It wasn’t that long ago that you were young and we’d pile into the bedroom that two of you shared. You’d make room for each other on the bunk bed, and I’d sit on the floor beside you to read bedtime stories.
With you each being three years apart, there were only a few years it was all four of us. There were slivers of time when it was just me and the oldest, and then the oldest and a new baby, and then the oldest, middle, and another new baby, and now it’s just me and youngest again, which will continue as long as he allows it (and his bedtime is still before mine).
In what seems like a flash, you’ve turned from toddlers who begged for “one more story,” into teens and a tween who roll their eyes just a little more at your mom than I’d prefer, especially when I suggest a book you might like. You’ve grown from little boys who used to seek out the next book in the series to middle and high school students who view reading as mainly an assignment.
I want to make a case for why you might consider leaving a bit of space in your life for reading—even if it’s down the road when you’re out of school or have a place of your own. Even if it’s when you can pick up a book secretly without having to see me get all giddy about it.
I know I could discuss this with you at the dinner table or while I’m driving you to practice, but the chance that you’d let me finish or not argue and ask a million questions is slim, so allow me to write it out and then we can talk. Sometimes a letter means more.
I know you have plenty to distract you. I know your cell phones beg for your attention. I wish I didn’t understand this so personally, but I have been appalled by my own screen time report that pops up on my phone once a week, and I’ve been shocked by how long I can scroll without coming up for air. I set up limits on my phone that shut off apps, but I must admit how often I override them.
My friend, Natalie, reminds me that when cars first came out no one realized the need for seat belts. Likewise, we don’t have seatbelts for those cell phones, and we’re still learning about all the impacts on your brains and hearts. I know you groan when I tell you “back in my day” stories, but I’m grateful I grew up and went to college before cellphones were commonplace—we took photos with film that needed to be developed, couldn’t track where our friends were, and never experienced opening up a social media to see pictures of a party that we weren’t invited to. Somedays, I wish that for you.
As helpful and convenient as the internet is, I’m still convinced that books hold richness and complexity that technology misses. I know reading requires more of you—more of your energy, your attention, your heart—but it’s worth it.
Since you all seem to have inherited more of your dad’s analytical brain, maybe you’d be more swayed by research than my ramblings.
- Teens who read more report better mental health (Psychology Today).
- Reading makes you more empathetic (Science Magazine).
- Reading before bed makes you sleep better (National Institutes of Health).
- Reading increases your vocabulary and intelligence. (Society for Research in Child Development).
- Reading makes you live longer. Book readers have been shown to reduce the chance of mortality compared to non-book readers (National Institutes of Health).
There’s a proverb that says to “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I am holding out hope that those hours and hours reading before bed planted seeds within you. I didn’t spend that time with hopes you’d be straight A students or because I thought it would help you to get a better job someday, but because it was precious time spent together. And the books we read, I hope, have titled you a bit more toward empathy, wonder, and compassion.
Before you think I’m picking on you, I realize that research also suggests you are not unusual. In his Read Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease shares that “unfortunately, as children progress in school, we seem to whip the wonder of reading away.” He points to statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Nation’s Report Card): “In fourth grade, 40 percent of girls and 29 percent of boys indicated a positive view of reading, while in eighth grade the numbers dropped to 35 percent of girls and 19 percent of boys.”
I wish I could say that the statistics get better for adults, but just last month, You.Gov reported that nearly half of Americans did not read one book in 2023.
Maybe I’ve come on a little too strong, and maybe having a mom who is an English teacher and a writer makes you want to push back just a bit, but I sincerely hope you and your peers buck these trends. I hope you are given space—and find space—in the future to remember that reading is entertaining, interesting, transformative, and worthwhile.
(And if it helps, please know, I believe in an expansive definition of reading. Listen to audiobooks, pick up an e-reader, read graphic novels, subscribe to blogs like this one. Read fast, read slow, skim and read parts of books. There’s not a right way to read.)
I’m patient and I’m persistent. But I believe I have good reason to be. Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried (which you haven’t read yet, but I hope you do), “Stories can save us.”
I know you are young, invincible, and seldom feel in need of any saving, (unless you forget your lunch or homework or…) but I also know that as your mom, saving you isn’t my job. Since the day you were born, it’s been clear you are my sons, but you don’t belong to me.
When you were young I had a sign hanging in our kitchen that said, “I am not my own.” It was a reminder to whom I belong, but even more, it was a reminder that you “belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
I try to pray less for your success and safety, as tempting as it is to want those things for you, and more for you to be attentive and hear God’s voice. I pray that you’ll not miss, as Buechner says, “the stories in which God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally.” I don’t want you to scroll past those stories because you—because we—are wrapped up in them and shown love and grace through them.
With love (and just a bit of nagging),