why you should read to your kids even when they can read for themselves

In honor of “I Love to Read” month, here’s a slightly condensed version of an article I wrote for our school newsletter. 

Most parents understand the benefits of reading to their preliterate children, but too often neglect this important pastime once their kids start reading for themselves. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease asserts that reading aloud helps increase a child’s attention span and improve his listening skills.

A child’s listening level tends to be higher than her reading level, which means that you can and should be reading fifth grade books to a child in third grade, for example. By doing so, the third grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than she can read for herself, something she’s ready to hear and understand. Slightly above-level books tend to be motivating for kids – they want to see how the book ends and want to grow in their own reading skills in order to enjoy more complex material.

Reading aloud to kids is also a nonthreatening way to grapple with difficult issues, Trelease suggests. Through the story, your child can experience a certain kind of challenge – with you at his side – and there’ll be an opportunity for you to talk about it together. You can use the story you’re reading as a starting point for a conversation, asking questions such as, “Do you think the boy made the right choice?” and turn it into a coaching session, which will probably stick with your child much longer than a lecture would.

Besides, reading aloud is a great way to spend quality time with your kids. I find that the conversation about a book we’ve read may continue for days after we have read it. It becomes part of our family’s shared experience.


cultural competence?

Son: In which country is slurping polite?

Me: Korea.

Son: Oh, yeah. We’re in Korea. (Loud slurping as he takes in a forkful of spaghetti.) That was a compliment, Mom.

watch and be amazed

Last week our six-year-old wanted me to see how accomplished he’s become at fixing his own bed. Before he had struggled with wrestling all those winter layers into place, but now wanted to me to see how well he can do it. “Watch and be amazed,” he said in his most dramatic voice.

I watched and was amazed – at how much he’s changed since August 2010. It’s rather gratifying – yes, even amazing – to watch one’s children grow in their skills and talents. It’s a shame that I don’t pause more often to be amazed, to be thankful for abundant blessings.

As I reflected on the past year, there have been many reasons to “be amazed.” I’m especially thankful for

meaningful work that gets me out of the house enough to prevent boredom

the 800 books people gave to share with refugees

our two part-time salaries, which have consistently provided enough money to pay all the bills – plus some extra to rebuild our emergency fund

my column on local food

the little free library

thoughtful, generous friends and family who have offered encouragement and support of many kinds throughout the past year

an award that gave us pause for thought

Last week our kindergartener received an award at the school’s first awards assembly of the school year. He was recognized for, “always being a kind friend to others.”

“That sounds like Caleb,” his big brother said when he heard about the award.

“In kindergarten that’s a big deal,” his aunt said. She should know; she’s an elementary school teacher.

“That’s all?” his daddy asked. He was expecting it would have been something to do with academics. Part of me did too. After all, I think our six-year-old is bright, with a sophisticated vocabulary and good number sense for his age. And yet the thing the teacher chose to highlight was his social skills.

In the class I taught this past summer, I brought in an article about how social skills matter more than ever. In it, a professor at Harvard Business School is quoted: “How we value competence changes depending on whether we like someone or not.” The article went on to explain that people lacking in social competence are also perceived as lacking in other competencies.

But I wonder, is it equally true that people possessing social competence are thought to have other competencies too? Is it just us who thought that our son got an award for his social skills because there wasn’t anything else the teacher could identify for which to give him an award? Maybe it’s just that at this point in kindergarten it’s too early to tell what else he excels at.





first days

First day of third grade

We picked up on Tuesday right where we left off last spring, rushing at the last minute to get out the door before the school bus arrived. I grabbed my camera, telling my eight-year-old that we need a first-day-of-school picture. I was still trying to turn the camera on when the bus pulled up. “That’s my bus,” he said, dashing past me to get in line.

I got the battery positioned correctly in the camera so it worked after school, and we got our photo taken then. My son rated his first day “four stars out of five.” Before school started, we had seen his class list and he was concerned because none of the boys he spent the most time with last year were in his class this year. Apparently it turned out to be not as bad as he’d imagined it might be.

First day of PsyD internship

My husband started his pre-doctoral internship on Tuesday as well. It was a day of training and he came home reporting information overload on the online record keeping system they have to use.

First day of kindergarten

“Oh goody. Today is the day I’ve been waiting for,” my 6-year-old said Thursday morning.

“Yes,” I said.

“For many years, actually,” he continued.

I laughed.

“Mom, I’m telling the truth.” I knew he was. When you’re six years old, even two years is “many.” Besides, as the youngest, he is always trying to catch up, always trying to be no less than one step behind his big brother…

After school, the first thing he told me was, “We didn’t – but some people were close to getting kicked off the bus.” Later he reported, “When you’re at school, the first few minutes you feel nervous. That’s what it’s like to start school.”

