The Spirituality of Reading With Kids

Even though I’m a teacher at a K-8 school and have read many stories aloud to my students over the years, I had to become a parent to see reading to kids as a spiritual act.

I always knew kids loved having an adult read aloud to them—even my middle school students who are too cool for school relished this time—but reading to my son helped me feel and understand there’s a sacredness to it.

This sacredness begins with the simple fact that when we read to children, we are fully present with them—we inhabit the same physical space, and our attention is jointly fixed on something. Reading, in general, allows us to see the world through the eyes of other people. We inevitably see aspects of ourselves reflected in characters, real or fictional.

There’s also something more mystical going on: two people are inhabiting the same imagined place together. When we read to our children and with our children, we add a new level of magic. Reading aloud enables us to have conversations about other people, which inevitably leads to conversations about ourselves and who we are. In this way we become spiritual teachers.

As they grow up, it can be isolating for children to wrestle with questions of spirituality—or simply what it means to live—on their own. Charlotte Mason, an influential 19th-century educator, noted that “introspection is morbid or diseased when the person imagines that all which he finds within him is peculiar to him [or her] as an individual. To know what is common to all  . . . is a sound cure for unhealthy contemplation.”

We can help lead our children toward healthy contemplation by asking them questions about different characters and situations in books and then giving them the space and time to figure out how they feel.

In her article “Nurturing an Imaginative, Inquiring Spirit” (2013), author Susan Burt asks us to consider these questions when we read to and with children: “Do we hurry them along to a destination, or do we stop, explore, take side-tracks, and scratch and crawl under the bushes? How do we travel the pathways with young people? Do we allow them to take risks, to go to the edges, explore, find their own way home? Or do we haul them back to what we think is a ‘safe’ theology?”

There’s certainly something to be said for allowing our kids to explore mystery this way, especially the Great Mysteries: Who am I? Who is God? Can I talk to God?

In their article for the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Darlene Witte-Townsend and Emily DiGuilio note how there is usually a “reflective silence” after we finish reading a story to a child. They argue that the “end of a story is not the end, but a pathway for becoming.”

The more we read to our children, the more they’re able to grow spiritually. We help them find pathways to themselves and to God. This isn’t evident right away. Reading stories to kids is very much like planting seeds in their hearts and minds.

If we plant good seeds, the ones we know will cultivate positive growth, then over time our kids will learn more about who they really are. I’m talking about the soul, or True Self, here—the pure, unchanging essence of who each person is. By reading to children, we can help them identify this True Self and begin to live by its light.

If you’re looking for the best stories to read to your children, start with the stories that shaped you the most at their age. It’s worth doing a little research, too. Ask teachers and librarians about which books tend to get kids thinking the most. Quality matters—not all books are created equal.

If you’re looking for books that are explicitly religious or spiritual, there are lots of resources out there. For example, a recent issue of Booklist (a publication of the American Library Association) is centered around books about religion and spirituality, organized by age. Also, if you belong to a church, try reaching out to the leader of children’s or youth ministry. Can they recommend any age-appropriate stories or Bibles for beginners?

When your child is older (read: a teenager) and no longer interested in storytime with you, audiobooks and podcasts are a great way to enjoy a story together. Podcasts are free, and many audiobooks are available for free through your local public library. Listen together in the car on the way to school or during a road trip. You’ll still have the togetherness of a read-aloud, and afterward, you can have both a “reflective silence” and time for discussion.

From smartphones to overbooked schedules, there are a million ways parents can become distracted from making one-on-one time with their kids. But if you find the time to read together, the spirit in you will touch the spirit in them.

You’ll get to know each other and yourselves better.