Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I don’t know how to write this post without sounding like an enormous nerd, so I’ve decided to embrace the nerdiness and say it: 

I love reading

When I was a kid, I spent hours every day reading. I toted books along on every errand, usually with a backup book in case I finished the first while away from home. Books taught me things I didn’t know I wanted to learn; they were entertainment and escape, expansion of my horizons and familiar friends. I read aloud to my sisters in the evenings and scoured the library for new titles every week. 

Nerdy. I know. 

But books are an integral part of who I am, and still today I'm always in the middle of one of two (or more) at a time. I read a little slower than I used to and fall asleep more often half a page in (thanks, motherhood), but I still love reading. It's a love I've wanted to pass down to my kids, and something I recently realized I actually accomplished. I had a moment where I suddenly thought, Wait, whoa, my kids are readers and they can't even read yet. This is amazing. 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

And this is the part of the post I admit I don't know how to write this without sounding like I'm tooting my own horn. Honestly, having any kind of parenting win—especially one near to my heart like this one—feels rare and glorious, so like I'm embracing the nerdiness, I'm going to embrace this one. I helped make my kids into readers, you guys, and it feels amazing. Trust me when I say there are plenty of other things I'm horrible at (see above play-room disorganization as Exhibit A) that you can teach me how to do. 

Here's what I've done over the years that (to my utter surprise) has actually worked.

1. Make Books Accessible 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

There are books in every room of our house, and the kids' books are at kid-level. While I move the loud, annoying, or messy toys to the top shelf, I keep the books low where they're ready to be enjoyed any time. My kids take full advantage of this, which means I clean up books every single day—and I love it (mostly, or at least more than cleaning up the loud and annoying toys). 

2. Visit the Library 

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card. (More nerdiness. I apologize.) 

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card. (More nerdiness. I apologize.) 

You may already be in on this secret, but in case you're not, lean in close so I can tell you: the library is one of the easiest, least stressful places to take those animalistic, wild-eyed kids of ours. If the many engaging and themed story times aren't your style, there are almost always brightly-colored play areas with free toys, educational games, and books galore. We visit the library usually once a week, which gives us a chance to test drive good books. More on good books later—for now, just get yourself a library card. 

3. Say Yes

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

Sometimes when I collapse into the couch at the end of the day, all I remember saying for the past 14 hours is a combination of "don't" and "no." That's how parenthood can feel sometimes. I made myself a promise when Charlie was tiny that I'd try to always say "yes" when she asked to read a book, and for the most part, I've kept that promise. I have to say no to another TV show, no to chocolate, no to wearing princess dress-up clothes to preschool—but I can say yes to books. Encourage reading by showing your kids it's an entertainment option you'll always say yes to. 

4. Lead by Example 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

This one is hard for me even though I love reading. It's easier, frankly, to look at my phone all day when I'm trying to escape my boredom, loneliness, or work. But reading makes me much happier, and I like my kids to see me enjoying it. Even if I'm reading at a snail's pace—or even if it's just a magazine—I'd rather their memories of these years be of me reading than of me glued to a screen. 

5. Set Aside Quiet Reading Time

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I can't guarantee anything in motherhood will be quiet, but I can say this: quiet reading time is a rare gem that's worth cultivating. In Charlie's current routine, we read together while Ada naps in the morning and before bed. Choose one or two parts of the day you'd like to read with your child, and add it to your routine. 

6. Bring Books Along

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I'll admit, I got into a bad habit while I was pregnant with Ada of giving Charlie my iPhone when I needed a break. Long car ride with screaming 20-month-old? Phone. 30-minute wait at the restaurant? Phone. I'm glad I had it as an option when I was pushed to my limit, but it was a hard habit to break—and I ended up having to delete those apps like YouTube Kids that made it too easy to give her a screen. 

Now, I try to turn to books as the go-to distraction when my kids need one. Charlie requests a "pile-a books" for every potty time now (which always cracks me up), and I bring books for both kids along on car rides.  

7. Buy Good Books

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

Finally, it's worth mentioning that not all kids' books are created equal. Some will make you tear up and you won't mind reading them again and again, while others will make you want to stab your eyes with a fork. The library is a helpful place to look for genuinely enjoyable books that your kids and you will love. I periodically donate books we haven't liked and scour the thrift stores, Hastings sales, and online retailers for deals on good kid literature. I also do a Christmas countdown every year, unwrapping one book every night in December with our kids, and it's pure magic. Places like Savers and thrift stores often sell kids' books for less than $1.50 each, and you can find vintage and classic books for a steal.

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

As a final note, I'll say this. The love of reading is a gift you can give your kids that will last their lifetime. It hardly matters what age they learn to read—even though that's what the test scores and the achievement goals may tell you to focus on. It matters much more when they learn to love to read. Teach them that. 

