The other day, I walked into my 12-month old daughter’s pediatrician appointment and was thrilled to be handed a children’s book! My daughter also enthusiastically started pointing and saying “boo” “boo”! Before my pediatrician needed to do her spiel on why books are so important for babies, I told her about my daughter’s frequent visits to our “reading center.” My daughter loves going to a special place in our house to point out books that she wants read to her. Her favorite books are “peek-a-boo” and “nursery rhyme” books.
Since my son was born, we have had a “reading center” in every apartment, town home, or home we have lived in. My son was born in a one-bedroom apartment in New York—-yet, even there I was able to carve out a nook (or rather a cranny!) for reading. Currently, we live in the suburbs and are afforded more space for reading. Our reading center is in the corner of our living room and features a comfy, big Costco bear, a beanbag, pillows, blankets, and cases of age-appropriate books. I love being able to say “book” to my daughter and watch her crawl over to her space.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced the importance of reading to babies. As an educator, I have known about the importance of reading to babies for brain development, and more specifically, for oral language development and early literacy skills. However, I realize that not every parent has the knowledge, time or resources for reading. Many articles point to socio-economic class being the differentiating factor between whether or not children are read to from a young age. Unfortunately, the research shows that children from high socio-economic families know 30 million more words than children from low socio-economic families by the age of three.
While the majority of this word gap can be attributed to socio-economic class, I also believe that culture influences whether or not a child is read to at home. From my experiences, it wasn’t class but culture that dictated whether reading was prioritized in my family. Growing up, I don’t recall my parents reading children’s books to me like I do with my children. Rather, we had “math time” where my father and I would sit down to work out math problems together.
Researchers have found that many Asian American families prioritize math because there is always a right answer. First generation immigrant parents feel that their children will naturally learn English because they live in a English-speaking country and are exposed to it everyday. As a result of prioritizing math and the sciences, many Asian American children struggle with writing and oral language skills. Often times, Asian Americans pursue careers in the math and the sciences, because they don’t have the confidence that they need to excel in other subject areas. I believe this discussion on reading to infants needs to address the “knowledge gap” when it comes to making sure all cultural groups are aware of the importance of reading (and talking) to infants and children.
Furthermore, while the AAP recommends reading books to children, hybrid parents want to know what types of books they should be reading to children that allow for them to meet the cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic and cultural needs of their children. They use books to help their babies make sense of their diverse world. They know that it’s not just about the quantity of books that we read to our children but about the quality of books.
In my Child and Adolescent Development courses at San Jose State, we discuss how to meet the developmental needs of infants. Infants typically develop object permanence by six months of age. Object permanence is this idea that objects are permanent and even when a object cannot be seen, it is still there. When something is hidden, infants know it still exists and that excites them—-because just a month ago they thought that object was gone forever. Peek-a-boo books are great for infants! They also love books that engage their five senses, which is great for sensory development. Things they can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear such as Pat the Bunny.
Infants also use social referencing to make sense of the world. What this means is that they will look to you when they are trying to make sense of a new situation. If they are meeting Grandma for the first time, your reaction will help them figure out if this is someone they can trust. This also holds true for how parents react to people of different races or ethnicities.
Books can also help infants make sense of their diverse world. Books can expose infants to people of different races or ethnicities as well as cultural experiences that they may not encounter until later in life. Research shows that infants will look longer at an unfamiliar face (such as someone who is from a different race) than someone from the same race as them (Katz and Kofkin, 1997). With more diverse books (#colormyshelf), infants can start to become more familiar with the diverse world that we live in.
Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In S. S. Luthar & J. A. Burack (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (pp. 51–74). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.