A few years ago, a wonderful story appeared in the New York Times about a father who had read aloud to his daughter every night until she left for college. They called this ritual “The Streak,” and they employed phones, drop-ins on her drama rehearsals, interruptions in evening social plans and whatever it took to make sure they didn’t miss a night. The Streak developed more than a mere love of reading in the daughter–though it did accomplish that, of course. It provided a stable bond for both parent and child in rocky times, it served as a conduit for father-daughter closeness and it established a tradition the daughter hopes to pass on to her children.
As a parent and a bibliophile, I loved this story. I’d been reading to “Jack” since before he was born. I began selecting titles for “Emmie” before she came home to us from South Korea. Though Emmie usually prefers her father to read to her at bedtime, Jack and I had read together for more than eleven years. When he was seven, we read all 4100 pages of the Harry Potter series. The year he was eight, it was an encyclopedia on prehistoric life. Even if sometimes we read books I would never would have chosen on my own, I appreciated having this window into the material that stimulated my son’s mind.
Of course, there’s more to cherish about bedtime reading than just the stories or the information on the page. There’s the physical closeness, which becomes even more precious as kids get older. As my son turned into a textbook, don’t-hug-me-when-my-friends-are-looking tween, I knew enough not to say anything when his head occasionally slipped onto my shoulder during our bedtime book sessions. I knew if I drew attention to the motion, he’d cloak himself in a mask of cool and snatch his head away, and never let the mistake happen again. So I’d permit myself an inner smile and just keep reading.
Bedtime reading also provides the opportunity for meaningful conversation. Before we read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I had a talk with Jack about the stepped-up level of violence and the introduction of “girl-boy stuff” (remember, he was only seven) in book four of the series. A few years later, when we read one of the Harriet the Spy sequels, Jack asked the meaning of the word “menstruation.” Seize the moment, I told myself, and I set the book aside and told him much of what I thought he needed to know about puberty. He asked a few questions, I answered them, and then I picked up the book and finished reading the chapter.
This time before bed was our time in so many ways.