LeVar Burton Says Reading Is Central to Good Parenting
THERE ARE THREE important stages when it comes to your kids and reading.
All three are special, but the last one is gut-wrenching.
The first stage is reading around your child. My mother was a voracious reader. She always had at least two books that she was reading concurrently, and one of them was usually a Louis L’Amour novel. Reading was a natural part of her everyday life, so it was a natural part of ours, too.
Parents ask me all the time, “How do I get my kid to read more?” And I ask them, “How often do your kids see you reading?” Without modeling, there can be no curiosity.
The second stage is reading to your child. I started reading to my daughter, Mica, when my wife, Stephanie, was pregnant with her. (A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving—you know, something light.) I couldn’t wait until she arrived to read stories to her; I wanted her to recognize my voice when she got here.
I believe that storytelling is part of who we are as human beings. It’s part of our culture as communal creatures. We share stories. And when Mica grew into a toddler who could sit in my lap and turn the pages, that was the simplest act of intimacy we could share as parent and child.
I will tell you that in the grand scheme of things, those lap moments are fleeting. If you have a child who will sit in your lap and listen to you as you read them a story, do that with them tonight. Do that every night. With gusto.
Because soon your lap will buckle under their weight and you’ll be reading shoulder to shoulder with them in their too-small-for-you bed, which is still special but ultimately different.
Mica and her mom read the Lemony Snicket series that way. I read Mica Harry Potter until we got to the part with the Dementors, and then she didn’t want to read Harry Potter anymore because she was traumatized by the Dementors. (I, too, was traumatized by having exposed her to the horror that is the Dementors.) And then before I knew it, Mica had reached the last and final stage of reading.
The third stage is watching your child read without you.
The moment is bittersweet. You’ve succeeded, after all. You’re thrilled—ecstatic—that that seed took hold. But you’re sad. You have to mourn the loss of when they came to you for story time.
It’s one of the first of many times in parenthood when you will stand on the sidelines and watch your child walk away, and you just have to trust you’ve done enough. And if they’re reading, you have.
Mica is 28 now. We talk about what we’re reading, but the days of reading around her or to her are long gone. And while I haven’t gone back to reread any of the books she and I read together when she was young, I’ve been wondering if it’s time—just to relive some of those moments I shared with her.
Maybe I’ll even pick up the Harry Potter series again—and see if I can make it past the Dementors.
A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
LeVar Burton stars in the final season of Star Trek: Picard, out February 16 on Paramount+, and he’s a children’s literacy advocate and hosted Reading Rainbow on PBS for 23 seasons.
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