Why it’s important to read to our teenagers aloud

By Lory Widmer Hess

“Mom, could you read to me?” 

Virus-ridden and miserable, my son was lying on the floor of our living room, where he tended to gravitate when sick—weary of his bed, it was the furthest he could go for a change of scenery. Fourteen years old might seem old for being read to, but appearing grown-up wasn’t his priority at this point. He was looking for comfort, diversion, and to feel cared for. 

I’d actually kept reading to him through his childhood, up until just a couple of years ago.  I’d once thought that after he learned to read for himself, I would be released from the read-aloud duty, but his third-grade teacher had advised me to keep going. She said that she’d read to her own kids well into their young adulthood, and it was a great support for their learning. 

So I continued reading books that I loved—Watership DownThe Wolves of Willoughby ChaseThe Homeward Bounders—often books that he wouldn’t have gotten through on his own. He read Big Nate and Asterix comics obsessively, but put down novels after a chapter or two, saying they were boring. In spite of a half-guilty sense that it was cheating to let him listen rather than read for himself, I remembered what his teacher had said, and reasoned that at least this way he paid attention and made it through the whole book. When it got to the most exciting part, more than once he actually grabbed the book and finished it himself.

When we got into the preteen authority tussles, though, I called it quits. He was saying that he wouldn’t do his chores unless I read to him, and I didn’t want the reading to become a stake in that battle. Busy and frazzled, I also welcomed having even a few more minutes to myself in the evening.

Now, though, he was asking me again, and I was glad to do anything that might give him solace. The purpose was neither intellectual learning nor an assertion of authority. He was seeking rest for his unsettled mind and body, and he needed love. By reading to him, I could offer both, a thread of connection that gave him strength in a time of weakness. I could see that it supported his healing, as surely as the hot lemon and ginger tea and getting plenty of sleep did. 

And it strengthened me too. I was often insecure and doubtful about my abilities as a caregiver, but reading was something I surely knew how to do. If it could shore up our relationship, then it was well worth any sacrifice of time or effort that it might involve.

He recovered from the virus before we finished his chosen book, The 101 Dalmatians, but I kept on reading to the end. And this brought read-aloud time back into our routine, although it wasn’t necessarily every day. I made sure he knew doing his chores was not dependent upon being read to, but if I had time at that moment, I’d be happy to read while he dried the dishes. Other times, it was more peaceful to have a moment together in the living room before bed. On weekends, sometimes we could get through a couple of chapters; on weekdays I might not have a moment to spare, but sooner or later we took up the thread again.

I kept reading above his independent reading level, progressing to Steinbeck and Dickens, but he started to grow in stamina, too. Confessing that he didn’t like the fantasy stories I’d adored myself at his age, he expressed an interest in nonfiction. I put my own past preferences aside and looked for true stories that would grab his attention, and that he could read on his own. His shifting adolescent interests meant that the book I’d ordered for him yesterday was sometimes spurned when it arrived, but I just put it aside for later. Its time might come around again.

In my own childhood my love of reading had often come to my rescue when human love was absent or troubled. Reading had offered me a way to learn and grow, in spite of missing connections. For me it had been a solitary activity, but I was finding out now that it didn’t have to be. Reading aloud, reading together, could be a way to express and confirm human love and connection. 

I am sure that it has enhanced my son’s school learning—his tenth grade teacher has been amazed by his writing abilities—but more importantly, it has helped to make our bond stronger, giving us something in common to enjoy together. When the arguments and disagreements erupt, we can always come back to this simple activity of reading and listening, a union of souls that leaves us both completely free.

Offering that freedom within a protected space, the freedom to become oneself and to explore the world, is what parenting is all about. And so, through our reading, I am also learning: how to offer time, pay attention, and express care, in order to be a better companion to another traveler on this amazing human journey. That learning will continue even when our read-aloud time comes to an end, when my son has his own household and his own family. And I very much hope that he will read to them, too.

Lory Widmer Hess currently lives with her family in Switzerland and aspires to becoming a fluent reader in multiple languages. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.

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