My Runner's Smile to You

My list is up to three reasons: side ache, big toenail on the right side is too long, and I didn't sleep well last night. 

They're the reasons I'm collecting as the miles tick by too slowly on my morning run—reasons I should call it a day. The double stroller feels heavier with every footfall, and my ambitions are looking less enticing. If I stop I can sit down, just there under that tree or by that bench, let my heart rate come down, drink some water. 

Reason number four: I'm thirsty. 

Then I see her, and I'm looking in a mirror and it makes me smile—not a toothy grin but a strangled half-moon of recognition. She's pushing her own stroller, also sweat-shined, eyebrows drawn together, lips flattened between forceful breaths. Her eyes catch mine and we share the runner-to-runner ritual of greeting: a slight smile. 

When I started running five years ago, I wished I could give everyone I passed on the green belt a high-five. LOOK AT US, I'd think when I saw another runner, WE'RE DOING IT. And once in a while, I'd try it, even saying something out loud like, "Good job!" People would usually give me a confused smile or laugh and say thanks. But as I began to push myself toward longer distances and faster paces, I ran out of energy to spend on anything besides putting feet in front of each other. I still smiled when other runners passed me—especially other parents with beat-up jogging strollers—but I'd stopped wasting precious breath on words.

Writing during the busy years of motherhood is hard, and I don't always have the energy. My writing might not always be a boisterous high-five of pithy statements and exuberance. I can offer a strangled smile, though. And because you and I relate—we're fellow runners in motherhood and tiredness and faith and life—I don't have to say much more for you to understand. We can encourage each other with simple words. 

That's when I started noticing it: the runner's smile. Now it's something I look forward to on every run. Not everyone does it: some runners are too focused, headphones in, eyes ahead, legs aching. Many do, though, and I love it. It's this tiny, nearly imperceptible simper wreathed with understanding and encouragement. It says the same thing I used to want to shout; LOOK AT US, WE'RE USING OUR BODIES, WE'RE DOING IT. But the runner's smile doesn't need overambitious bursts of energy to communicate its message. 

On a run in July, I realized writing is like that. I've been in a creative slump for months now—maybe over a year, if you can draw a circle around something so fuzzy and hard to define—and sometimes, there are things I want to shout. My writing is how I tell other people in the trenches of motherhood, writing, working, and evolving I see them. LOOK AT US, I want to say to the mom holding a baby and wrangling a toddler. I want to shout to the person wrestling with their faith and searching for meaning: WE'RE DOING IT. But more often than not, especially over the last 18 months, I haven't had any energy for the shouting.  

But just because I can't shout doesn't mean I can't say it another way. My writing might not always be a boisterous high-five of pithy statements and exuberance. I can offer a strangled smile, though. And because you and I relate—we're fellow runners in motherhood and tiredness and faith and life—I don't have to say much more for you to understand. We can encourage each other with simple words. 

I'm trying to remember that while I struggle with where my writing is going. I'm sorting through purpose and direction and plans that make it feel like I'm pushing a big weight on this path, and sometimes it makes me slow down or even stop. Other writers are the ones who've come alongside me. In fact, I feel like everything I read lately has been a nudge that this time of diapers and sleep loss isn't forever, and I'll write more again soon (such as Ann Swindell's piece on stewarding your passions while mothering young kids and Katie Carper's guest post on Amber Salhus's blog). They're reminding me that even if a book-length project seems gargantuan and exhausting and impossible right now, I can type out a few words here and maybe help one other person today. I may not have my vision and blog all tidy and in order, but I can write what's on my mind for my Instagram friends. 

It doesn't have to be a shout and a high-five. This blog, for now, is my runner's smile to you. Look at us, friend. We're doing it. And hey, after this, let's meet up for a beer. We earned it.

Writing during the busy years of motherhood is hard, and I don't always have the energy. My writing might not always be a boisterous high-five of pithy statements and exuberance. I can offer a strangled smile, though. And because you and I relate—we're fellow runners in motherhood and tiredness and faith and life—I don't have to say much more for you to understand. We can encourage each other with simple words. 

One Year Later, I Had a Normal Morning

This morning, I made oatmeal and stirred in just the right amount of honey. I pulled curly blonde hair back into a braid and tucked in the requested sparkly bow. I nursed Ada, I slipped on some pants, I kissed Jason. I changed a diaper, I sipped scaldingly hot coffee, I dropped Charlie off at preschool and gave Jason a ride to work. It was a normal morning. 

The date on my phone reminded me what today is: today marks a year. One year since that first morning back in our house after the addition. That morning, all I wanted was normal. 

