Why You Should Avoid Reading Dr. Seuss to Your Infant

Why You Should Avoid Reading Dr. Seuss to Your Infant

Books are mute as far as sound is concerned. It follows that reading aloud is a combination of two distinct operations, of two ‘languages.’ It is something far more complex than speaking and reading taken separately by themselves.

~Maria Montessori

Elementary schools all across America will be celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday today. This tradition began after I was in elementary school, and even though he’s not a real doctor (haha), I’ll get on board with any day that celebrates reading. I would argue, however, Dr. Seuss should not be read to your infant.

The genius of Dr. Seuss books is not that they massage the imagination like so many other children’s stories; it’s the manipulation of language and linguistic norms that make them so fun. The infant is still acquiring language and so the absurdity that makes Dr. Seuss so fun is lost on him or her.

As parents, we try to expose our little ones to the proper use of language, correct use of grammar, and even languages outside our native tongue. All of this helps your child deepen and solidify the linguistic neural networks they will build on their entire lives.

Why You Should Avoid Reading Dr. Seuss to Your InfantThis idea was first introduced to me by Mem Fox, author of Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever.

She didn’t call out Dr. Seuss specifically, but she did mention we should look for books that make linguistic sense to our little ones. When in real life, she asked, do we utter the phrase, “See Spot run”? No one talks like that, so why are we pretending it’s normal?

She writes, “The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone not by the child alone nor by the adult who’s reading aloud. It’s the relationship winding between all three bringing them together in easy harmony.”

This got me thinking, but it wasn’t until we read Dr. Seuss aloud to our son that I realized exactly what she was talking about. He hated Fox in Socks. Maybe it’s because as parents we find it difficult to explain the mad, mad world of Dr. Seuss. You don’t explain madness, you enjoy it, right? But maybe, and I happen to think this is more likely, it’s because there was almost nothing on those pages that resonates with anything my son already knew about the world. There was no foundation. He was simply too young. 

We are constantly explaining the world to him and he is far more aware of linguistic norms than we probably realize. I started to notice how much he loves the stories in the books we tell him, but when he was a baby, alphabet books didn’t do much for him. My best guess is because only one word is on each page. Early on, he also protested when we read Little Blue Truck, a book he grew to deeply enjoy around a year. The initial distaste, though, was probably because the story doesn’t use complete sentences.

Why You Should Avoid Reading Dr. Seuss to Your InfantI’m in no way opposed to Dr. Seuss for older children. I’m looking forward to when we can enjoy Green Eggs in Ham, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but I am content to wait until he will appreciate these books for all of their linguistic absurdities. A friend who is also an early childhood educator said my instinct here was spot on. She advises parents to wait until their child is at least four to read Dr. Seuss.

Whether it’s our fault he hated Dr. Seuss when he was a baby, or the books themselves, we’ll never really know. I tend to agree with Mem Fox, though, in that the combination of the adult reading aloud, the child, and the book each contribute to the magic of his literary experience. If you decide to read Dr. Seuss to your little one, just keep in mind there are challenges. They are not an easy read. They are difficult for your little one to understand because at such a young age, they have nowhere in their mental filing cabinets to place most of what is on the pages of those books. It doesn’t resonate.

Maybe that doesn’t matter to you and the enjoyment you find in reading these books to your child and relishing in the nostalgia of your own childhood will overwhelm your family’s reading experience. I respect that. I honor that. For those of you who think I might be on to something, we have plenty of time to enjoy Dr. Seuss with our children. There is absolutely no rush. 

Why You Should Avoid Reading Dr. Seuss to Your Infant

29 thoughts on “Why You Should Avoid Reading Dr. Seuss to Your Infant”

  1. Jarrett Dawson

    I totally agree. Love me some Seuss, but I think it is very important for infants to learn proper language in such a formative time. Especially when it is likely that he will grow up in a world so ignorant of correct English.

  2. That is so true. I’ve told you this before, but very few of my students (and my friends) know how to use “whom” appropriately, so I have mad respect for your opinion on this.

  3. I disagree, because I think “correct English” is kind of a fallacy. “Correct English” is really just a set of norms about how to arrange and modify words. Its chief purpose is to separate language into “correct” or “incorrect,” which isn’t very useful.

    What I would argue is more important is whether language is conveying its intended meaning. As we know, there are sundry ways of conveying meaning, and stylistic choices – including using “incorrect English” – can shape the language to better suit our intended meaning and purpose.

    I do think an education in grammar is useful at some point, because it exposes the ways words respond to each other and how structure affects meaning, but I think exposure to varied applications of English is just as important. Even if not yet understood, these different styles of English will be available to the mind. A diversity of linguistic templates aids in both the uptake and expression of information.

