“Children will remember stories long after they’ve forgotten the facts.”
Think back to a time when you were a child bursting with wonder and filled with a sense of awe about the world around you. Each of us is born with an innate sense of curiosity about the people, places and things we discover. Children intuitively seek to find answers to the questions we as adults often hesitate to ask. It can be a common inquiry like, “Why does that baby look different from his parents?” or perhaps more complex, such as “Can a family have two mommies?” Pausing to reflect on how to respond is a reminder to adults that one of the most important gifts we can give our children is an openness to the world around them and the people who live in it. Initiating a conversation about respect, cultural differences and ethnic backgrounds begins with the content we choose to expose our children to and consume.
No stranger to curious questions, I think of Melissa Wolff, a mother from St. Louis who joined our Ambassador program to help fund the adoption of their daughter from South Korea. With 40% of adopted children being of a different race, culture, or ethnicity than one or both of their adoptive parents, the Wolffs found a way to bridge this knowledge gap through literature, exposing their children to the values and experiences of those outside of their own backyards.
This month, as we celebrate International Literacy Day, we are reminded that there is no better way to spark the imaginations of children than through the power of storytelling. More than that, initiating reading at an early age has a practical impact on the futures of our young children. We all have aspirations for our little ones to become doctors, teachers, politicians and global leaders who make a difference in our world, and it all begins with a foundation of reading. Here is something to think about: children who struggle to read in first grade are 88% more likely to struggle in fourth grade, which then affects their years of education to come. It’s no surprise that vocabulary development as young as age three can predict reading achievements in the third grade.
Along with these telling statistics, research also shows that children begin to absorb the socially prevailing stereotypes, attitudes and biases about themselves and people different from themselves from as young as the age of two. We aren’t born with these biases, but without the proactive involvement and thoughtful education from adults, children can develop these discomforts and remain grounded in this position as they mature.
When I think of International Literacy Day and its mission to “read the past, write the future,” my focus shifts to the parents around the world raising the generations to come. No matter where you are, the importance of reading to your child at an early age can’t be overstated. Reading to your child is a skill — similar to convincing them to eat their green veggies — and there are strategic steps you can take as adults to keep them fully engaged and excited about hearing and reading more stories.
- Travel the world from home – No passport is required when it comes to reading. Point to a continent on the globe and explore the traditions, religion and celebrations of that region. With themed nights or weeks, select books that tell the story of families around the world, like The Barefoot Book of Children. This will fuel their imagination and build compassion, while showing them the similarities that they share with kids who may look or live differently.
- Encourage reading with friends – A wonderful way for kids to learn how to actively express their thoughts is through storytelling with friends and neighbors. Reading in groups brings narrated themes and lessons learned in the land of make-believe to life. Children can team up and exchange ideas about tackling global issues, such as making our planet greener, saving the animals they love and accepting others of all backgrounds and abilities.
- Make reading interactive and enjoyable – Your child’s learning experience doesn’t have to stop when the story ends. Continue the conversation and connect these stories to real-life experiences. For instance, if your child is being bullied or is uncertain about how to handle conversations around race, they can mirror the actions of positive role models reflected in the lives of their favorite characters.
With all that is happening in the world, diversity has become a trending topic that has driven more educators and parents to share stories, connect families, and inspire children. We are the most powerful role models in their lives, and our commitment to promoting cultural awareness will develop future leaders who will continue this conversation and celebrate our differences.
Every year we host our Ambassadors for an annual gathering at our Barefoot Books home in Massachusetts. This year Melissa Wolff’s words stuck with me: “We shape our realities with the content we consume.” I hope her words reverberate around the world on this day.
Nancy Traversy is the co-founder and CEO of Barefoot Books.