said, with the wonder of a researcher in a new world of discovery.
Despite all the bells and whistles of our Gizmo’d Age, kids can still crave a good read. All we have to do is want the same thing—together.
What have been your experiences with keeping ‘tweens between the cover of books? I’d love to hear. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).