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The Same But Different

with Susan Wagner

Susan Wagner is a freelance writer and editor, an avid runner and a mom of two boys. She's tentatively navigating the teen years with her oldest son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder (because puberty isn't hard enough already). [Insert blog name here] chronicles her efforts to balance science homework, basketball practice and panic attacks without completely losing her mind. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram (@workingcloset) and at her personal blog, The Working Closet

The Reading Hour: Why This Childhood Ritual Worked For My Kids

Categories: children, family, parenting, special needs kid

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The first thing the doctor tells you when your child is diagnosed with ADHD is that structure and consistency are incredibly important. In our house, this translated itself into specific family rituals that were designed to keep everyone focused and calm and functioning. Like reading together as a family.

When my kids were little, bedtime was a big deal. I had read somewhere, after Henry was born, that it was crucial that the baby have a consistent bedtime routine, every night, although I can’t remember now what that was supposed to do. (Promote good sleep? Maybe, but Henry was a terrible sleeper, always, despite all the routines in the world.) Bedtime was sacred at our house. And an important part of the bedtime routine was reading.

My husband and I are both big readers; we just took for granted, from the beginning, that our kids would be, too. We have always had books in our house, and one of our favorite family outings is still the bookstore. When the boys were very small we read picture books — our favorites were the now-out-of-print “Toot and Puddle” books, about two pigs who lived in rural New England. As the boys got older, though, we started reading bigger books, and we quickly learned that many of the chapter books for young readers are terrible. My kids loved the Magic Treehouse series, and while I appreciated how well-researched they were, the bad writing was painful to me. Too many incomplete sentences. There had to be something better.

When Henry was in kindergarden, I found my old Nancy Drew books in a box in the attic. We had finished three of them before Henry started to ask why Nancy didn’t just use her cell phone to call the police; I explained that these stories predated cell phones and computers (and Miranda rights, too, apparently). He was baffled. We tried reading my father-in-law’s Hardy Boys books but the kids couldn’t understand the slang so we gave up.

My husband has always been really good at finding books the boys will like. He’s the one who discovered Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and the Spook’s Apprentice series, which scared Charlie (although Henry loved it). Most recently, they’ve been reading their way through the Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom series; Wade does different voices for all the characters and the three of them laugh and laugh together.

And yes, we’re still reading to the boys, even though they’re in middle school and both read at a high school level. This summer the boys and I have talked about reading “The Book Thief” together, because we’re all interested in it. Both boys have warned me that it’s sad (they’ve heard from other kids at school who have read it) and we’ve talked about how any novel about Jews in World War II will probably not be a happy book. I suspect that, left on their own, neither of them would actually read this particular novel; I would also most likely skip it. But together we can get through the sad book.

We read to the boys for a lot of reasons. It builds their vocabulary and teaches them to love books, for one thing. When they were little, we wanted to be sure that reading was fun and that they were never intimidated by the idea of turning off the screen and curling up with a book. These days, both of my kids will happily read on their own; I don’t worry about that at all. So why are we still sitting down before bed to read together?

Reading gives us a chance to talk with the boys about things — about issues that come up in the books, for example, or historical facts. Henry got interested in Greek mythology when we read the Percy Jackson books; the Spook books had him asking about the Catholic church and witches. Reading together is also a way to expand their vocabulary, which is always fun. I will often come in the game room at night and find the boys crouched together over a dictionary, looking up an unfamiliar word from their book. Nothing wrong with that.

Reading is also still a ritual in our family, although it’s one that is harder and harder to fit into our schedule. Henry will ask, in the evening, if anyone is going to read before bedtime — for him, this half hour or so of reading is a time to gather himself and get ready for sleep. It can be hard for him to unwind at the end of the day, and his go-to strategy is always video games. But too much screen time, or screen time too close to bed time, messes with his sleep; reading is a break from the screen, a time to unwind and slow down.

When we read together before bed, Henry is calmer and less agitated than when he goes straight from homework or video games to bed. And even though we know that, we often find it difficult to work that into our nights. Charlie has baseball and basketball practice in the evening; it’s often 7:00 pm before he gets home, and he has to eat and shower and sometimes finish his homework. Game nights are even worse; a 7:30 baseball game doesn’t end until nearly 9:00, and the fields are a good 30 minute drive from our house. We don’t worry too much about Charlie; he’s always been our kid who could lay down in bed and go directly to sleep. But Henry is missing out.

Wade and I are on the fence about the nightly reading. In one way, we’re ready to give it up; the boys are getting older and it’s hard to find books they will both enjoy. And we’re so busy already that taking one more block of time each night to read a book just feels overwhelming.

But I also miss it when we’re not reading together — I miss that time as a family, when we’re all laughing about something or looking up words or working together to understand a concept. It’s hard for us to find those moments of togetherness and I don’t want to lose this one. But I also know that the reading together days are probably coming to an end, which makes me a little sad.

Are your children outgrowing their childhood rituals? Are you replacing them with something new?

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