Why I Still Read Out Loud To My Teens

by Jennifer Jarvis Burt
Originally Published: 
Mother and daughter laying on carpet using cell phone and digital tablet
Scary Mommy and JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty

It’s a typical Monday evening. The clock strikes eight. My husband and I summon our spawn and escort them upstairs for bed.

Most nights they go without protest; others, they stomp up, clucking like a herd of miffed alpacas. After an interminable period of shenanigans where more than one blob of toothpaste finds its way to the carpeted hallway, they slip into their rooms and wait for us. Diapers, bottles, sleepy smiles, and choruses of “mama” and “dada” faded to memory years ago; eye rolls, attitudes, slammed doors, and “OK, Boomers” replaced them. Still, in our home, one routine stands: reading aloud with our children.

People react in all kinds of ways when they learn my husband and I read aloud to our teens. Mostly, they say, “We don’t have time for that.” I hear you! When the kids reach the teen years and the pace of daily life zips by faster than the speed of light, time is a precious commodity. We juggle too many balls. We wear too many hats. Some days we fight to come up for air. Undeterred by the chaos, my spouse and I stay committed to the nightly ritual of the read aloud, and it’s been the most fulfilling parenting decision we’ve made.

The transition to reading aloud to teens happened overnight. One day we bid farewell to the dragons of Mull’s Fablehaven and the wizards of Rowling’s Harry Potter, and the next we ushered J. R. R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman into our home. All of a sudden, the two biggest issues we encountered were consistency and content.

Homework. Marching Band. Piano lessons. Power of the Pen. Volleyball. The list goes on. Sound familiar? Our stacked Google calendar makes my head spin. So how do we make the nightly reading sessions happen? As someone who has an all-or-nothing personality, I have had to adapt to the unpredictability of our schedule. Our lives are hectic. Sometimes basketball practice runs late. On occasion a high school jazz performance keeps us out way past our bedtime. Goals and expectations evolve on a weekly basis. We aim to read to the teens three nights a week. If we achieve that, we consider the week to be a success; if we don’t, we move on to the next.

My teens skipped young adult books altogether and moved straight to adult fiction. With adult fiction, you get adult content. Be prepared! The upside of reading mature subject matter is the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with your teens on a variety of topics. We have discussed poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, corruption in government, immigration, homelessness, bullying, etc. The books put us in a unique position to have one-on-one conversations about important issues facing the world and our young people today. This enables them to participate and ask questions in a safe environment.w

I know my “why,” but what motivates my husband to continue the routine when so many of our peers have abandoned it? As a father who works long hours, he enjoys the extra bonding the routine affords him. It’s part of the day he carves out to focus on each kid individually. Also, huge perk … he enjoys it too!

As the kids have curated their own tastes, he has adopted a more teen-led approach to text selections. When our daughter took an interest in horror, he suggested Shelley’s Frankenstein as a potential father-daughter book pick. Frankenstein aligned with her interests and offered her a taste of classic horror literature. So they blasted through the unforgettable tale of creation, ambition, and alienation. He recommended Tolkien’s The Hobbit to our eldest son when the book circulated in popular culture after its cinematic release in 2012. As an emerging fan of Dungeons & Dragons and RPGs, my eldest agreed.

Fun fact: My spouse does magnificent character voices.

Fun fact: He never stopped using them once the kids aged out of that stage and no longer found them funny.

Let me tell you, voices and accents satiate the pages of The Hobbit. The book provided him ample opportunity to use his superior voice acting talents. Just ask my children. They’ll tell you.

Side note: The Hobbit was one of two books assigned to my eldest for his 2019 summer freshman reading list. Luckily for him, the material was familiar because his father had read it to him. All he had to do was take a closer look at themes, motifs, and world building.

My husband makes read-alouds entertaining for my children. It’s an “experience.”

While I like to have fun as much as my husband does, my read aloud strategies focus more on vocabulary, learning, and empathy. Besides, my range of voices and accents is pathetically limited. But I’m articulate enough, because my youngest son says, “Your tone is soothing.” It’s okay—I’ll let my husband do the voice acting.

We’ve been reading together for many years now. I have an excellent grip on my teens’ vocabularies. When we stumble across an unfamiliar word, I’ll ask them if they know its meaning. If they don’t, I ask if they can infer it using context clues. Usually they grasp meaning from context. Last week, my youngest son used the word plethora in conversation as if it were a word like apple or grass. I won’t lie: It tickled me to discover him using his new vocabulary.

My read-alouds prompt discussion; or rather, I urge my children to think about the material. Did they understand it? Do they have questions? What are their thoughts on X, Y, and Z? I want them to dig deep. When they were middle grade readers, I asked for a plot summary once I had finished, as their attention drifted. I used those summaries to identify how much time they spent actively listening. Now that they are older readers, I pose more pointed questions.

My third child and I read Golding’s Lord of the Flies together. It’s crammed with difficult vocabulary and meandering descriptions, but at its core, it’s about human impulse toward savagery. My son’s attentiveness never waned, even during difficult scenes. He couldn’t understand why the boys turned on one another. How had fear and desperation driven them to such ends? We chatted a lot about that. Reading makes children (and adults!) more empathetic, more open to diverse points of view, and wiser. I witnessed this as my son digested Lord of the Flies.

My teens and I have discussed society and class in The Outsiders, community and identity in The Graveyard Book, and control, manipulation, and authority in Ender’s Game. We have time-traveled to different eras, continents, and worlds. We have read poems, memoirs, nonfiction, and fiction.

Last month we packed a few dozen boxes with books and stored them in the attic. I shed a few tears before I taped up the last box of board books. Goodnight Moon takes on new significance now. Before long, I’ll say goodbye to my eldest son as he leaves for college.

Empty nesters like to say, “Enjoy it because they grow up too fast.” Before I had teens, I snickered at that sentiment. It was easy to say after the fact, am I right? Days felt long. Hours ticked by in sloth mode. Now that my children are older, I understand.

This is it. Soon they’ll have their own lives and their own children, and I’ll never reclaim their younger years. So I will enjoy every second of the teen years. My husband and I will read with them as much as possible, because it’s one of the many ways we love our children. When they look back on these years, I hope they remember the evenings we spent reading, laughing, and loving.

I hope they remember we were always #readaloudstrong.

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