Our first morning back in the house, a year ago today.

Our first morning back in the house, a year ago today.

Last summer was anything but normal. Jason got the call that he and his team were laid off in June, right when we broke ground on our ambitious home addition. The next six months were harder than we could have imagined they'd be. At night, I'd toss with restless anxiety and pregnancy aches while Jason lay awake next to me, too sore from 12-hour days of physical work on our house to sleep. Those six months tested us in ways we didn't anticipate. 

Strangely, those six months are still something I struggle to write about. Yes, me: the chick who started babbling about everything as a baby and hasn't shut up since. I somehow don't have the vernacular to describe that it was hard and refining, important and stretching. I don't know how to tell you how scared I was, and yet how sure that around every corner was safety and normalcy again. And that safety and normalcy were around the corner, it just turned out to be the very, very last corner we turned. 

Our home was liveable (though without countertops, an oven, electricity, siding, and many other things) only four days before Ada was born. Jason got three job offers—finally—the second week of December, the week that the mailman delivered our last severance check.  

The only way I can describe it is: manna. Give us this day our daily bread—none leftover from yesterday, none for tomorrow, just enough. Enough for today. 

This morning.

This morning.

Now, a year later, I'm free to feel grateful for the gift of normal. We're still living on a manna paradigm; we're still recovering financially from the lay-off and the expenses of adding on. The house isn't finished (but are houses ever finished?). There are still plenty of day-to-day struggles and worries. But this morning was so deliciously normal, and it feels important to mark it. 

June 2016: foundation and framing going on around our tiny 700-square foot home.

June 2016: foundation and framing going on around our tiny 700-square foot home.

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Just looking at this photo gives me anxiety. I was seven weeks from giving birth and my house looked like this!

Just looking at this photo gives me anxiety. I was seven weeks from giving birth and my house looked like this!

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This morning.

This morning.

10 Things I Wish People Would Say to My Daughters Instead of "You're So Pretty"

My daughters are beautiful. 

I'm not being vain—I just believe this. And I hear it every time I leave the house from well-meaning strangers, so I know I'm not simply biased. My oldest has honey blonde curls and my youngest's long, dark lashes fringe deep blue, smiling eyes. 

They're beautiful. And frankly, that's the least interesting thing about them. But based on the sheer number of comments they get, I know it's the attribute they hear about most often.

I'm a believer in the power of words. I think words shape us from a young age, and words said repeatedly, by people we trust, and at formative times in our lives have a profound and lasting impact. Some of us spend most of our lives undoing the damage of words we heard too often or we have told ourselves over decades. And the words my daughters hear every time—without fail—we're in public are some variation on the theme of, "Oh, sweetheart, you're so pretty!" 

The fact is, I can't blame people. I've done it myself, even after I've problematized and rethought this common cultural interaction. It's knee-jerk and acceptable, and when I'm just trying to interact with the funny toddler in the check-out aisle, it probably won't get me far to ask if they've read the latest edition of The Atlantic. I get it. It's a conversation starter; a way to interact politely. 

But it's not all that innocent, even with the best of intentions. When we talk about things to the exclusion of others, we signal that those things have value. Especially for little girls, this can be incredibly damaging. I recently saw a YouTube video—a light-hearted interview with a two-year-old on her birthday—where she was asked, "How do you stay so skinny? Tell us your secrets!" Hold up, what? A two-year-old? Skinny? Would they have asked a boy that? Nope. I can't count how many times I've heard (and stumbled into saying myself) comments like, "Look at those chunky baby thighs! Enjoy them now, honey, because later on in life it's not cute to have fat rolls!" Meanwhile, we're wondering how it's possible that kids as young as five struggle with body image issues. 

The messages these comments send our girls are hurtful, damaging, and devastating. There is the argument that positive comments aren't damaging ("What's wrong with complimenting someone?"), but this isn't the whole picture. When a little girl only hears comments about her body, clothes, and looks, this is what she really hears.

"Your worth is tied to your appearance."

That's why I'm writing this. Maybe you, like me, have had to bite your tongue instead of focusing immediately (and exclusively) on a girls' outward appearance when you meet her or when greeting a friend's daughter. I'm known for getting tongue tied, because hey, I know what I don't want to say: now what do I say? 

The messages many comments send our girls are hurtful, damaging, and devastating. There is the argument that positive comments aren't damaging ("What's wrong with complimenting someone?"), but this isn't the whole picture. When a little girl only hears comments about her body, clothes, and looks, this is what she really hears: "Your worth is tied to your appearance."

Next time you see a perky child you want to interact with, try these instead. (Bonus! They work for any kid, not just girls.) 

