The digital device battle has never been so high – Georgina Fuller delves into the importance of reading to your children
Children are, as the author Emilie Buchwald famously said, made readers on the laps of their parents. But with one in three families now consisting of two parents working full-time, the onset of the digital age and the pressures of homework and after-school clubs, reading to our children seems to have slipped down our never-ending list of priorities.
One in five parents do not spend any time reading with children and a third do not think their children read enough books, according to a recent report. The study of 450 parents, by Book People and YouGov, found that around half of those with children aged between five and 11 spend less than one hour a week reading to their kids.
The study also revealed that almost six in 10 (57 per cent) of us use a tablet, mobile, TV or film to distract our child but only one in 10 of us use a book.
Claudia Winkleman, presenter and ambassador of Book People’s Bedtime Story Competition, said she does everything she can to try and encourage her three children to read. “I always try and get my kids off a screen and I love them reading books,” she says. “I said to them quite recently, ‘guys, you know what, even if you’re just pretending, if I could walk into the kitchen and maybe you’re all just lounging around and you’re all just sitting there reading a book, I would give you whatever you wanted.’”
Dr Genevieve Von Lob, clinical psychologist, parenting expert and author of Five Deep Breaths: The Power of Mindful Parenting, says that gadgets and electronic devices have eclipsed books in many homes. “Electronic devices, smart phones, TV and tablets are now competing for everyone’s attention and are distracting us from sitting down together with our children and reading to them,” she notes.
It also comes down to how much importance the parent places on reading and books. “Many may not value reading as much as other activities and are not convinced of the benefits so it is not a priority,” says Dr Von Lob. “Some parents may have stopped reading aloud to their children because they consider their children old enough to read for themselves, or some simply don’t have the confidence in their own reading skills.”
Carolyn Clarke, head of educational development at The Children’s Literacy Charity, says, however, that reading with and to your children can make a huge difference to both the parent and their child. “Sometimes as parents it can feel like you have to work flat out just to fit everything in,” she notes. “But research shows that reading with young children is the single most important thing you can do to help your child’s education.”
Creating a regular ‘special time’ to read with your child can, says Clarke, help introduce them to a magical world, teach them about empathy and help you bond with your child as they know they will have your undivided attention.
Dr Von Lob believes that reading to your children each night can also help foster a good sleep routine as it shows them how to slow down and relax at the end of the day. “The sensations of being held by their parents and hearing their voice helps that child’s brain development and feelings of trust and safety,” she says. “In years to come, your children will tend to remember how they felt when they were with you, and not what you gave them materially.”
So how can we, as busy parents, make reading more of a priority, especially if we have more than one child?
Firstly, make sure you switch off the TV and put down your digital devices, says Dr Vob Lob. “Take the opportunity to prioritise reading over your household chores or putting up your feet in front of the TV for just a few minutes and you will not regret it,” she notes.
Try to also keep it light and fun, says Clarke. “Children love it when their parents play with them and praise them. If you have fun and enjoy reading stories, then chances are your child will too. Younger children can have a short attention span so little-but-often might be the best way to keep them motivated and enthusiastic,” she notes.
If books aren’t grabbing their attention, then Clarke suggests going online and reading or printing off a web page that interests them or looking at other ways to engage them. “Every day there are lots of opportunities for you to encourage your child to get reading,” she notes. “You could carry a book or magazine in your bag to share when you’re out and about or encourage them to read traffic signs, adverts, cereal packets, simple news headlines and film reviews.”
Part of the problem, says Julie Fulton, author of a number of children’s books including Tabitha Posy Was Ever So Nosy, is that reading often becomes a chore rather than a pleasure when children start school.
“I know it can be a battle for some parents to get their children to read and that it’s becoming increasingly difficult with all the pressures of homework and longer working hours,” she notes. “But just a few pages a night can make all the difference.”
Dr Von Lob says we should try to see reading as something for both the parent and the child to enjoy. “Children grow up so fast and this time is precious,” she notes. “Reading with your children may bring unexpected benefits as it helps you to slow down, relax and connect with them and your imagination.”
Best books for children:
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis