I grew up in rural Arkansas surrounded by nature in the Ouachita Mountains. It was beautiful, but it was also poor. Both of my parents worked to keep us afloat. My father worked as a carpenter by day. He was gone before we got up for school and returned in the evening in time for dinner. Many nights, he would leave again to install floor covering as a secondary job and I wouldn’t see him again until the next day. That being said, he still managed to read to my brothers and me as often as he could. I remember him reading the entire Little House series to us as well as a book entitled The Two Little Savages (the problematic nature of the title didn’t occur to me until I considered buying a copy of this book for my own children). In addition to reading, my father would do small projects with us. He was a master of improvised toys. We made stilts, kites, dancing buttons and something he called "fly-flys" (hand carved, wooden propellers glued to a dowel. When you rolled the dowel between your hands, it would fly to the ceiling). He taught us wood craft and survival. He taught us the value of curiosity and the limitless possibility of “messing around.” While my dad’s schedule didn’t allow him to attend a lot of parent-teacher conferences, he stressed the importance of education. If I’m being honest, he helped us understand the inevitability of learning. Everything you do is a learning experience, but not every learning experience is equal of value.
These days, it’s my job to do the teaching. I have two sons, Jacob and Geoff. I could gush about how amazing they are, but what I'd really like to share about is being involved in their education.
Both of my boys are gifted with quick wits and have a natural curiosity that makes them natural learners. However, they have also been saddled with unique burdens. Both of my boys have been diagnosed with ADHD. My eldest also has Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. My youngest has Dyslexia.
The statistics on learning disabilities and school dropout rates boldly illustrate a strong correlation between the two. It should come as no surprise that people whose brains work in different ways than the norm, people who can’t learn in the same way as their classmates, people who need more help, find school to be frustrating at best. At worst it can crush their natural inquisitiveness and self-esteem. I speak from experience. In having the boys diagnosed, I learned a lot about myself. All growing up, I struggled in school. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I received a hefty dose of constructive criticism, a thousand versions of “You’re so bright. If you would just apply yourself . . .” What no one knew was that I was also struggling with my own learning disability. My boys came by it fairly.
I managed to graduate high school and even completed two college degrees, but my self-esteem took a beating and I still struggle with self doubt and imposter syndrome. Were it not for the positive influence of my parents--my dad especially--my life would have taken a far different course. The mission I have taken upon myself is to shield my boys from the psychological damage I suffered, to get them through school with their heads held high.
When the guys were really young, my wife was the primary wage earner and I was the primary caretaker. I was working on my Master’s degree in Library Science but we still spent a lot of time doing fun learning, the kind of stuff dad did with me except more urban. We lived in cities (St. Louis, Richmond, Louisville) and that environment made for different experiences and fun adventures. For example, in St. Louis at the time, there was a five stop free ride zone on the MetroLink during lunch hour. For a couple of toddlers, it might as well be an amusement ride. We would ride the train back and forth between Union Station and the Eads Bridge. We went to the (all free!) zoo, park, and several libraries. And we read. Books, books, books. We read board books and picture books and chapter books. We read about hobbits and dragons and castles. We read about hidden worlds and ancient civilizations and dinosaurs. We read about plants and animals. We read about history and geography. We read funny books and serious books. After we moved to Virginia, I finished my degree and got a full time job at the Chesterfield County Public Library. We enrolled the boys in day care.
This was a change, but not a huge one. Their daycare had a pretty good blend of fun and education. I dropped them off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon. I made a point to know their teachers, their classmates, and the staff. This rapport made it very easy to keep up with them even when I was not around them all day. I missed them but life goes on.
In the fall of ‘08 Jacob entered kindergarten. During a parent/teacher conference, his teacher mentioned she was beginning to suspect Jacob might have some sort of learning disability. She pointed out that he was obviously bright and gregarious but he was also lagging behind his peers on some tasks. She said it wasn’t having much of an impact yet, but she noticed that he noticed. She stated, as kindly as possible, that she feared it would undermine his self-confidence and she advised us to have him screened.
