The 3 Rs: Reading, Relationships, and Race
Ira Hillman recently appeared on the Reach Out and Read Podcast along with his colleague Dr. Katie Beckmann at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, in Episode 16: Demystifying Philanthropy.
You can listen to the podcast here.
“Some families are big. Some families are small. Some families are the same color. Some families are different colors. All families like to hug each other!”
I must have read these words out loud from Todd Parr’s The Family Book hundreds of times in the first few years of the 2010s. As a transracial family formed through adoption with a boy, girl, and two dads, building a library of books that spoke to our kids was important. Todd Parr was a favorite of ours, especially We Belong Together (about adoption) and It’s Okay to Be Different, but also Do’s and Don’ts and Animals in Underwear ABC.
Every parent wants the best for their kids. And we all want to make sure we are doing “the right things” as parents. While I was reading Todd Parr to my kids when they were awake, I was using their nap time to read parenting books, parenting blogs, medical websites, and newspaper columns – all with plenty of advice about how best to parent a child in the early part of the 21st century. My inbox was filled with messages and resources specifically for fathers, gay parents, adoptive parents, parents of Black kids, and non-Black parents of Black kids.
One thing I had gathered from my research was the importance of reading to my kids. Study after study urged me to fill my children’s brains with thirty million words to expand their vocabularies.
But I also noticed something else. When I read to my babies, they turned their heads to me, especially when I read with emotion.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I joined Einhorn Collaborative and connected with the Nurture Science Program at Columbia University, that I understood: when my kids turned toward me, it was a sign that we were experiencing autonomic emotional connection.
As my children grew into toddlers, we would read together and then connect in conversation. When they entered elementary school, we continued to connect through reading, using it as a gateway to meaningful conversations, and developing the reflex of turning toward each other at times of discomfort, challenge, or high emotion.
Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors
While reading to my children brought me closer to them regardless of which book we read together, I knew that there was also something about the books I chose that mattered. More than thirty years ago, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the phrase “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to talk about children’s books. As I shared above, I spent a lot of effort looking for books that would mirror the life experiences of my kids. At the same time, I wanted them to have windows into the world of others with the opportunity to use their imagination to enter other worlds through sliding glass doors.
Unfortunately, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (School of Education at University of Wisconsin-Madison), when my kids were infants, fewer than 10% of books for children and teens were about people of color. While the most recent figures have grown to almost 30%, that number still does not represent the more than half of America’s infants and toddlers who are children of color.
How can we bridge differences with others if we aren’t exposed to diverse stories about people like them that give us the window? What happens to a child’s self-esteem and confidence when they don’t see themselves mirrored in the books they read at school — or worse, the only reflections they see are as enslaved people or victims?
Reading and books truly have the power to change our lives, especially in ways that create connection — new connections with those outside our circle and deeper connections with those closest to us.
Supporting Reading & Relationships in Pediatrics
Reach Out and Read is a national pediatric literacy model, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, that serves 4.5 million children annually, including 25% of all children in low-income families in the US. Their “Next Chapter” focuses on promoting parent-child relationships in pediatric well visits. A core part of the Einhorn Collaborative strategy is focused on supporting parents in establishing, maintaining, and restoring a state of autonomic emotional connection with their children. That brought our attention to pediatric well visits as a non-stigmatized, universal access point for parents of babies under the age of three. We established a funder collaborative, Pediatrics Supporting Parents (PSP), to focus on supporting parent-child relationships in pediatric primary care. The common interests between Reach Out and Read and PSP led me to be a guest on the Reach Out and Read podcast.
Talking about reading with children reminded me of the ways that reading continues to connect my family and me to each other in emotionally meaningful ways.
“The Talk”: It’s What’s For Dinner
Each year, I like to find new daily habits to enrich our family connection. One year, I took a photo of one or both kids each day and combined them into a video year in review. Another year, I started a simple daily diary. This year, I proposed that at the end of dinner each night, I would take turns with my husband, our 11-year-old son, and our 9-year-old daughter reading a chapter (each chapter is a 1-3-page poem) of Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming.
Have I noticed them each improving their reading fluency? Yes.
Are there deeper benefits from reading together that have shown me that the impact does not just stem from the number of words? Absolutely.
We all struggle with finding ways to get our kids to talk at the dinner table. Now, with this new daily habit, we have conversations that sometimes go on for fifteen minutes. And, these conversations are the ones we knew we needed to have with our kids, but had trouble starting. When the mother in the book tells her kids to sit up straight on the bus or to act more politely when they are in the South, we didn’t need to say anything else in order to begin a talk about our country’s history of racism.
As we discuss these difficult issues, we are able to express our love and affection for our children. The four of us feel more connected to each other. Just as my children turned to me when I read to them as little babies, we now turn to each other, a sign of the mutuality and reciprocity we’re practicing.
Reading together in this way strengthens our autonomic emotional connection, and we lean on that connection when we encounter hard ideas or hard experiences. As our children approach adolescence – a time when parents fear their kids will turn away — it is comforting to know that reading will give us an opportunity to turn towards each other instead.
Books don't just feed our brains, they nourish our relationships with each other — in our homes, in our schools, and in our communities.