Reading to My Daughter Is Just About the Manliest Thing I Can Do

bedtime readingI’ve told this story before, but, when my wife told me that we were going to have our first child, the following day, I drove to the bookstore and I bought my yet-to-be-born daughter a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer.


It was the very first thing I ever bought her. We hadn’t bought any clothes or toys or diapers yet. We hadn’t even gone to the doctor’s to confirm that the pregnancy test was right. But the moment that I found out that I was going to be a father, that I was going to be responsible for bringing a child into the world, an impulse in my brain clambered above the fog created by all of my worries, fears and anxieties, waved its arms and proudly announced, “HEY, the kid needs a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth!”

And I listened. The best part was I already owned a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I wanted her to have her own copy. It felt important to me and, to be honest, it still does.

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From that first moment, I KNEW, I knew in my bones, that reading was going to be an absolutely essential part of being a father and I wasn’t wrong. During my wife’s pregnancy, as I sat there thinking about what could I EVER impart to a young child that would ever be worth a damn, my mind kept coming back to the same answer – BOOKS. I could give her books.

Tom BurnsThat didn’t mean I had to BUY her a lot of books (even though I did). It just meant I had to introduce her to books. I had to lead her to books. And that responsibility unlocked something primal in my brain that I didn’t know was there before. For the first time in a long while, I was driven. I had purpose. I was a DAD and I had a job to do.

Other dads might hunt or fish or work at a bank for their families, but me? I knew what I had to do. I had to make sure that my kid knew that, yes, there IS a monster at the end of this book, but, you know what? It’s not what you think. (It’s better.)

I had to introduce my daughter to Alexander and teach her about the statistical certainties of eventually having a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day. I had to make sure that she knew not to trust wolves, or grandmothers who look suspiciously like wolves, or pigeons who swear up and down that they know how to drive a bus. (They lie.) I had to reach back into the lore of our ancestors to regale my daughter with stories of knights and gods and legends, so that she could know the foundation of our shared cultural mythology and, more importantly, so that she could laugh her head off when she saw those myths exploded in books like The Stinky Cheese Man or The Paper Bag Princess.

I had to be… a giver. No, THE Giver. I had to be Lois Lowry’s The Giver because, c’mon, LOOK at that man on the cover and tell me that he isn’t one of the manliest men you’ve ever seen.

Every time I read with my daughter, I feel like I’m giving her something. Every bedtime story is a rite of passage. I am the chief and she is the initiate. Every word I read to her becomes a part of her, like we’re sitting around a fire, handing down tribal knowledge, making her more of an adult each and every time we finish a story, no matter how much it breaks my heart to watch the baby she once was slowly leave her face.

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It is an understatement to say that I don’t understand dads who don’t read to their kids. They baffle me. Every testosterone-marinated bone in my body screams out “DADS READ!” and I simply can’t comprehend how any father can hope to introduce their child to the weird, wonderful world we live in without having a book – lots of books – by their side.

Oh, and, in case you were wondering, my daughter didn’t really care for The Phantom Tollbooth. (Which devastated me.) Maybe reading it with her when she was five was too young. Maybe I should’ve waited until she was older. Ah well, it’s not my job to make her love the books I love. I’m a dad. I just point her in the right directions and watch her go.

What's the "manliest" thing a dad can do?


About the Author: Tom Burns is a husband, a dad, and a veteran of the educational publishing industry, living just outside of Detroit Rock City. After years of obsessing about what his daughter was reading, he founded, a website devoted to helping parents find the right books for their kids. He’s served as a contributing editor for and The Good Men Project, and his writing has been featured on Brightly, Time Magazine, Reading Rainbow, The Huffington Post, xoJane, and various other sites. He’s also made appearances on The Meredith Vieira Show and HuffPost Live. He shared this piece with us as part of our tribute to dads for Father's Day.


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