He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn't occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”
Later that fall my wife, who worked for Circuit City corporate offices, was let go. It was part of a cost saving measure to keep the company afloat (this failed and the company collapsed entirely the following January). This was the beginning of a tough couple of years for the world and our family. My wife was out of work for seven months. We spent our entire savings and dipped deep into our retirement. When she did find work, it was so far away that I was forced to leave my job. We moved. We gave up our house. We started accepting food from a local charity. We eventually filed for bankruptcy. The upside, shocking as it might be, was that I was able to spend a lot more time with the boys.
My dad helped me see this silver lining when he came to visit us once. I was complaining about our sorry financial state and that I had been unable to find a job in our new city. He told me to cherish this time. I thought he was nuts. He said that he missed most of my growing up because, as poor as my little family was at that moment, we had a place to live and food to eat. My wife's new job came with insurance. We were doing okay. He was still teaching me things.
When the dust settled, we were able to get Jacob properly screened. By this time he was in second grade. After a lengthy conversation about processing speeds, age appropriate development, standard deviations and the like, the psychologist told us that Jacob had Attention Deficit Disorder. She said that, because of his intelligence, he was able to compensate better than most, but she warned us he would most likely need intervention and assistance in the future. The greatest thing she gave us, however, was a set of tools to work with Jacob’s (and later Geoffrey’s) teachers. She gave us language and tips to help us win over Jacob’s teachers and reduce the potential resentment that could arise from our strong involvement and advocacy in his education.
We eventually moved to Springfield to be closer to family where Jacob received his second diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, adding additional challenges to an already challenging school career. Geoff officially started school the following fall and, as you might expect, at a parent/teacher conference one of his teachers pointed out that he was falling behind in reading. This led to Geoff’s diagnoses of dyslexia and ADHD.
That was eight years ago. We have been to a lot of meetings, talked to a lot of teachers and administrators, asked for accommodations, and insisted our boys be treated as complex whole persons. I wish I could tell you how everything worked out, but the work is still in progress. What I can tell you is that being kinda nosey, bugging my kids about their school activities, homework and the like, being an active and engaged father interested in learning together, has created a ton of trust.
The lessons from my father about the importance and fun of learning have been the foundation from which I have been able to build a strong relationship with my sons, supporting them in their own learning, and in life. It has permeated every aspect of our relationship and we are stronger for it.
Shannon Wortham is dad to two sons and a librarian for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.
My name is Kyle, I’m a librarian, a dad, and soon to be Charlee’s husband. My son (5) and her two daughters (5 & 3) blend into our family of three kids and a rascally-rescued hound named Radar. Books have played a major role in our family from the very beginning. Charlee and I met at the library. We got to know each other by discussing books we’ve read, authors we both liked, and suggesting future reads. So, it should be no surprise that we both place a high value on reading to our kids.
I started reading to my son as soon as he was born. As an infant, he was just a captive audience who couldn’t even hold up his own head, let alone run away from me clumsily reading Maurice Sendak for the tenth time (Where the Wild Things Are is still one of my favorite books). I read to him so young because exposing kids to books, even as infants, familiarizes them with voices and even begins to build the structures for syntax in their rapidly developing brains. As he got older he loved being read to so much I became captive to his insatiable hunger to read Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss for the tenth straight night.
Story time is among the most precious moments spent with my son. It is bonding time. It is virtually the only time during the day he slows down enough to tolerate being snuggled. Throughout all of the familial transitions we faced, books and reading together at bedtime were a constant source of reassurance and comfort for both of us. Every night we read together was a lesson for both us that our relationship was stable and reliable, regardless of the changes in our family structure.
While I was getting to know my new daughters, I thought it was important to give them room and let them come to me. At first there was a lot of the discerning glances and giggling games of peek-a-boo from their hiding spot behind Charlee’s knees. Several stages followed including the you-may-give-us-candy stage; the you-may-sit-next-to-us-with-food stage; and the you-may-swing-us stage. All were positive steps, and I was delighted at each step the girls’ took with me. However, it was a huge milestone for me when they crawled into my lap clutching their favorite books and asked me to read to them. I knew this indicated a new level of trust and acceptance.
