In the weekday evenings of my high school years, I would read bedtime stories aloud to my younger brother, Joshua. Sometimes, we would read the classics like, Goodnight Moon and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? or maybe even Dr. Seuss books. (My mother read these titles to me as a child, hence certifying them as “classic.”)
Occasionally, we would read comic books or stories inspired by his favorite cartoon characters of the day: Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen from Cars, WALL-E from the self-titled Pixar movie, or the Incredibles.
These moments defined our nights together.
I would read aloud, he would follow each word and phrase with our fingers, and I would compel him to read aloud too. I did not realize that this tradition would have extraordinary, lifelong implications on his literacy skills and emotional development as a two to five-year-old boy. I only knew that it allowed some time for me to build an everlasting bond with my younger brother.
I also knew the activity provided ample opportunity for Josh to avoid going to sleep, too.
Studies published as recently as 2017 show that early reading gives a “lasting literacy boost.” Through the practice of reading or being read to, children develop early learning skills such as enhancing their vocabulary, reading, concentration, imagination, and creativity.
I remember Josh being thrilled by reading particular stories and memorizing not only a story’s events but also word-for-word descriptions of how they unfolded. Josh would prod and ask questions about what happened before and after, articulating prequels and sequels of his imagination.
This sort of development is not only growth, but it is freedom. And this freedom is often constricted for boys of color through a series of messages and institutions.
Their freedom of expression is regulated to the safety and comfort of others, as they are seen as inherently aggressive, in need of discipline, and older than they actually are. Also, too, through explicit and implicit messages, masculinity becomes associated with the body, not the mind.
A boy’s value and identity rest on his ability to physically perform while sometimes, being mentally and emotionally empty. As a young man of color, I know these impressions never disappear. These observations are not to delegitimize the physical development of boys of color; I simply could not help but be happy when I saw how Josh engaged with these stories.
He was cultivating his sense of freedom and curiosity through stories and characters he loved. Reading was not always a success. He would often want to play with his toys before going to sleep instead. Yet the rewards have paid off: he now reads three grades beyond his expected reading level as a third grader.
Language development is absolutely crucial to child’s future success in our society. Yet an overlooked or unknown effect of one-on-one reading is how it shapes and nurtures emotional intelligence.
Author of the children’s book series, Llama, Llama, Red Pajama, Anna Dewdney once said,
By reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human … I will go further and say that that child then learns to feel the world more deeply, becoming more aware of himself and others in a way that he simply cannot experience except in our laps, or in our classrooms, or in our reading circles.
Studies at the University of Cambridge and published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology support Dewdney’s claims, suggesting childhood reading can help practice and develop empathy as well as reduce biased attitudes towards stigmatized or otherwise marginalized groups of people.
This is because reading fiction transports children into another life, where they learn how people feel and think.
Sometimes, the role of the eldest sibling in the family can be reduced to be the experiment or the role model, depending on when in time your parents are measuring your success.
There is not much publicly accessible literature on the role and impact of brother sibling relationships, and how older brothers can foster the growth of their younger siblings.
Based on depictions in media and other institutions of mainstream culture, there is always a competitive flair between brothers. Brothers struggle for power to legitimize their role in the family or at the least amongst siblings. If brothers show love, it seems only acceptable if they are aggressive demonstrations. These arrangements did not exist between my brother and I because I was much older than he.
Moreover, I was beginning to unpack how masculinity negatively affected me because I was learning more about myself. Therefore, I knew I must show my brother differently. But reading to my brother allowed me to have a positive influence on his emotional and social development in ways that I never thought I could directly impact.
And while he has so much growth to accomplish, I would like to think he has some basis to acquire and cultivate his emotional intelligence.
Reading to my brother forged a powerful bond between us and has made me become a better brother, son, partner, friend, and ultimately a better man.
While I have talked some about the benefits for him, I recognize the ways I have become more patient, thoughtful, and loving. Yet my challenge now is how to continue to foster my little brother’s emotional and social growth as he becomes more socialized into a world that, because he is a black boy, will not take the time to care for him.
For his birthday, I sent him a novel written by Jason Reynolds about Miles Morales, the teenaged Black and Puerto Rican Ultimate Spider-Man. In the novel, Miles deals with the school-to-prison pipeline, formerly-incarcerated family members, and the pressures of being young, Black, and gifted. On top of all this, Miles is a superhero.
Josh can certainly relate to Miles, and I am glad that I have found a story where he can see himself. I am glad to have found a story that will allow him to see himself save the world, a message that can challenge and transcend negative societal messages about his identity. Representation is certainly key, but I look forward to finding new ways to continue what we started at bedtime.
A rising junior studying Policy and Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program. As an aspiring public servant, Lane’s focal academic and professional interests have been education, housing, and incarceration. In his first-year at Syracuse University, he co-founded a social justice council for high school youth and managing a youth entrepreneurial farm stand in the Southwest community of Syracuse.