Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ten Reasons to Read Aloud During Times of Tragedy

Lately I have been overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and hopelessness each night as I watch the news. School shootings, murders, rape, flooding, fires, conflict and war fetter the evening news in proportions that seems to be growing and becoming more pervasive. I try so hard to shelter my children from these tragedies, but my oldest daughter is getting to the age where she overhears, talks to her friends, and just knows that horrific and unspeakable tragedies are happening every day. 
The questions she asks keep getting harder, and I find myself without the words to answer her. Frankly, what do you say to a child that hears about school shootings and wonders if she will be safe going back to school in August? It makes me wonder how I could have brought children into such a mean and cruel world? However, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my friends mother. She confided in me that years ago they too were reluctant to bring children into such a cruel world. The more things change, the more they stay the same? Yet still, I need help preparing them for this brave new world. And so, we read together, and it helps. 
  1. Reading Aloud Reduces Stress: The organization Reach Out and Read cites that reading aloud to a child during times of stress and tragedy has been proven to reduce stress. I know that my daughters look forward to reading aloud each night as a way to relax and unwind. It creates a pattern and routine that children desperately need to feel safe.
  2. Reading Aloud Teaches New Words to Express Emotions: Right now my daughter and I are reading Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures. The book contains a wealth of advanced words that are not typically used in daily conversations. This means that my daughter has been repeatedly asking me to explain what different words mean. A good example of a  word the brilliant Kate DiCamillo uses is in this book that I had to explain is "arch nemesis." I am always amazed how she is able to connect these new words to her own emotions and experiences. Invariably, these words slowly creep into her lexicon, giving her a more complex vocabulary to explain exactly how she feels. 
  3. Reading Aloud Opens the Door for Conversation. We try to eat dinner together as a family every night. We try to talk about our day and share stories at the table. However, it always ends up just staying right there on the surface. It is during those quiet moments just before bed as we read aloud that the complex, philosophical questions about life pop up. "Do they allow guns at the campground we are going to?" "What does it feel like to be in prison?" "Why are there bad guys that kill people?" "My friend told me that bad guys only come to public schools? Is there going to be a bad guy coming to my school?" These are all questions that have come up while reading aloud. These are difficult, blindsiding questions, that as a parent I would have never guessed these thoughts would be in my seven year old child's mind. However, I venture to say that she would never have asked them if I didn't make a point to spend that quiet time reading with her each night.
  4. Reading Aloud Allows Parents to Broach Subjects That are Uncomfortable to Talk About: You know how as adults, if we want to ask advice on a topic that we are not comfortable talking about you ask about it as if for a friend in need? This same concept works when reading aloud books to your children. Need to discuss a difficult topic? Find a character that has gone through the same emotions. It is so much easier to have a discussion of the range of emotions a character goes through, leaving the door open for a conversation about your own child's emotions, than coming out directly and asking, "How do you feel about a friend's parents getting divorce?"
  5. Experiencing a Tragedy with a Character Helps All of Us to Feel a Little Less Alone. I remember crying when Aslan died in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. But, I also remember crying when my dog died. C. S. Lewis knew that children experience grief and would take comfort knowing they were not alone, which is why he addressed this directly in his books. 
  6. Reading Aloud Teaches Empathy for Those That Suffer. My family and I are so incredibly blessed. We have a home to live in, food to fill our bodies, and enough books on our shelves to fill our souls. My children do not understand what it means to be homeless, hungry (although they would attest 30 minutes prior to dinner being served that they are starving to death), or to not know love. However, we can talk about what it might feel like to be homeless, hungry, or not know love when we read books by Roald Dahl like The BFG, Matilda, or James and the Giant Peach. Tragedy doesn't seen like a far off thing anymore, but instead those children become characters that my child can relate to and feel empathy for. 
  7. Reading Aloud Provides an Escape. During especially difficult times, I often it find it most helpful to pull out the silliest, zaniest, goofiest children's books I can possibly find and laugh and laugh and laugh with my children. Laughing through the tears helps heal the pain.
  8. Reading Aloud Provides Perspective.  Today Little J broke one of Miss M's toys. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. The paper fan she got as a favor at a birthday party yesterday was priceless in her eyes. To her, this was a tragedy. I acknowledged her hurt feelings, all the while thinking in my mind how ridiculous she was being.  I would never tell her she is being ridiculous, because to her, the feelings of loss and sadness are real. With age and experience comes perspective, but to gain an early perspective, reading works wonders. I remember her reactions when we first read Matilda. She was in shock that parents could ever treat their daughter so horribly. It helped tremendously to prove that making her clean her room didn't make me the worst mom ever.
  9. Reading Aloud Promotes Oral Storytelling. I wrote previously about my experience reading Grandpa Green for the first time and how the book reminded me so much about my grandfather. The book Grandpa Green by Loren Long describes the journey of one man through life and how his gardening helps him remember his experiences long after his mind has failed him. That book provided the perfect springboard from which I could share story after story about my own grandfather. We could talk about how he had died, but I could also talk about all the amazing things he did in his life. If you are reading a book aloud and it reminds you of a story from your life, what better time than right then to share the story?
  10. Reading About Tragedy Helps to Prepare us for When Tragedy Will Happen. It is a terrifying thought that someday your own children will experience a tragedy. However bitter a thought that may be, I know that at some point their hearts will break whether it is from being stood up for a date, losing a loved one, or having a dream dashed. Reading stories about loss, tragedy, or when things just don't go a person's way helps to create a blueprint for how to be brave, face fears, triumph over evil, or just learn to live again. I pray that the challenges my daughters may face will be few, but I know that sadly life isn't all rainbows and butterflies. I don't want to dash their dreams or destroy their idealist view of the world, but I do want them to learn that in spite of all that is horribly wrong with our world, beauty and love remain. More than anything else, I want my children to learn to be resilient, fight challenges with grit, and to remain hopeful. 


  1. Wonderful post, Jenny. I often use books as tools to approach difficult subjects, but I love all the reasons you lay out here.

    1. Thanks Danzel. I am always amazed how much they help teach me how to handle tragedy during those moments as well.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks so much Leanne for stopping by and reading my blog.

  3. Excellent post Jenny. I love to use books to help my kids to understand many different things as well. It is difficult to talk to kids about tragedies but you are so right they will hear things at school and reading with them gives parents a way to share the info we want, clarify words, deal with emotions, reconnect with kids.


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