Equally monumental was the first time that the five of us sat crumpled in a pile on the floor as a family to read together before bed. Some nights the sibling conflict is just too real. On those nights we read separately, and that’s okay, but as often as possible we all get together and read at night before bed. We do it because we want to feed their curiosity about reading; we want to support their future success; and, most of all, we do it because it is time devoted to bonding our new family together. The kids get to know each other discussing each others’ favorite characters and theorizing about what will happen next. They grow closer and more comfortable with each other as they smush together and share our laps to see the illustrations.
We have also learned that books can unlock our kids from their anxieties. Our son did not adapt well to day care, so before he started kindergarten summer school we checked out The Pigeon has to Go to School! by Mo Willems from the library. Every night for three weeks it was his favorite book at our house and summer school became less of an anxiety trigger for him.
After a particularly grueling weekend of sibling bickering, tattling, and tears, Charlee brought home Even Superheroes have Bad Days by Shelly Becker. The kids enjoy playing superheroes together, and the book illustrates superheroes have bad days too and how they process different emotions. Obviously, it wasn’t an instant panacea, but it gave us a framework in which to talk to the kids at their level about emotions like anger and sadness.
Books are a skeleton key that unlock doors and empower children to be more successful. Reading to children and having age-appropriate books in the house are the most important factors in assuring healthy language development and determining future academic success. Regularly reading to your children is also time spent nurturing and showing them affection. There is literally no downside to the time you spend with your children and books. If you don’t believe me, check out “FiftyTop Literacy Statistics” at ferstreaders.org. They’ve dug through all of the child literacy studies for you and compiled a truly eye-opening list of reasons to read to your children.
Kyle Evans is dad to three and reference associate for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.
From the time they are very young, children often love nothing better than to have a parent read to them. It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve heard the same story, if they’re younger than three or four, they want to hear the same tale again, and again, and again. Some parents will tell you they’ve read the same book so many times, they could recite it by memory. Try skipping a page in an effort to hurry up bedtime and parents will tell you their child has the story memorized as well. “You skipped a part,” they’ll protest. “Don’t miss those pages.”
Perhaps it’s sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, or on daddy’s lap, that endears young children to the miracle of reading. Maybe it’s the magic of imagination as parent and child explore new worlds and funny people together. When parents use different voices and pause for dramatic effect, the mystery and enchantment is not lost on their offspring. Who doesn’t like the anxious anticipation of a scary story while cuddled up with someone bigger and stronger who will protect them and help them be brave?
Reading with young children on a regular occasion has great benefits when it becomes part of a family’s routine. Parents and children benefit from a time of calm and closeness. Memories are made and traditions are born. But other important things are also occurring when parents make the time to read with their offspring.
Reading is a foundational skill to your child’s success. With the exception of active play, nearly every other activity depends on a child’s ability to decode letters and make meaning of words and sentences. Science, history and any kind of language arts depend on it. Even math requires a child be able to read and make sense of written instructions and word problems. Simply put, children who learn to enjoy reading and do it well, usually do better in school.
What Can a Good Dad Do?
There are many things a father can do to encourage good reading habits in his child. These include the following:
Model reading for your child, i.e., let him see you reading. It doesn’t matter what—a magazine, manual or book—even something on your notebook. The important thing is they observe their dad reading.
Take your child to a library or bookstores. Introduce your child to the world of books. Allow her to lead you to what she finds interesting.
Read to your child. Establish a routine that includes regular reading to or with your child.
Make reading fun. When you read to your child, use funny voices and dramatic pauses. Help them see what an enjoyable activity reading can be.
What about Dads-at-a-Distance?