10 Things to Say Instead of Commenting on Appearance

  1. Are you doing fun things with your family today? 
  2. I see you're eating an orange lollipop. Do you like the color orange? 
  3. Good job being a helper while your (mom/dad/grandma/grandpa, etc) shops for groceries! What's your favorite food? 
  4. It's fun to play at the park, isn't it? Is the slide or the swing your favorite? 
  5. Is this your baby/big sister/brother? I bet you're a good sister/brother to her/him! 
  6. It's warm/cold today, isn't it? Did you wear your warm/cool clothes today? Tell me about them! 
  7. Are you having a fun day? 
  8. Do you like to read? What's your favorite book?
  9. What's your favorite movie?
  10.  I saw you running/jumping/skipping/swinging/bouncing! Do you love to run/jump/skip/swing/bounce?

We can't change the whole culture right now. But I know you and I can change what we say to the kids we interact with. And while I'm at it, I'll share what my husband says to our girls at every bedtime (with variations most nights): 

"I love your mind, I love your kindness, I love how you ask questions, I love how you played hard today. I love how you learn new things, and how you like to read books, and how you help around the house. I love everything about you!" 

That's what our kids need to hear. 

Moms: Here's What You Should Know About Working From Home

I enjoy working from home—I get to do what I love (writing), get paid (yes, English majors make money), and keep my professional network active during these intense years of raising young kids. That said, working from home comes with its own set of difficulties. Not the least of these challenges is feeling a little invisible, a little tribe-less; I'm not fully a "working mom" with a closet full of heels and the day care on speed dial. I'm also not fully a "stay-at-home mom" with the associated schedule freedom or routine. Like many other areas of my life, I find myself somewhere in the middle as a work-at-home mom

I reached out to a few other moms who work from home and asked them to share their tips, strategies, and secrets for staying sane and getting work done. Here's what you should know about working from home. 

Since I've felt tribe-less at times, I wanted to help other work-at-home moms feel less isolated. I reached out to a few other moms who work from home and asked them to share their insights, strategies, and secrets for staying sane and getting work done. Here's what you should know about working from home. 

It's Easy to Get Distracted

Many moms who work at home don't give up their primary caregiver job, and because of this, there's always something as pressing (or more pressing) than your email inbox or upcoming deadline. Blow-out diapers and toddler tantrums wait for no one. Every mom I interviewed listed this as their greatest hurdle. "My biggest challenge is distractions around the house," says Lindsay Koch, a photographer who stays home with her two sons. "I try to not let home chores and things that need cleaned interfere with work but I have a tendency to be a squirrel." 

A Lot of Work Happens in the Margins

There are serious perks to not working the 9-to-5 grind, but there's one major drawback: your work time can get squeezed out of the picture by plain old life (especially if you're chasing toddlers and babies or ferrying kids around town all day). Molly Flinkman is a mom of three and works from home: "The only time I have to get things done are the leftover hours that I scrape together." Nap times, after bed times, early mornings before the kids wake up—these are the shifts that work-at-home moms take on. I love what Molly added: "It's easy to get frustrated when you live in the margins of leftover time, but I'm learning, instead, that everything is better when I choose to take joy in making sacrifices for my family."

It's Awesome

Ask any work-at-home parent and they'll tell you: for all the challenges, working at home is flat-out awesome. Amber High works from home and has a 10-year-old daughter, and says, "The best parts for me are being able to be available to our kiddo when she really needs me (she is pretty self-sufficient at 10!), and not having to fight traffic on a commute!" Other moms shared that they love never having to take a sick day, witnessing their kids' firsts, and keeping a flexible, family-centric schedule. 

Advice from the Pros

Finally, I asked these moms to give me their top piece of advice for work-at-home parents. 

"Create routines for yourself and your kids and then live flexibly inside them. I've got a pretty good rhythm of productivity going right now, but I know I'm going to need to reevaluate and adjust in the fall when I send two girls to half day preschool and our schedule is rocked. Flexibility is key too because so often my deadlines have to take a backseat to another demand during the day." - Molly Flinkman 

"My piece of advice would be to prioritize your time to fit your schedule. I know that I get the most work done in the mornings and I'm the most focused so I work on any projects that have deadlines first thing in the morning. I also know that Hutton is in the best mood in the morning so I can get him focused on something that allows me some quiet time. Also, I have learned not to feel guilty about giving it 110% everyday. I have learned that balance is key and some days you give it 70% and some days you give your work 120%." - Lindsay Koch 

"My biggest tip is to plan ahead. Try to set aside specific times for your tasks. This can be more challenging when you have littles at home, and things have to be done around their schedules. But for me, making lists at the end of each day for the day ahead, helps me rest better at night and gives me a clear picture of what I need to tackle the next day when I get up and going!" - Amber High