So, being in the business of child education, you’d expect me to read to my kids. And I do. But it’s not all about the direct educational benefits I think they derive from it. I mean, I did read all of the brochures from the maternal child health nurse that told me to read Mem Fox to my babies. (I smile in sympathy every time I hear another parent asking, ‘where is the green sheep?’) I do believe that my kids are more likely to be readers and have a wider vocabulary because they see both of their parents reading every day. Bonus points all round.
However, the real reason I read to my kids, even when I want to just turn on a talking book in their room (lazy parenting tip right there – it even sends them off to sleep!), is that I remember what it was like to be read to. No one does this for you when you’re a grown up, which is kind of a shame. I have very clear memories of my grandfather reading me a new Enid Blyton book every Christmas holidays; chapter by chapter, each night. The anticipation building each time a chapter was finished, mid-adventure. Wondering how on earth the Wishing Chair wings could be grown back.
I remember my mum reading me Pollyanna and the Katy books, before I could read them. Then asking her all the questions about what she thought they looked like and what they were wearing; asking her what all the long, new words meant. Reading and sharing a story like that, it’s an instant bridge into an imaginative world that can be shared in no other way. Yes, of course it helps develop vocabulary and comprehension, but it also creates a rather lovely memory that awakens every time you see that particular book on a shelf or smell a particular scent that was wafting in that day.
Reading out loud is something that is generally only promoted as something parents do for children. Which I sometimes think is kind of a shame. I am lucky to have a very close friend who I met when I was 11. Whilst we are not really similar at all, we have a very easy friendship that I really think is underpinned by our teenage years when we read books together. Clearly, we told other people that we were crimping our hair and making mix tapes . . . these days, everyone would just assume we were in our rooms on Snapchat. She wanted to be drawing and painting, I wanted to read. She has dyslexia, but wanted to read the same books, so she said, ‘well, read them out to me – you’re reading them anyway’. We still, now, talk about our complete devastation when we sobbed our way through the end of Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier and fell in love with the handsome Earls in Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels.
I also have a very clear memory of Rachel, in Year 8, reading out snippets of Judy Blume books (an author I’d never even heard of at that point – I thought I was listening to something illicit) to us in Home Economics. There were about 5 of us all huddled around, whilst she read it out. It got a whole group of us talking and wondering like no other class or teacher had been able to. We went to the library to find more books about girls our age talking about bras and periods, which led to us talking about those things and asking each other the questions we couldn’t ask our parents.
What I’m getting at with those memories, is that the act of sharing books and stories with other people kind of frees you up to talk about ideas and issues and loves and worries in a very easy way. I’m sure there is something here about the tradition of relating to each other through oral story telling that still appeals to us, even though we’ve moved away from that. When you read a book out loud to someone, it’s shared in a way that is different to watching a film together – you’re not really part of the film, the way you are when you read a book.
I now have a kind of loose book club with friends. We have no strict rules about what we read and discuss: we try to all read the same book at some point, but we swap books, talk about stories but really use the book reading us a reason to just get together to talk. And eat. Well, perhaps it’s mainly to eat . . . but we do swap books most of the time. Books are still the thing that gets us together.
I read to my kids because I hope they remember me and their Dad reading to them and associate it with feeling safe and discovering new stories and worlds and characters and all of the discussions we’ve had about them. I hope they continue to do that for themselves and that books become their normal.
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