Some dads travel for work and are gone from home many evenings of the week. Others are deployed. Some drive an over-the-road truck. Dads like this have an additional challenge when it comes to encouraging their child’s reading success, but today more than ever before it’s easier for them to establish helpful reading habits with their child. Consider the following:
Modeling: It may be more difficult for your child to see you read, but you can certainly talk about what you’re reading. Find out what books are being assigned at school—particularly when your child starts with chapter books in second or third grade and follow along with them. This will help them see you’re interested in what they’re learning and help you ask better questions about their homework.
In Person: When you are at home, make time to visit a library or bookstore, in addition to reading with them yourself. When dad uses his precious time at home to include 20-30 minutes of a reading-related activity, he speaks volumes to his child about its importance.
Use Social Media: Thanks to the internet, you and your child can both hear and see each other even when separated by hundreds of miles. There’s no reason a dad cannot read a book to his child via FaceTime every night, or listen to a budding reader practice his new skill while listening from afar. Consider buying two of the same book or borrowing one copy from the library. In this way, a child can follow along, while dad reads even if the internet connection doesn’t allow visual contact.
Reading is important to a child’s academic success, but it can also be the basis for many happy and positive memories between parent and child. Why not choose one new reading-related activity to create new memories for you and your child, while also strengthening the likelihood of his success at school?
It's summer in the Midwest and it's hot. That's really not unusual, but sometimes parents run short of ideas to keep their kids happy and occupied, especially by the end of long, steamy days. It's easy to sit them in front of a screen of some sort, but I'd like to recommend you end your day with a good book or two. Even children who can read enjoy being read to, and summer is a great time to create memories by diving into new books. Imagine the excitement of reading a "thriller" by flashlight on the patio, deck or porch.
The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket, features Laszlo, a little boy who is afraid of the dark. Laszlo knows the dark lurks in any number of places in his house, but especially in the cellar. One night, after his nightlight goes out, Laszlo plucks up his nerve, takes his flashlight and heads to the cellar to meet the dark. You’ll have to get the book to find out what happens, but let’s just say that my four-year-old granddaughter was spell-bound as Laszlo inched down the steps toward the dark.
In fact, the look on her face was something akin to what you might see on an adult’s face in the midst of a mystery thriller movie. I won’t spoil the ending, but I am happy to say the book reached a satisfying conclusion. My granddaughters and I learned something about the thrill of a good book, while also getting some insight into the importance of facing our fears.
I wish more of us could read The Dark and other good children’s books. If we did, we might better remember what we once knew as children and have somehow forgotten as adults. Take, for example, the lesson of The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen.
The pout-pout fish appears to have a problem with a bad attitude. He’s a glass-half-full kind of guy. Ever know anyone like that? Lots of folks try to cheer him up, but he continues to insist, “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face. So I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place.” The grand-boys loved this book, and wanted me to read it over and over.
The book is fun. The words rhyme and the illustrations are terrific, but dealing with a pouty person on a regular basis is not. What do you do if you’ve got a “pout-pout fish” in your home or workplace who appears resistant to any and all efforts to bring a smile to his face? I can’t tell you, but the book will. The book even may help you if you are prone to being a pout-pout fish yourself. Check it out.
There’s a lot about adult life that is serious—very serious. The events headlined in the evening news remind us all too well of just how brief and tenuous life can be. With that in mind, how would you like to spend the precious time allotted to you? Do you want fear to be the focus of your days? Can you really change the future by worrying? Will a frown on your face change the outcome of a potential bad event? Probably not! None of us knows the length of our days, but when I come to the end of mine I hope I will have filled as many moments as possible with the joy of ordinary things—things like enjoying a good tickle.
The Tickle Monster, by Josie Bissett, gives you lots of ideas for tickling someone you love.
If we tickled more and fought less would the world be a better place? I think it probably would. It seems we all knew this as children. Perhaps if we read children’s books more often we would remember it as adults.
Dr. Jennifer Baker
Dr. Jennifer Baker is the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She is the wife of one, mother of two and grandmother of eight. She may be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.