1. Children learn to quiet the self. In listening to a story it is necessary to quiet the self, to relinquish control. As much as we might want Hansel and Gretel to drop pebbles instead of bread crumbs, for Snow White not to eat the apple, we cannot change the course of the story. The characters of the narrative invite the reader into the story not as directors but as witnesses. Children follow the plot to its conclusion. The spiritual life is precisely about quieting the self, being humble in the face of circumstances beyond our control.
2. They empathize with characters. If our children are open enough, silent enough, the soul of the characters they learn to respect and love will touch their own. Reading allows you to come to know people you would otherwise never meet, to journey to places you might never have the opportunity of seeing. In a book, a child can come to know a person of another faith, another race, a different culture. All of a sudden, this character is not a stranger but a friend with similar hopes and dreams. Nurturing the life of the spirit involves developing an awareness of the sanctity of all life, a recognition that all human beings are created in the image of God. Learning to empathize with characters in a book is the beginning of that realization.
3. Their attentiveness blossoms. Stories require attention, and they give attention to the details of life. The furniture in the room, the vase on the table, the curtains on the window, are all important to set the stage for the story to enfold. It makes a difference if a character cries, smiles, or grimaces. The color of the sky, the kind of flowers in the yard, the height of the grass, all create a landscape of feeling. Nurturing our children's spirit asks that we help them pay attention to life's details and imagine what lies beneath the surface. That is what a life of faith is supposed to do.
5. Reading expands their memory. Our children are capable of learning lots of information. The question is not how much they know but what they will remember. Stories, they will remember. Think back to the stories and books that influenced your growing up, that you still recall with fondness.
Despite the Harry Potter phenomenon, curling up with a good book is becoming less common for children. A 1998 study of Publishers' Weekly and Book Expo found that watching television, listening to the radio, compact discs, and tapes, talking on the phone, and, for boys, playing computer games and surfing the net were activities that took priority over reading for pleasure. Many children read only when they have to.
Don't just encourage your kids to read; read to them. Set aside a time after dinner when the whole family gathers to read a story. A longer book for older children can be read a chapter a night. Let your children tell you who they are in the story, what it means to them. Encourage their reading by reading yourself. Cultivate a love of books and the art of storytelling. You won't only help their vocabulary increase, you'll help their spirits grow.