The Power of Stories During Difficult Times

I recently had the privilege of interviewing parent, educator, and writer Kim Jocelyn Dickson. Kim has nearly 30 years of experience in the elementary school classroom, has taught in public and private schools, and currently teaches literature and writing. She is the author of the book, The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. During the interview, we spent some of the time talking about the power of stories during difficult times. You can watch the video interview below or keep reading.

As a fellow advocate for shared reading, I asked Kim to explain how a parent sharing good books with their children offers comfort. What really is the power of stories during difficult times?

The Power of Stories During Difficult Times—Connection

Kim: One of the first things that comes to mind that is powerful about a parent sharing books with a child is the connection that occurs between the parent and the child. It’s a powerful bonding experience. When a parent sits down with a good book and their child—sits together on the sofa or maybe cuddles together, they’re telling them that the child is really important. The child is hearing and feeling that this time together means that they’re important to the parent, so I think that the connection is one of the most powerful things that comes out of the parent/child read aloud.

The Power of Stories During Difficult Times—Escape

There are so many things that come out of this. That’s really the reason that I wrote this book, but another thing that occurs to me is that since our topic today is about the advantage of reading to your child, especially during a difficult time, is that it does provide a little oasis for them. I’m really very big on creating a family read aloud time daily. If that can be developed into a habit, that can be a super beneficial thing that affords the child and the parent a special time every day to look forward to. It’s that time of closeness and it’s also a time that just offers a little escape from whatever might be difficult—for instance the quarantine that we’re experiencing right now and the absence of normal life. Having that little time to escape into a story and to be together and to share that is a really powerful thing.

A mother reads to her two children as they cuddle for a moment of connection, escape, and imagination, just a few of the benefits of the power of stories during difficult times.

The Power of Stories During Difficult Times—Imagination

It also fosters the imagination of the child and literally takes them out of their reality for a while in a super healthy way. It’s so interesting what neuroscientists are discovering now about the impact of reading on the brain. We used to think that reading only impacted the frontal lobe of the brain, where the language processing center is, but recent studies have shown that when we read, every single part of the brain is engaged, which means that we experience the story as if it is actually happening to us. So we experience it on a sensory level, we experience it on an experiential level, so it literally does take us out of ourselves and out of our own reality.

The Power of Stories During Difficult Times—Calm

And then the other advantage it provides—or one of them, because I could go on and on—another one I think that’s so important during this difficult time is that we’re starting to understand that the physiological effect of reading on the body is very similar to what happens during meditation. There’s a very calming and soothing thing that happens with us mentally and physically when we sink into a good story. And so to share that with a parent during a time that’s difficult, to do that daily and know that that’s something that you both count on and look forward to, can be a really powerful and comforting thing.

Reading from Infancy

Don: You’ve mentioned some excellent points about the power of reading during difficult times. I love the bond fostered between parent and child by having that reading time. Something else that you mentioned too—and this was in the book—is that you don’t want to wait until after your child starts school to say, “Oh, that’s the time to start reading with them.” Read from birth, even before birth. What have you noticed with your own child in doing this, and the benefits of doing this?

Kim: Well, he’s all grown up now, and he’s a reader. He’s a lifelong reader. Yeah, I started reading to my son in utero, towards the end of my pregnancy. I had received I think three copies of Goodnight Moon at various baby showers. And so I hadn’t really done any research on this topic—I’d been a teacher for so many years, and so I sort of instinctively knew that reading to your child is a good thing. I was always a reader. So I just started reading Goodnight Moon to him, just maybe a month or so before his birth, and then continued doing it when he was a baby. Nursery rhymes were a really big part of what we did, and it just was part of our daily pattern. I remember that it was like after naptime was a great time because he was still kind of sleepy and not too active, and then after bath time at night because he was winding down. I found that during his infancy and childhood those were really great times to read during the day.

A mother reads to her baby from a picture book. The power of stories during difficult times can also lay a preliteracy foundation for very young children, which will benefit them academically when they enter school.

Long-term Benefits

So reading was really part of our family experience, and he kind of grew up into that and it was just something that we continued doing into his middle/upper elementary school years, I guess. My book is subtitled The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, and I kind of wished that I continued it even longer than I did. But by the time he was, I don’t know, maybe upper elementary, he was into Star Wars, and was reading all the Star Wars novels over and over again, and he was just kind of into his own thing.

But the fun thing is—and I just need to say that I do believe it had a huge impact on him academically, and that’s another subject. We could get into that if you want to, but I’ll just talk about it from a life skill/reading for pleasure perspective. When we get together now, one of the things we always share is “What are you reading?” We trade books back and forth. We’re both big nonfiction fans, and so we’ve been trading Erik Larson’s books back and forth the last few months. I don’t know if you read The Splendid and the Vile, but if you love history, those are great books to get into.

So anyway, it has continued to be a point of connection for us, is my point, for a lifetime, and I expect that it will continue to be.

The Secret World of Reading

Don: And one of the things, if your child is dyslexic, like I was (am) dyslexic is that early reading from birth is such a big factor in how well they’ll do when they start school, because that helps to build that preliteracy foundation. You’re basically modeling reading for them before they can even talk, when you have them sitting in your lap and you’re reading across the page with an open book and you go from left to right and top to bottom. You show them every time how reading works, and that sticks with them. And so once they start school, they already have some of those basic foundations down. Wonderful point.

…children come to school already understanding that there’s a whole world behind reading that’s a really exciting and important one that they’ve already been a part of…

Kim: That is so true, and that gets into the whole academic part of this, which I really get into in my book, because as a teacher of so many years, I’ve seen that again and again. What you’re talking about is those early preschool years. When a parent reads to a child, they are literally building an internal infrastructure for them that lays the foundation of all the preliteracy skills that they need—the things that you just mentioned about how reading works, it communicates to them that there is a payoff in reading, that this strange thing that we do with putting symbols and meaning and sounds together has a payoff. There’s something to it, because those children come to school already understanding that there’s a whole world behind reading that’s a really exciting and important one that they’ve already been a part of. You’re absolutely right; there is a huge value in doing this, and it’s one of the reasons that I’m so passionate about talking about the subject, because parents need to understand how important it is.

Don: Thanks for sharing your insights, Kim. Readers, please check back here soon for the second part of my interview with Kim— Benefits of Reading During Times of Stress.

Kim Jocelyn Dickson has nearly thirty years of experience in the elementary school classroom, has taught in public and private schools in the east, Midwest, and west coast of the United States, currently teaches literature and writing in an independent school in Southern California, and frequently speaks on reading’s powerful impact on young lives.
Nearly thirty years teaching hundreds of elementary school-aged children has convinced Kim that the simple act of reading aloud from birth has a far-reaching impact that few parents understand and that our recent, nearly universal saturation in technology has further clouded its importance. The Invisible Toolbox aggregates research findings in neuroscience, education, and psychology along with practical anecdotal experience from the classroom and parenting to illustrate that the first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school—language skills—and that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before.

Don Winn’s Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.