Reading is my Parenting SuperPower. And I never meant for it to be. Read on for how "bibliotherapy" could provide the comfort and care your kids need right now.
When I first had my babies, my limitations surprised me. Everywhere I looked I seemed to see these Superhero Moms. They had endless craft supplies and energy and laughter. Since I didn’t feel like I had much of any of those, I just did what I liked to do best.
We would walk to the library and fill a bag (or two) with reading materials. In the beginning, it was picture books. We began with Karen Katz and Sandra Boynton. Katz’s Flap books were favorites so I kept the scotch tape in the stroller for last-minute repairs before we made returns. And a friend had given me a key tip about Sandra Boynton’s collection: “If you’re not good at making those baby noises and voices, her books do it for you.”
Then we moved on to Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter and immediately felt better about bath time being a mess and grocery store trips ending in tears. We learned to be brave with Sheila Rae. And when the time came, the unmatchable Rosemary Wells warned us that school can be wonderful and also sometimes people throw fits.
New baby coming? We read books on it. Holiday season? We had our favorites. The inevitable kindergarten milestone was ushered in by Ms. Bindergarten and of course, for the extra adrenaline rush, always Ms. Viola Swamp.
I read to my kids because I loved to read. There was no strategy or a well-thought-out plan. I didn’t know “bibliotherapy” was even a thing.
What I did know was that I had always run to books. Literature helped me understand my life. Fiction opened up the world just enough to let me breathe. There are books that (still) make me belly laugh until I do this gasping, wheezing thing that is awkward in public.
Reading had always been my joy, hobby, default activity. Yes, it was how I took care of myself, but this was before self-care was a term, or before I learned that therapy can show up in many disguises. I thought I was just doing what I liked, I didn't even mean to be improving my mental health.
I also sensed that in that time on the couch with my little ones and the pile of library books, we were connecting. Even now, my big kids who have passed even the Harry Potter phase will come into the younger girls' room at night when we pull a favorite picture book out. Julius the Baby of the World, The Bunny Planet, or any of Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny books.
And along the way, through literature, we were building a community of friends to help us process life.
Is reading Escapism? Sure. There are times when we need to escape. But reading is also therapeutic. As we engage a story, our imaginations are at work, filling in details and images. We are learning empathy as we take on the perspective of a character, and self-reflection as we identify with a struggle or celebration.
See, our own stories are often a bit too close. Whether they feel scary or overwhelming or simply stuck, we spend so much time IN our stories, we can’t reflect on them. But when we find the right book, we gain the self-awareness to learn from our own adventures.
Bibliotherapy provides healing care through reading. This practice involves reading specific literature with the intent to heal specific issues. Often therapists use it as an additional part of treatment.
When we read to our kids, we help them to examine their lives from a short distance. Plans change. Kids worry. Families have bad days. Pets die. Children can be mean. Parents screw up. Nighttime can be scary. Hard things happen. Disappointment is real.
These characters live out themes we experience but from the safety of the page. Sometimes we can make connections in the moment, but not usually. It was more likely that days, weeks later, my kids would mention a character or a story and compare it to their own lives or relationships. Much like in a traditional therapy session, often the healing breakthroughs occur when you least expect them.
Want to read an author who, beginning 60 years ago, could expertly articulate a child’s perspective? I prescribe Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” series. The fictional character Ramona feels her opinions are not heard and her behavior is misunderstood. Welcome to childhood – an exhausting journey guided by adults telling you how good you have it.
Our kids find empathy in characters indignant about the very same injustices they face- limited playground time, gross dinners, unimaginative adults.
Reading books increases our emotional reference book. It gives us axioms and idioms for almost every scenario, and shared language families can return to again and again.
“Today was a hard day. Tomorrow will be better,” writes Lily’s teacher in “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse”, and are words that still occasionally help me sleep at night.
Sometimes reading is most therapeutic in how it, as Madeline L’Engle puts it, widens our imagination. Simply put, for many people, reading changes how we see what we see. Because of books, few can argue with the potential of a wardrobe in an empty room, or the hope of a new friend when we have first-day jitters.
By engaging literature, children learn that people make mistakes and can forgive each other. They see poor behavior coming from good intentions. Through reading, kids learn and relearn that really bad messes can be cleaned up. They gently start to trust that there are people out there who can help, no matter the problem.
Read to your kids and with your kids and around your kids.
Help them process, from the safety of the couch or the pillow fort. Give them the skills to navigate a big world, with characters as their guides. Show your kids that their problems are both unique and universal and let each page-turn on your lap gently whisper that they are not alone.
And one day, when they find themselves older and in charge, they will know exactly where to go when they need some hope at night. They will already understand that seasons do pass and problems do resolve, though often in unexpected ways.
And if your kids are really lucky, they will have already learned that superpowers can both be healing and the most natural things we do.