First day at home alone

“How are you feeling?” my husband asked when he called me just after I saw two boys off to school. I hadn’t cried a bit when the bus pulled away this morning, but I almost teared up when talking to a friend a little later. You know, I told her, when you’re in the thick of the preschool years, there are moments when you feel they’ll never end. Then all of a sudden it’s over.

I turned in my application for a substitute teacher license on Wednesday. They said it may take up to four weeks, but once I’m approved I’m planning to sub two or three days per week. In the mean time, I will enjoy watching the boys together on the bus waving to me through the window as they go on their way each morning. I’m also getting used to returning to a house so quiet you can hear the clock tick.


Ruby Petersen’s homemade granola

I grew up eating cereal for breakfast. Just add milk – which a dairy farm always has on hand – and you’ve got instant breakfast. We had plenty of Wheaties, Total, raisin bran and corn flakes over the years but Dad would buy cereals with a higher sugar content from time to time. I remember arguments about who finished the box of this or that coveted cereal – or left behind only crumbs.

I buy cereal for my kids as well, though I usually stick to the kinds with limited added sugar. Reading the labels on even these seemingly less sweetened cereals is discouraging, however. Do you know how much added sugar there is in a serving of raisin bran? It’s 34 percent of the daily value for added sugar (for an adult). An article in the Wall Street Journal a few months back estimated that, on average, Americans consume 60 percent more added sugar than the maximum 12.5 teaspoons (50 grams) the Food and Drug Administration recommends per day. And their standards aren’t any too strict. Other health organizations recommend just six teaspoons per day. The more I read about the overwhelming amount of sugar consumed in this country, the more limited our cereal options become around here. So my sons have lost interest in cereal. That last box of Aldi brand corn squares I bought has been sitting on the shelf for quite a while. But they did ask about granola a few weeks back…

So I made a batch using a moderate amount of brown sugar. Rather than packing the brown sugar in, I just poured until it reached the top of the measuring cup and left it in there loosely. The granola didn’t taste that sweet before I added the raisins, and I was wondering whether there’d be loud protesting when they ate it. But I didn’t voice my concerns and no one seemed to notice that it was less sweet than usual. I made a second batch last week, and it seems we’ve got a version of homemade granola that we can all live with.

I found the recipe from our old church’s 1994 cookbook. I choose it for the simple ingredient list. I had also heard Ruby Petersen, the recipe contributor, had quite the reputation as a cook back in the day when her husband ran the blacksmith shop near Dad’s homestead. (Her hearty meals were farmer-approved.)

1/2 cup brown sugar (not packed)

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup water

Dash of salt

4 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup wheat germ

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup walnut pieces

2 tablespoons sesame seeds or chia seeds (optional)

3/4 cup flaked coconut

½ cup raisins

Combine brown sugar, oil, water, and salt. Mix well. Add rolled oats, wheat germ, seeds and nuts to a large mixing bowl. Pour the sugar and oil mixture over the dry ingredients, stirring well. Press the unbaked granola into a large rimmed baking sheet or two cake pans. Pressing firmly will help the granola bake into clumps. Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 minutes, stir the mixture, moving the darker edges toward the center but trying not to break up all the chunks. Bake for an additional 25 minutes or until granola is golden brown and crunchy. Cool in the pan and then mix in coconut and raisins. Store in a tightly covered container.

our summer bucket list

This morning we stopped by our community garden spot to pick snap peas before heading to the library. Just-from-the-garden fresh and crisp, those snap peas disappeared in no time. “As sweet as candy,” my older son declared.

At the library, the boys each got to choose a book to keep for completing ten of the reading program activities. Then they participated in a dinosaur scavenger hunt. We checked out a week’s worth of reading material and arrived back home just in time for lunch. There’s much to savor in the simple summer routine that we’ve settled into, and Friday library visits are one of our anchor activities. (During the past three school years, it was just me and the preschooler.)

Summers also afford the chance to do things we may not get around to during the school year. I recently read an article in Minnesota Parent advocating for a realistic summer bucket list. I quite agree that an attainable list of meaningful family experiences and activities is better than an over-the-top list that goes undone. So I’ve written down some of the things that have been and I’d like to see continue to be a part of our summers:

attend VBS

make popicles

complete the library summer reading program

take swimming lessons

memorize a psalm

grow our own tomatoes

go camping

check out a new swimming spot

read one of the Chronicles of Narnia

participate in a Lego Mini Build

send the boys to Camp Clair

bake zucchini bread (because there is nearly always someone who wants to pass along one of those “too-big-to eat” monsters and we can only eat so many zucchini fritters)

We’ve already completed – or have in progress – about half of these. My plan is to hang on to this list for inspiration as we move in to the second half of the summer.

What’s on your summer to-do list?


little free library 37,184

Our driveway is right near the busiest school bus stop in the neighborhood. It would be the perfect spot for a Little Free Library, I’d  been thinking for some time now.

