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Posted by Nosy Crow, May 16, 2014

Bedtime isn’t bedtime without a story

Today’s guest post is by Jon Duckworth, and is a response to Wednesday’s blog about bedtime reading.

Tom’s recent blog post reported on the new study from Booktrust that revealed the reluctance of young fathers to read to their children.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising that only 19% of 16-24 year-old fathers say they enjoy bedtime stories with their children. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently showed England to be among the stragglers in the great race for adult literacy. And adults who don’t (or can’t) read themselves aren’t very likely to put another rendition of “The Gruffalo” at the top of their priorities – especially when, as we all know, it can be stressful enough doing all the other things that need doing between the end of the school day and the switching on of the night-light.

Yet, however tempted I am to let off those fathers who lack confidence in reading, I can’t help but dwell on what they – and their offspring – are missing out on. Even so, it saddens me further to consider that there is another kind of reluctant bedtime story-teller out there. The man who thinks getting the children to bed is, somehow, “woman’s work”. It’s a myth that needs dispelling.

Studies have repeatedly shown that boys who are read to by their fathers often achieve higher levels of literacy. But, of course, if we did things simply because studies tell them they’re good for us, we’d have all stopped drinking, taken up badminton and switched to gluten-free wholemeal bread and Omega 3-enriched macrobiotic yoghurt by now.

So what are the other benefits of sharing a book at bedtime? I thought a list might appeal to any of the reluctant readers among you…

1. It’s a chance to flex your acting muscles
Reading aloud to (let’s face it) a pretty indulgent audience who are predisposed to hanging on your every word is fun. It gives you the opportunity to unleash your otherwise hidden thespian tendancies, employing your best funny voices to bring picture book characters to life. For instance, I have a particular voice for “The Tiger Who Came To Tea” (British Colonel in the last days of the Raj, if you want to know) and tend to impersonate Arthur Lowe for all the Mr Men books. Perhaps I get carried away sometimes. I’ve been told to tone down my witch and troll characters. They’re too too scary.

2. It’s education by stealth
The best books prompt questions and conversation. The pictures and words should fire the child’s imagination. Fifteen minutes before lights out might not be the ideal time for “Maisy Goes To The Museum” to trigger a lengthy discussion about space travel, Ancient Egypt and why a snail is incorrectly classified as an insect exhibit, but how lovely to think that all that wonderful information has been absorbed by their young minds just before they start dreaming.

3. It’s an opportunity to showcase your amazing personality
Harry de Quetteville makes this point far better than I could in his recent piece for The Telegraph (although we may take exception to his branding of reluctant readers as “idiots”). But to save you the time, I’ll summarise it thusly: bedtime story-time is a dad’s time to tell terrible dad jokes, be silly, make mischief and impart both your wisdom and your lack of it.

4. It could well be valuable research
I’ll ‘fess up. I’m an aspiring children’s writer. And that aspiration has come, in no small part, from the joy I experience sharing books with my daughters. Not only have I been able to rediscover favourites from my youth (Dr Seuss, John Burningham, Judith Kerr), I also get to enjoy the books that will go on to be their own fondly remembered favourites (Emma Chichester-Clark, Julia Donaldson, Tracey Corderoy, Caryl Hart). When my youngest daughter showed that she was less inclined to settle down for a bedtime story than her older sister by taking the book out of my hand and throwing it on the floor (not exactly “Farenheit 451”, I’ll grant you, but fairly shocking, even from a 1-and-a half year-old) I was worried that we had reared a non-book-lover (and, in which case, were we even related?). It turns out she just likes different kinds of books. Books with flaps to lift, pull-out bits, pop-up stuff. Books she can physically engage with. A particular hit is Bizzy Bear: Zoo Ranger. All that’s a long way of saying that reading to my children has opened my eyes both to the vast array of children’s books available and the very different children they appeal to. As a fledgling author of picture books, story-time is a valuable way of observing first-hand what works and what doesn’t.

5. It can be an oasis of calm
We’re all so busy. All the time. And that’s one of the main excuses given for not reading to our children. Yet, when some sado-masochist at the office decides to extend the working day by calling an “important” two-hour meeting at 4.30pm, I begin to worry that I won’t get home in time to see the kids to bed. And it’s something I hate to miss. The simple reason is that bedtime story-time is our time (if I might get all “The Goonies” about it). Cosy, snuggled up, pyjama-clad (the grown-ups too, all being well), it provides a rare moment of calm tranquility in a life that is frequently harried. It’s quiet, reassuring, intimate. It helps the children sleep (once the requests for “one more story…” have abated). It makes them feel loved and safe. Our most savage and primitive tribal ancestors knew the value of bedtime stories told around campfires. Why don’t we?

As a father I like nothing better than sharing a book with my children. Should they still require an impromptu reading of Goldilocks and Just the One Bear when they’re 28 I’d be happy to oblige.

Since becoming a father I seem to spend an increasingly large percentage of my non-work life either riding on miniature railways or reading “I Love You, Blue Kangaroo”.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you, Jon, for sharing your experience of bedtime reading! If you’d like to contribute to our blog with your thoughts on the subject, please get in touch! We’d love to hear from you – email [email protected].

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