The Perks Of Reading To Your Children

Use this time to read to your kids—there couldn’t be a better way to escape the imposition of confinement

Shougat Dasgupta Published Mar 20, 2020 11:28:37 IST
The Perks Of Reading To Your Children Representative image (courtesy Flickr)

An indisputable perk of being a parent to very small children—and there are fewer perks than you would think—is reading to them every night. The books are invariably charming, filled with a love for the sounds of words, for rhymes and alliteration, for whimsy and silliness. Books for children delight in difference, in showing children that the strange and unfamiliar are not to be feared or simply 'tolerated' but to be embraced, sought out, understood.

It is an enduring shame that my wife and I, displaced Bengalis, do not read in a language other than English, and so have no access to the extraordinary literature of our purportedly mother tongue. Take it as given, then, that children should be read to in as many languages as their parents know. Stories, research indicates, help children express and understand their feelings and, crucially, enables them to imagine the feelings of others. The inculcation of empathy, over and above aesthetic pleasure, is said to be the purpose of reading. This seems to me too prescriptive. Reading to children is a shibboleth of the middle classes, but middle class children are not necessarily more empathetic than others; certainly, middle class grown-ups are not.

Instead, I think of reading to my children as a selfish pleasure; it benefits me far more, I'm sure, than it does them. I like reading The Book With No Pictures to my six-year-old daughter, love her face each time (often as many as three times in a single night) she hears the words "And now I am reading you this book with my monkey mouth in my monkey voice."

Six-year-olds are often novice readers themselves, and I like letting my daughter take over the reading for a page or two. But not much more. As I've made clear, reading to your children is a parental privilege, a right not to be relinquished lightly. I'm sure I enjoy Julia Donaldson as much my daughter. Tabby McTat was a particular favourite when she was younger—a story about the relationship between a busker and his scruffy singing cat, a double act on the city streets until the former breaks his leg chasing a thief and the latter finds a girlfriend and starts a family. But can friendship be cast aside, and can sons take over where their fathers left off?

I love Ada Twist, Scientist because not only is it a brilliant book, it also spares my daughter from having to turn every 'he' she encounters into a 'she'. This habit that my daughter has had from before she turned three is a reminder that we do look for ourselves, and those like us, in the books we read, which is why variety is so essential. Of course, we can find ourselves everywhere, in the travails of an elephant who can't find pyjamas big enough to wear to a pyjama party, or in the antics of Eloise, the six-year-old living, apparently without parental supervision, in the grand Plaza hotel in Manhattan. Children's books are at their most glorious when parents are dispensed with, when it is the children who must find ways to overcome and make up for their parents' many imperfections. 

"Macavity's not there," my daughter would sometimes say when she disappeared from the scene of mischief—a reference to T. S. Eliot's beloved mystery cat, a "fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity." As for my two-year-old son, he sees his board books, or any story really, as an opportunity to postpone sleep. Books are, after all, for any age group, a means to escape imposition, to slip the control of would-be autocrats.

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