We’ve got a growing stack of books downstairs – books I thought we should hang on to in case we’d ever get a Little Free Library.

Then in mid-May we came home from the Little Free Library Festival at Minnehaha Falls Park with a brand new one. I’d won it by writing about why our neighborhood would benefit from a Little Free Library: we’ve got all ages of kids loitering nearby between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. whenever there’s school, and most walk past our home again after getting off the bus at the end of their school day. Many of the kids have limited access to books in their homes, and I expect that new books to read are even fewer and farther between during summer break. Because access to books is a strong predictor of academic success, this Little Free Library would have the potential to improve the academic attainment of lots of kids.

Last week we drove to Hudson, Wisconsin to pick up the post and post topper for the Little Library. Thanks to my husband and a helpful neighbor with the right tools, the Little Free Library is now installed. They did it when I was away at work on Monday. Standing there near the driveway, that Little Library made me smile as I pulled into our yard.

“Charter number 37,184,” the mail carrier read from the official charter sign as he was dropping off our mail that day. His Little Free Library over on Western Avenue has a charter number in the 8,000s. How the numbers have grown since he installed his…
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Earlier this week I passed out invitations for our grand opening, taking the opportunity to explain the “Take a book. Share a book.” principle of Little Free Libraries. Then we put a reminder on the driveway this afternoon.

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Most of our guests are from an event-oriented culture, so kids started showing up before 6 p.m. We had lawn games ready. We had books to peruse, including the two new children’s books in the Karen language published by St. Paul Public Library. The oldest girl read a page of the Karen script, which simply looks like a baffling assortment of curlicues to me. We had summer reading program brochures from the public library. I asked the girls near the table if they’d been there. “We don’t have a car,” one noted. So the brochures all stayed on the table.

A little after 6 p.m., they asked me about cutting the ribbon, but I said we should wait 20 minutes. “Twenty minutes is a long time,” one boy complained.

But we found things to do. One child asked about the laundry basket of stuffed animals. So then we began a game in which each person got to try tossing balls into the target bowl. The stuffed animals were the prizes, I told them, if you get three in. “For real?” one asked.

“Yes, for real. You can keep the stuffed animals.” Suddenly a line formed. Every kid wanted a turn except my boys – they had no interest in winning back one of their own stuffed animals.

Just before it was officially time to start, I walked down the row of apartments on our street and invited the people who were loitering about outdoors to come to the party at the end of the street, where our house is. I read Inside This Book: (are three books) by Barney Saltzberg. I had selected it because of its kid appeal and because of the last line in the book, “Because books are better when they are shared.” Then we had our ribbon cutting. It happened so quickly I didn’t get a very good action shot.

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Kids scrambled to grab a book from inside and stood or sat to peruse their selections while I got the ice cream out of the freezer. The books were quickly set aside once we started serving root beer floats. As the kids were leaving, one friend pointed out that the library was still full. Apparently, I hadn’t explained very well that they could take a book home, so most of them put the books back. One girl asked me if she could take the princess book, but maybe most of the others didn’t really get it.

As the last guests were leaving, one of my sons noted, “No one except Karen people came. Why?” And he wasn’t far off – of about 30 people who came, 29 were Karen.

“Maybe because they’re the friendliest,” I said. As I pondered it a bit more, I wondered whether it’s because their schedules aren’t so packed that they have time to join an impromptu party with a little bit of homemade fun. Or could it be they’re from a culture that understands the value of getting to know your neighbors?



a day off?

Last week, I informed my five-year-old that the coming Monday was Memorial Day. I told him daddy has a day off work, and his brother doesn’t need to go to school. “And I’m going to have the day off from washing dishes!” he informed me.

We heard that refrain a few more times on the weekend, that Monday he gets a day off from doing the dishes. That’s like the only consistent chore he has, washing dishes once a week. Generally, he still enjoys it. What powerful cultural forces are at work here?

After breakfast on Monday morning, I insisted that he march into the kitchen and get the dishes washed. “Why?” he whined.

“Because we didn’t take the day off from eating.”

Isn’t it better to learn these lessons when one is young?


bedtime: glaring inconsistencies

“Why do we have to go to bed when it’s still light out?” my five-year-old asked.

“Because mommy wants you to be well rested,” I said.

“How come you’re worried about us, but you don’t get enough sleep?”

“You’re right – sometimes I stay up too late because I have a lot of work to do.”

“Tonight you should go to sleep at 7:30, like us,” he suggested.

“Grown-ups don’t need as much sleep as children.”

“Why not?”

“That’s the way we were made. Maybe it was meant to be a gift for the grown-ups.” (Those precious hours between when elementary aged kids go to bed and when you do are a gift, aren’t they?)

“It’s not a gift for me!” he said.