Once during story time when my son was just four years old, he taught me a lesson that changed me forever.
I was reading to him, as we did every day. It was a little more rushed than usual. I was tired and hungry, and we sat on the edge of the couch going through a book together.
I thought I was doing pretty well; I read to him every single day after all. Many times a day actually. Even books I didn’t love, we powered through because, I was reading and spending quality time with him, right?
The truth was – he could tell I just wanted to get done with it as fast as possible. As soon as I finished this particular story, he looked me straight in my eyes and with a firm – but sweet – voice said, “Thanks, but can you read it with love this time?”
The book was about a farm. It didn’t even have the word love in it, but I knew exactly what he meant.
He wanted me to be present. He wanted me to look or smile at him in between page turns. He wanted me to point out something about an animal.
He was asking for a mindful story time.
From that day forward, reading has had a whole new meaning. I’d been working with children for many years by then, had hundreds of successful group story times under my belt but I knew I could make small changes and it would make a big difference going forward. I hadn’t made story time a mindful experience, and I hadn’t made it as important as it should be. Years have passed since that day with my son.
Now, I have found a few ways to make reading a more meaningful experience, and I hope they will help you too.
I vowed (before my children were born) that I would never decline a request to read a book. As someone who didn’t feel confident about reading growing up (and honestly, I still struggle with spelling), there were so many reasons why I always wanted to say yes.
So I did.
I stuck to my promise for years. But it meant I wasn’t always present. I was just doing it because I said I would. So now, I still say yes but sometimes it looks more like, “Yes, after supper sweetie” or, “Yes, I’d love to. But we have to get to school right now, so we will make time later.” Say yes, when you know you can really be there.
Be honest – they will understand
When your child, or the one you are reading to, is old enough to have a conversation (even with limited vocabulary), they will understand if you tell them you only have a few minutes. They won’t expect you to build a cozy nest of blankets and ask questions about every page.
By preparing them with, “I only have a few minutes. Do you want to do a quick story or wait until after?” or, “I can read this short one now or a longer one later – which do you prefer?” they will understand. They will not think you didn’t put love in your story. Choices, honesty, and setting aside some time they can count on will do wonders. I promise.
Enjoy the visuals
There’s a reason why picture books are so packed with images. The visuals are telling the story/spreading the message just as much as the text (if not more for some age categories).
When you take a moment to look at a picture before you turn the page – so will the little one you are with. Even if you just point out a color you like, they will take more notice and do the same. That is what mindful story time is all about.
I read a book to my daughter when she was three and a half about dinosaurs. It was an age-appropriate fantasy story about a human who was hanging out with all sorts of prehistoric creatures. It was a happy story.
On the last page however, she always asked about the sad dinosaur. However the artist had drawn the eyes of this particular T-Rex – it looked sad to her. Because I was present with her, I didn’t say, “No, he’s a happy dinosaur.” I told her that the words of the story said he was happy but then asked her to tell me why she thought he could be sad.
We had an amazing conversation. I found out a lot about what would actually make her sad. She interpreted the image in her way, as all children do – and adults for that matter. So embrace it and see what happens next.
As I develop my own mindful practice in every part of my life, I also learn about forgiving myself when I am not in the moment. I still get distracted sometimes. I can get overwhelmed by things I have to do, but not as much as I used to. And now when a child asks me to read a story, I always put love in it.