Saturday, December 19, 2009

GUEST BLOG POST: Reading as a Relationship-Building Tool -- by Cathy Puett Miller, The Literacy Ambassador

In today’s whirlwind of life, it is easy for families to get caught up in “doing stuff”. Our use of cell phones, texting, MP3 players, grocery carts that have a kiddy vehicle as far away from mom or dad as possible, and the DVDs that appear in more and more cars add to the possibility of isolation. Without realizing it, we create what I call more “no chat zones,” and that can harm our children just as much as improper nutrition or inadequate exercise. This time of year additional “pressures” can come into play with extra holiday activities, preparation for family and friend events, and the end of the year looming.

In such a frenzied pace, I encourage those of you reading this blog to stop for just a moment. We all need to evaluate and adjust priorities from time to time, especially if we find ourselves caught in the “whirlwind”, losing direction. I’ve been there; it’s so easy to do. One of the priorities I’d encourage you to think about is the growth of thinking, reading, writing, listening and communicating in your children. Now I’m not talking about extending school to home. I’m talking about these skills as a core for interaction with your child.

In my years as an educational consultant, I have observed thousands of families, and thousands of children learning in structured environments. But what I don’t see often enough, and what young children (and those that are already in school) need most to be good readers and writers, listeners and communicators, when we are talking about “at home” time, is not computer games, flashcards and drills, practice on less than thrilling stories. They need a person who will read to and with them, explore a fantastic book and get to know them al little better through that experience. They need someone sitting with them and talking about what is happening on the screen. They need to see someone be thoughtful about characters and settings, thinking aloud about what the author is trying to say. What they need is you.

Personal Reflections
Our son is now 20, but I recall (with fondness) that, when I became a mother at 34, I thought I knew something about the world. I didn’t have as much confidence that I knew what was right for this new little life we had in ours. Perhaps some of you can relate. That part of parenting doesn’t change.
When it came to his literacy development as a preschooler (and that really relates to how his speech and thinking developed as well as his use of his hands for small movements, his awareness of how print works in our world, etc.), I knew that it began from day one. Learning to talk and express himself was going to be a foundation that he would later use when he learned to read.

That first day I saw Charlie in the hospital, I decided I was going to treasure moments with him (especially since he was likely to be our only child). I wanted to do my best to give him what he needed to be a successful contributor to society. You can relate, I’m sure, to the first time you met your son or daughter.

Then came reality. Changing schedules, going back to work, dealing with the new dynamic in my husband’s and my relationship with the addition to the family. It was a challenge. What I started seeing in myself was a craving for one-on-one time with Charlie. Instead of just shuffling him into everything else I had to do, I decided I needed to protect some time for all of us. When we would all first get home, Dad and Charlie had their time while I fixed a meal (notice that there’s a magazine on Dad’s lap – they just stopped a minute for a little tickle time). Then it was my turn. I learned that by talking with Charlie about the immediate world and the world beyond (because young children don’t know the world yet) and by sharing a quick story or two before bedtime or bath, we were able to reconnect.

Now that Charlie is a young man, off at college, I see the results of that type of commitment, consistently applied. He is a confident, self-assured person, handling virtually every decision with thoughtfulness and reason. He is a terrific writer (and you know how much writing you have to do in college), at ease with lots of different sorts of people in lots of different discussions and conversations, and he has an empathy for his fellow man. He has the world before him. I want to tell you that, in part, comes from the foundation of sharing stories and talking together on a regular basis. Those experiences gave him incredible tools.

Create Those Moments to Treasure (that will knit you together for a lifetime)
My holiday gift to you is a bit of advice as I’m a little further down the road than many of you might be: stop to treasure the events and growth in your child’s life. Never let “going for the buck” and the everyday anxieties of life separate you from time with your children.

Talk with them, listen to them, use lots of different, big words. Explain those they don’t understand and help them see that reading and writing, listening and communication are tools for life. Don’t attempt to replicate the “academic hothouse” environment of school. Those everyday skills are integral to how you relate to your child. They are the core, the foundation through which we stay connected as humans.

If you have children ages 0-5, I have a special treat for you. Visit my publisher, Maupin House ( and find there free downloads for busy families which include the introduction to my new book, Anytime Reading Readiness, a free reading readiness checklist, a sample activity and more.

And regardless of what age your child (or children) are, carve out and relish those times when you and your child grow a little closer, think a little deeper, understand each other a little more. For more tips on how to use books and conversation to empathize with all they are learning about their world and remember what it was like to be a child, visit Those conscious efforts on your part will yield a lasting relationship with your child, something I believe every parent longs for. It’s bigger than a book.

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