How can I help my cranky kid?
Am I raising a monster? How do I get my kid to stop hitting? How can I help my child understand his emotions, when I am barely holding it together myself during his tantrums? Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I’ve been there too… this morning. The great news is that I know there is something we can do about it – read! At least, I assume you can read. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be looking at blog posts, and I would have no idea how these words that I am typing are in your brain right now. Reading with children improves their emotional competence, improves behavior, and decreases aggression. Reading improves your empathy and parenting behaviors too!
5 Scientifically proven benefits of reading.
Right now you might be thinking, I’m just some naturally bookish introvert who wants every kid reading Jane Austen by age 6. I’m much more Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and much less Pride and Prejudice. In grade school we participated in accelerated reader, a program where you read a book and then take a quiz for points. In 8th grade, we had to get 40 points per quarter and each student’s point total was posted on the classroom door for
public shaming progress tracking. I always waited until the very last minute and read all of these books about snakes that were written for second graders. Sarah W. on the other hand, had 375,000 points by the end of the first week. Or at least that’s how it felt. Sarah was my academic rival. For eight long years, we battled for academic superiority at our small and in no way competitive K-8 school. She was the Yankees to my Red Sox, beating me on the highest stages of spelling bees and… well I guess it was mostly just spelling bees. She was probably a great speller from all those words she read. Blast! Of course, she was an absolutely wonderful and kind person (which made it even worse), and now I know why – reading makes you a well-behaved, empathetic, emotionally intelligent human being. Let’s look at 5 scientifically proven benefits of reading with your child:
1. Reading improves emotional competence.
In a 2014 study published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology, a group of researchers in Germany examined a program called “READING and FEELING”. Two hundred and eight second and third graders took part in the study. Half participated in a program where they read through a book over eight sessions and discussed the emotional content. The other half continued the after-school program as normal. The half that took part in the reading intervention showed significant improvements in emotional competence, specifically developing better emotional vocabulary, emotional knowledge, and recognition of masked feelings. Children with these qualities are better at regulating their emotions and making friends.
2. Reading is associated with lower aggression.
A 2007 study of aggression in children demonstrated that reading was associated with lower risk for physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, and hostility.
3. Reading improves behavior in children (and parents).
In 2017, The Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology published a study of 126 preschoolers and their dads. Half of the dads were trained in a type of reading called dialogic reading (explained below). Shared reading time was also used as a way to train dads on behavioral parenting techniques – praise, correction without criticism, etc. After 8 weeks, they found substantial improvement in parenting behaviors, child behaviors, and language development of the children in this group compared with the other half that had just continued in their Head Start program as normal.
4. Reading changes a child’s brain.
A 2015 study looked at how kid’s brains responded when listening to stories. Preschool children with a rich home reading environment – access to a variety of books and frequent shared reading – had more activity in brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension. They also note that the outbound connections from this area of the brain include areas of executive function (planning, self-regulation, attention) and those that assign emotional value to experiences.
5. Reading improves empathy in adults.
Reading isn’t just for kids. A 2009 study demonstrated that reading fiction for pleasure improves empathy in adults. It’s hard to empathize with a child mid-tantrum because their pink crayon isn’t pink enough.
Plus, when you read, it models reading behavior for your children. Every time my brother-in-law visits, we laugh watching him and my nephew sitting side by side reading, in the identical position… with identical facial expressions.
How to start reading with your child to improve emotional health:
Find books to read
Get a library card
- Remember that most libraries require a photo ID and some type of typewritten proof that you live where you live (lease, utility bill, etc.) You can go here to find your nearest library.
Buy some books
- Having your own copy helps when you find a good bed-time book, and you don’t want to return it to the library. Here are some of the most popular books on Amazon that discuss emotions.
Check out Epic, AND START A FREE TRIAL TODAY!
- You don’t have to buy a million books. Instead, subscribe to Epic, an app that gives you access to over 20,000 books for kids 12 and under. And it isn’t a bunch of crappy books you’ve never heard of. Do Eric Carle and “Clifford” ring any bells? Imagine reading books with your children while you wait at restaurants or doctors appointments instead of letting them play Candycrush! We like it a lot.
- Epic allows you to set up specialized accounts for up to 4 children, and there are options for audiobooks (just sound), read to me books (the pages are visible, flip at the appropriate time, and a recorded voice reads to your child), and traditional books. Click on the picture to start your 1 month free trial today! But be careful, because you will probably love it and want to keep it beyond the free trial.
- After the free trial, it is only $4.99 per month. Are you paying more than that for Netflix?
- Having a variety of books is important in creating a rich home reading environment. Reading Good Night Good Night Construction Site every evening before bed, might help your child wind down, but if you don’t mix it up at other times, it becomes boring and won’t challenge your child’s developing brain.
Read with your kids
- Try a minute of reading per minute of screen time.
- Read every day.
- Have them sit on your lap.
- Two of the studies showed results in 8 weeks. It won’t happen day 1, but it also won’t take years for you to see the effects.
Be engaged and engaging
In the two studies that looked at specific reading interventions, they didn’t just read. In one, they used a technique called dialogic reading, which has been shown to improve learning outcomes. The acronym PEER helps you remember the principles of dialogic reading – Prompt, Evaluate, Expand, Repeat. In the other study, they used a series of questions to teach lessons about the feelings characters might be feeling, etc.
Let’s look at how we could combine these strategies as we go through one of our family’s favorite books – The Little Blue Truck:
- Prompt the child to say something about the book. Some types of prompts include:
- Completion – Sheep said, “___!” (Baa)
- Recall – What happened to the dump truck? (He got stuck)
- Open-Ended – Tell me about this picture? (Blue is in the mud pushing the dump truck.)
- Who, What, When, Where, Why – Why did the animals help the little blue truck and not the dump truck? (Little blue truck was nice and dump truck was mean.)
- Distancing – When have you felt stuck? Can you think of a time when someone helped you? How did you feel? Do you think the dump truck might have felt that way too?
- Evaluate the child’s response to make sure they understood the question.
- Expand upon their response (rephrase or add to it) – You’re right, the dump truck was rude. I bet Blue and that duck felt really angry when he ran them right off the road. Notice that we introduced some new words for their emotional vocabulary (rude vs. mean, angry) and linked them with actions.
- Repeat an expanded/rephrased prompt – People like to be treated kindly. What could the dump truck do to be more kind?
The average number of books in the house in one of these studies was 162. I thought that seemed like a lot, but I just counted the number of books in our home and found we have 335 children’s books, not including the 10 library books we have checked out. We try to keep a clean house, but as I was counting, I realized that leaving books out doesn’t seem to bother us. I took pictures of some of the places I found books lying around. How many children’s books are in your home? Where is the weirdest place you have found one?
P.S. Remember Book It? Pizza Hut’s free pizza incentive to encourage childhood reading. That was a reading program I could get behind, reading for pizza. I suspect it would continue to be effective well into college. What got you motivated to read as a child?