    That said, I’ve never raised a child, but I do remember off-the-wall books being my favorites as a kid, basically because they were more free.

  4. Quick addendum:
    Punctuation IS something that can totally drive me nuts. Someone’s use of words can be quirky or lazy, and I’ll be fine as long as it’s coherent… but if punctuation is sloppy or missing, my day is pretty much ruined.

  5. First of all, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I absolutely agree with you on every point but the last. Part of my argument is that the mind needs to know the rules in order to break them (and break them well as you are suggesting). I really do respect language and inherent in every communicative act is faith that what is leaving your mouth will reach the ears of your audience with at least some of its intended meaning. The idea of correct and incorrect is not a fallacy. Truth and lie, right and wrong… these are part of the very fabric of language. Every time we speak, we are expressing faith in that truth. I think Seuss can be a powerful tool to teach deviation from linguistic norms, but I don’t think he will be appreciated until a young mind is a little older and his or her linguistic abilities are more developed, that’s all.

  6. Well yea, I totally agree there. The rules must be understood to be effectively bent or broken, and that will not likely be until a child reaches a certain age.
    I guess a more concise rendering of my original reaction to your post would be that exposure isn’t bad. I think familiarity (with Seuss, etc.) without full understanding is beneficial, even for the simple purpose of diversity. That way, when a child reaches an age where “proper” English is understood and it’s time to let loose a bit, the less-than-formal applications of English don’t register as nonsensical gibberish.

  7. Mine didn’t get much Dr. Seuss until after 12 months old or so and still don’t get very much, only because the only ones we have are One Fish (too long, omg, I just want to go to sleep) and Oh the Places You’ll Go. I just wanted to say I sort of love the pic of your son with the imaginary caption, “Noooo! Daaaad! I want good literature!”

    I am a big fan of all things Sandra Boynton. I also loved reading a book called Flip, Flap, Fly! (http://www.amazon.com/Flip-Flap-Fly-Babies-Everywhere/dp/076365325X). It’s tremendously delightful and the illustrations are charming. I buy it for every baby shower I’m invited to. It even helped once or twice with a post-inoculation meltdown.

  8. I will absolutely buy that book. It sounds like something I could get down with. And I am with you on the length of those books. They’ll be great when my son is older, but not yet.

  9. I had never thought of this before, but it makes sense to me that the jokes within the language would be lost on littler kids. My boys are beyond the infant stage, and they love Dr. Seuss. I will say that reading aloud as a family is a tradition that we enjoyed when I was young, and I couldn’t wait to start reading to my kids. We read in the car on long trips and it makes the trip go faster. We read while we are waiting at the bus stop in the morning. We read gathered around the fireplace in winter, or on our rocking chairs looking out at the sunset in the summer. Stories fill our lives, and we find the story around us easily. My children tell amazing tales, and I think it’s because they have been exposed to great reads.

    I’m all spun on Narnia again today. That has been such a recurring theme in my life!

  10. I read all kinds of different books to my kids, including Dr. Seuss, when they were little. One has a master’s degree in nutrition science (she’s a dietician) and the other is working on his in computer science. He’s an AF navigator, so I don’t believe it causes trouble for them in later years. My son was in advanced reading, advanced science, and advanced spelling in first grade. I didn’t pull him from school until after the 4th grade to homeschool. I homeschooled my daughter from kindergarten on. But both my son and daughter tested out on achievement tests way ahead of their peers, and both are avid readers. We used a program for both elementary school and high school that had a lot of great literary works also. So I really don’t believe reading “nonsensical” books to an infant or toddler or even older child is a bad thing. My mother read them to me when I was a child, and I read Dick and Jane and learned how to read using them and was an avid reader. I was way ahead in school and after finishing the required books, spent the rest of the reading class in the library to read at will. I skipped my last two years of high school to attend college and graduated with an MBA. 🙂 So based on my experiences, I really don’t see that reading Dr. Seuss or Dick and Jane were a detriment to my kids’ or my learning.

  11. Terry, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this post. Your children sound wildly successful and your reading to them when they were little obviously influenced them a great deal. I have every intention of reading Dr. Seuss to my little one, but I will probably wait a year or so. There is so much wiring taking place in his brain during these first six months. This won’t stop by any means, but studies show these first six months are crucial. And in our experience, he appreciates the longer narratives and complete sentences. Every child is different, but that’s our experience. At the end of the day, I think if you read to your child at all, you rock. Again, thanks for commenting!

