Friday, 16 May 2014

Oh, the places you'll go! A plea for the bedtime story.

I was woken up on Tuesday morning as always by Chris Evans' breakfast show on Radio 2. After dancing out of bed to the soft rock sounds of John Parr's Man In Motion (the theme from St Elmo's Fire - classic! I had the 7"single) something he discussed stopped me in my tracks. He said that a poll had revealed that young parents are no longer reading books at bedtime to their children, that the bedtime story is dying out. And my heart sank.

Actually, the poll he was discussing looked specifically at Dads. He was referring to a survey by Booktrust which has found that only 19% of 18-24 year old fathers read stories to their children. But it's not just the Dads at fault here, because there was a similar survey in 2012 that found that less than a third of parents read regularly to their children.

I found this deeply saddening, but not entirely surprising. I mean, at how many points in the day are modern parents genuinely 100% engaged with our children. Without some chore, or a text message, or email or twitter feed distracting us momentarily? Or without a camera phone capturing an Instagrammed to perfection image of the moment? We have got so used to doing a dozen things at once that those precious one on one, you and me moments that are totally free from distractions are becoming rarer and rarer.

And that is one reason why a bedtime story is such a special ritual. One that we must keep up. 

Let's forget about all the anthropological reasons for why storytelling is an essential part of human nature and society, how we've been doing it since we were cavemen. Let's think about what we and our children are missing out on.

I have always believed that a child who has been brought up surrounded by books, who has heard stories since babyhood will always be a happy reader. I have had many conversations with other mothers who were worried about their son or daughter's reading development and I have always told them to relax. Forget about the tedious, plot-free and repetitive school phonics programme books and what level they should be at. Just keep reading to them. If they love to hear stories and love to share books one day they will pick one up for themselves. I'm not going to pretend that I've conducted any research on this, let's call it a strong hunch but I'd wager that very few of the 5.2 million 'functionally illiterate' adults in the UK were read to regularly as children. And I dread to think what the nation's literacy rates will be like if two thirds of a generation are growing up without books in their everyday lives.

Booktrust state that reading every day to preschool children can put them 12 months ahead when they start school. A whole year ahead! Just from a few minutes a day sat with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo! A love of reading translates into a love of learning. It's so simple. And the academic benefits aren't even the best bit for me.

Taking time to sit with your little munchkins and share a book sends a powerful message to them. It tells them that you love their company, it makes them feel safe and cocooned and you get to go on amazing adventures together. When they giggle uncontrollably at your silly voices, when they join in and recite their favourite bits with you, well, it makes you feel incredible. Reading kids books aloud makes you seem funnier, cleverer and cooler to your kids than you can ever be in normal life. You're SuperMum, you're IronDad.

You just don't get that kind of adoration from your kids very often. And, while of course, some nights it's easier to just pop the telly on, or hand them an iPad, if they don't get to experience books and stories then we are limiting them hugely. Imaginations need to be flexed -films and computer games do all the work for you. You need to use your imagination to picture a story.

And, goodness, the stories they miss out on.

There are many occasions when our children have something that's bothering them, or when we parents feel there is an issue we need to discuss. But sometimes it's hard to find the right words  - age appropriate and understandable. When this happens there is always a book that could say what you want to say far more eloquently, far more engagingly than you can. When a child loses a family member, for example, it can be very hard to explain to them how and why their little world has changed. It's hard for them to understand why all the 'big, strong adults' who are supposed to protect them are constantly crying. When my Mum ( Nonna to my kids) passed away suddenly it was by sharing books like Michael Rosen's Sad Book that opened up lines of communication. How could I ever put into words what we were going through better than the brilliant Oliver Jeffers does in his beautiful book about loss The Heart In The Bottle?

If you want to teach children about the value of friendship, pick up a copy of Charlotte's Web. Dr. Seuss will teach them about their responsibility to take care of the planet (via The Lorax) and his Oh, The Places You'll Go! will help them believe that they can do anything they put their hearts and minds to:

"You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own and you know what you know. And you are the one who'll decide where to go."

And these ideas and images will stay with them throughout adulthood in a way that no other media can, I think. I still get misty eyed when I open up the pages of certain books from my childhood. I can still recite most of the verses from AA Milne's When Were Were Very Young, Shirley Hughes Dogger and Alfie books still bring a sentimental tear to my eye. And I only have to touch a copy of Where The Wild Things Are and I am back on my Mum's knee, snuggled in wonder at the magic of Max's adventures, which in themselves are a metaphor, surely, for the wonder of the imagination. These are wonderful memories and a much-loved book can send you back to a place and time like little else. I doubt very much that a TV programme or computer game could ever be so evocative.

I know we are all busy, and stressed and run ragged. It's been a long day and the last thing you want to do is drag out bedtime any longer than you need to. But before we know it our children won't be children any more. They won't sit and listen forever. So, the dinner can wait. That longed-for glass of wine can wait. The emails and the housework - they can wait. Just take a deep breath and pick up a storybook. Cuddle up to your kids and get lost in a magical world. Make a forest grow in their bedroom. Or a circus, or a fairyland. I promise, whatever the thing was that was your reason for not doing it will seem a whole lot less important after.  Come on. Let's keep the bedtime story alive. 


  1. I totally agree. I have read to my daughter since she was a baby (she's 6 now) and am not looking forward to the day she says she is too grown up for a story!

  2. Beautifully written as ever Amy, I couldn't agree more!

  3. Thank you Fiona. These moments are so precious!

  4. You make total sense, Amy, a book & bedtime story is a child's key to a world of magic. They will become readers themselves & one day, hopefully, find the joy I have everytime I enter a book shop. A good book is still my favourite hobby.

    1. Mum was a voracious reader too, Karen. It must be in those Hodgson genes! xx