The Book Trust recently claimed that children are not reading enough books and instead, copying their technology-obsessed fathers and reaching for the iPad.
In our house it’s usually me who reads the bedtime stories. My husband often works late and I think he secretly finds the Mr Men a bit of a bore. And apparently this is entirely typical. According to Book Trust figures, 50% more mothers read to their children than fathers. Not only that, but fathers’ obsession with tech is rubbing off on their kids, who are more likely to pick up a smartphone or tablet than a book.
While it’s refreshing that it’s fathers, rather than mothers, who are getting the blame for once, it’s bad news all round for kids who miss out on the benefits of reading with their dads.
Of which there are many. Research from the Book Trust suggests that if fathers get involved with early reading, it can boost their child’s academic success, and in turn their emotional and social wellbeing. Reading to pre-schoolers every day, meanwhile, can give children a 12-month head start by the time they reach school.
“If fathers don’t read with their young children, it signals that only mothers find reading important, which may be a discouragement to boys,” says Adrienne Burgess, CEO of the Fatherhood Institute. She even goes so far as to say that fathers can have a greater impact than mothers on their children’s literacy outcomes. “This may be because men are valued more highly than women in society overall, so the child sees what they say or do as more influential,” she says.
David Cadji-Newby is the author and co-founder of Lost My Name, the biggest-selling picture book of 2014. His son is now 8, so Cadji-Newby doesn’t read to him so much these days, but it was an important part of his early childhood. “Fathers are seen as role models and heroes,’ he says. ‘If it’s just the mother doing the reading, it doesn’t make it a normal thing. It’s difficult not to fall into sexist generalisations, but whoever’s going out to work all day needs to come back and read with their child.”
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And the parent gains as much from it as the child. “For me, it wasn’t just about sitting and reading to my son – it was more of a transactional thing,’ he says. ‘That time before you go to bed, when they’re focused and concentrating, is so important. It’s when they ask questions and show their sense of humour. As a parent, I could really gauge his comprehension and see how he was getting on developmentally.”
Cadji-Newby isn’t convinced that technology is the problem, however. “Twenty years ago they were saying that about television,” he says. “I think the problem goes deeper than that.” Indeed, Lost My Name’s success – to date it’s sold more than half a million copies – proves that technology and stories can make happy bedfellows. “The technology behind the book makes it personalised and that bit more magical,” he says.
And perhaps making the reading experience more magical is really the goal. After all, more than academic achievement and targets, reading with dad – or mum – is about cuddling up and being cosy. “Reading to young children before bedtime is a major opportunity for parents and children to have one-on-one time, and connect in a peaceful and positive way.” Says Burgess.
Regardless of their sex, every parent should be getting in on the act, agrees Michael Rosen, former Children’s Laureate and author of 140 books. “Books aren’t male or female. They’re for everyone,” he says. “When dads read to children we join what is traditionally a mostly female matter of hands-on nurturing of children. By reading to them and with them, we show that we are part of nurturing too. This is not to take anything away from women. We are simply joining in the fun.”Alex Manson-Smith