  12. Hmmm. waving your legs in the air isn’t exactly acceptable for adults but is ok for kids. Offer a wide range of stuff and let them choose.

  13. There are some good points here, but from my own experience as a child, I have to disagree. I read half the books in the library by the time I was 12 years old, and understood about1 percent of what i read. But it was the love of language alone that drew me into all these books. Comprehension is not all. Very nice site, Jessica, and I look forward to readingmore of your posts.

  14. I don’t think we disagree on that at all; I am suggesting the young mind would appreciate Dr. Seuss more once he understands normal linguistic conventions because then he can appreciate the deviations that Dr. Seuss has mastered so well. I fully support reading books and stories at a higher comprehension level. That’s how we all learn and grow. Thanks for reading!

  15. Very interesting, and quite timely for me. I’m forwarding a link to your post here to my son and daughter who are raising our young grandchildren now with their spouses. They are conscientious parents and educators. Thanks.

  16. Thanks for your comment and the link to that article. We agree completely on the importance of rhyme, especially in its relation to reading. My post is only suggesting it might be worth delaying a few styles of children’s books, not eliminating them. My son is 7 months old and I’m excited to reintroduce those books in a few months. Thanks again.

  17. What’s important to remember is that the only way to appreciate Dr. Seuss is to already have a structure for language. Only then can you appreciate what he does with his rhymes. He takes language and plays with it- like putting his words in a jar, sealing it, and having fun jumping with it on a trampoline. Without the structure for proper language, the playfulness of Dr. Seuss is lost, as his prose becomes part of that structure.

  18. What’s important to remember is that the only way to appreciate Dr. Seuss is to already have a structure for language. Only then can you appreciate what he does with his rhymes. He takes language and plays with it – like putting his words in a jar, sealing it, and having fun jumping with it on a trampoline. Without the structure for proper language, the playfulness of Dr. Seuss is lost, as his prose becomes part of that structure.

  19. Interesting perspective, though it hasn’t been my experience that books like this have been a detriment to my child’s language development. Purely anecdotal example and every child is different, of course, but I’ve been reading my daughter Dr. Seuss books for a long time now (she’s two) and she’s incredibly verbal. We’re teaching her proper grammar (when someone asks her how she’s doing, she says “very well,” not “very good”) and I believe reading her all kinds of books with different language patterns has done nothing but help her verbal abilities. What’s more important is how language is being used in the home and how kids are being taught through example.

  20. Being a Japanese/English bilingual (I spoke Japanese first, I’m told) I can see some point to this, but at the same time I know the enormous plasticity of the human mind. It “infant” is defined as “less than 2 years old,” then this may be valid. However, I was raised, and still feel, that language is a toy/joy/delight that can be used in almost limitless ways. Today, at 67, I confess to being incurably infected with “the pun disease,” and I find that it tends to communicate to the people I’m with!

  21. I completely disagree with you about this for two reasons. One, my parents read Dr. Seuss books to me starting when I was a baby and I knew the alphabet and had a vocabulary well above average for my age by time I was 3. I was also reading by time I was 4, and I’ve had a devotion to books and reading that surpasses any other pastime, including watching TV (despite my parents never limiting how much I watched). Two, I did the same with my daughter, and not only did she LOVE Fox in Socks to the point of grabbing and pulling the book over to me after she had gotten the hang of crawling, but her reading skills (vocabulary, spelling, comprehension, etc) are far above average as well.

  22. That’s awesome, and you are definitely not the minority. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. This is just one gal’s opinion. When I read this part of Mem Fox’s book, it struck a chord with me. My son is 14 months old now, and I started reading him Dr. Seuss a couple months back. It was the really early months that he hated it, and I suspect there is truth to what she says about the importance of speaking full sentences. It would be along the same lines as avoiding baby talk. Anyway, it’s a very nuanced perspective; please don’t think it’s a die hard statement (even though the title might have you believe that).

  23. Helen of Troy

    You are right but I’d go so far to say Dr Seuss are horrible books and useless. They are more like tongue twisters with no real story line and have scary pictures. My daughters would get agitated when I read those books to them.

    I remember Dr Seuss books turned them off story time and I tried many times thinking since they were recommended by educators then I should do what they say. I figured out other books were much more enjoyable and helped them grasp the English language (along with 4 other languages). I stuck to all the other books. Mem Fox books were their favourite. They are avid readers now as teenagers, years ahead of their peers in reading and comprehension.

    I think Dr Seuss books are like those Einstein DVD’s, they do more harm than good and the research on the books in the future will prove it just like they did with the DVD’s (again my children didn’t like the Einstein videos either)

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