Reading to children

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

Ever since my two-year-old daughter tried to up-swipe her Burglar Bill book like an iPhone, I've tried to limit the time she spends on screens. Don't get me wrong, I'm no tech puritan; in certain circumstances (long journeys, cooking dinner, god-awful-o'clock wake ups... etc), the smartphone can be a real sanity-saver. But it's also opened my world to a brand new parenting anxiety: that – whisper it – she will sooner or later find my phone more interesting than she finds me. Or worse, she'll start to think I'm more interested in my phone than I am in her, which is surely a one-way ticket to an adolescence of expensive therapy.

So phones go away now, whenever she's in the room. And when it comes to bedtime, we snuggle up on my bed – her, her precious pink Bunny and me – and read books made of paper and ink about anthropomorphic pigs who jump in muddy puddles or build wolf-proof houses, humanoid ballet-dancing mice, bears who lose their hats. It's my favourite time of any day. At least, it was until Covid-19 rode into town.

For context, her mother and I are separated, and we share the care of our daughter equally between our homes. Only, when London went into lockdown two weeks ago, we were forced into a difficult decision: do we a) keep her in one of our pokey London flats for the foreseeable, with no serious garden space at either? Or do we b) agree that her mother takes her to stay with her grandparents in the Yorkshire countryside where she can run around in the woods, talk to cows and jump in puddles like her favourite pig? We're lucky to have the option, but it seemed a no-brainer. So off they went, and my life's been a cuddle-vacuum ever since.

Obviously I'm sad about it. But I know we're nowhere near unique. There are 2.4 million separated families across Britain (of which there are 3.4 million children), according to the government. And many of those parents, like us, are having to work out new ways to stay connected and maintain old routines in these odd new times.

And if there is one routine that I'll do anything to keep, it is story time. Not least for the sake of my dad, who read to us with drowsy defiance every night as kids and who I thank for my love of books today. Reading is the single most important thing we as parents can do for our children. Not only is the physical act of reading out loud a lovely way to bond and build trust, but doing so regularly has also been proven to strengthen language, vocabulary and concentration for life.

Last year, for instance, researchers at Ohio State University found that children whose parents read one picture book with them every day are exposed to an estimated 78,000 words a year. Cumulatively, they say, a well-read-to child hears up to 1.4 million more words by the time they reach primary school than one who is not read to at all.

So determined are we to keep our reading routine afloat during this period of separation that the phone, it no longer hurts me to say, has made a triumphant comeback. Now, every night at bedtime, I get a video call from her mum. I sit on my bed, where I always read to her when she's here, and I read two books over the phone. It's not quite the same, but it's keeping us going.

Achieving the right angles so she can see the whole page at once, as well as my face, is tricky. So I learned from the pros and developed ways of talking to camera while keeping the book in shot by watching make-up influencer videos on YouTube. There are no cuddles, obviously. But I try to make up for that by doing all the faces and the voices with the grinning gusto of an over-excited children's television presenter after one-too-many Jelly Babies.

Maybe I push it too far, more for my sake than hers (her reading tastes are limited to about three books a financial quarter, on heavy rotation). My Meg, of Helen Nicholl and Jan Pienkowski's ageless Meg and Mog collection, has gone full Wicked Witch of the West which, it turns out, scares the bejesus out of two-year-olds. My Burglar Bill is starting to sound worryingly like Jason Statham in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. And my Gruffalo... well, as Oscar Wilde once noted, 'I love acting; it is so much more real than life.' Well, I consider it a crying shame he never got to see my interpretation of Julia Donaldson's most famous creation, my version of whom breathes fire and eats children over the phone.

But the girl seems to like most of my characters. And when she doesn't, she just says, 'Scary, daddy, I not like it,' raises a little E.T. finger to the screen and switches me off. It's a power shift, but it's good - just the kind of constructive criticism I need to keep me sharp.

Anyway, my phone has new meaning now. And the screen is no longer the imagination leech my mum always told me would make my eyes go square, or blind. It has not only saved the bedtime story during this period of separation, but it allows us to keep up with her education while her nursery's closed.

Reading to children has magical powers. It teaches them to laugh and to cry, to wonder and to care. It stimulates their imagination and expands their understanding of the world (the Janet and Allan Ahlberg classic Burglar Bill, for example, isn't just about pinching things; it's a valuable lesson in morality and civic duty).

In short, the more we read to our kids, the more interesting and intelligent thoughts they're able to have. But let me to defer on this point to literature's greatest child-whisperer Dr. Seuss: 'The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.'

Well, none of us have anywhere to go right now. So tonight, we're going on a bear hunt.

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