Parent Talk May 2013

If you knew anything about me at all before today it’s probably one of two things: that I wrote Possum Magic; and I race around the world begging people to read aloud to children for at least ten minutes a day, every day, between birth and five years of age. The question is: why would we want to do that? For fun! Fun for us, and fun for them! Read The Magic Hat.

Four more reasons:

  1. we want to positively affect children’s hearts
  2. we want to positively affect children’s brains
  3. we want to positively affect children’s words
  4. we want to positively affect children’s futures

Their hearts: our first aim is merely to love spending time with our children, making them happy, and engaging in a ‘getting to know and love you’ interaction. It’s our chief aim every time we read a book to a child no matter if that child is a baby or a ten-year old. Tell the bonding and bikies story. [‘It’s the best way of bonding, isn’t it?’] Read Time for Bed.

When parents read to their children everyone’s in a good mood, in a good space, laughing over the things they’re seeing and hearing, chatting about what’s in the pictures and the story, repeating the same rhythmic, rhyming words again and again, with everyone falling in love with one or two particular books that the baby wants over and over and over and over again—books that make her eyes light up, and make her happy, books that he reaches out for, books that gladden his heart. By the time these read-to children start school they’re well on the way to good psychological health, fabulous language development, pleasing success in the classroom, and being good citizens when they grow up.

So our main reason for reading to our babies and young children, apart from the hilarious joy of it, is to show that we love them by taking time out of our busy lives to focus on them and them alone for a tiny ten minutes a day, to surround them with loads of love and absolute security, with giggling and happiness and laughter, in a serene space which says to the child: ‘Sweetheart, at this moment, in this day, in this place, you are dearly loved and you are completely safe.’ Read Megan’s letter:

I have just finished reading your ‘Reading Magic’. It gives me a great sense of peace to know that I gave my child the most enriched and valuable life as I possibly could. From when my son was 4 months I read to him for at least half an hour each day, several times a day. By the time he was 9 months he would retreat with his books and ‘read’, during times of stress or when he needed a break we would find him sitting in the middle of a pile of books absorbed in their stories. By the age of 10 months he knew all his animal sounds and had favourite books. He had many experiences which we would discuss before he went to bed. Just a few months ago, shortly after his second birthday he tragically died of Meningitis. I read to him while he was (unbeknownst to me or the medical team) slowly dying, sang to him when it was time for the machines to be turned off and now hold precious those books he loved. Above all I know that even though it was a short life it was filled with love, because of the time we spent together over books I showed him the world and the love that surrounded him. His little sister now loves to read with me also, at ten months of age she selects her favourite books and skids along on top of them over to me to be cuddled up with and read to. My son particularly enjoyed your Time For Bed. I just wanted to email you to say thankyou for writing your book Reading Magic as it has allowed me to see that as a mother I showed love to my son and was the best I could be and gave him the best and most enjoyable life even though it was short. Yours sincerely Megan von Brix.

Some of the children we know and live with, through no fault of their own, live in houses with people who don’t love them, with people who might hurt them. There is no routine safety or certainty in their turbulent existence, and they wonder why the sunshine of happiness is so often blocked from their view. But when we take the time to read to them, in that quiet, magic, story-sharing moment, all’s right with the world, and safety and love are restored, at least for a while. Read: Ten Little Fingers.

So! Reading aloud to children is first of all about making them happy. They’ll be falling in love with us at the same time as they’re falling in love with books, at the same time as we’re falling totally in love with them.

Now what about their brains? During a read-aloud session brains expand rapidly. Explain why: only 25% brain exists at birth, stimulation makes the brain grow, first year of life is of utmost importance, etc., etc.

Now if I knew that I could make my child clever at the same time as I was making him happy I wouldn’t hesitate to read aloud, would you? I mean who wants a dumb kid who’s always whining and whingeing and obnoxious? I’m stunned that some people don’t make time to read to their children even when they know and understand that sharing a story book with their little treasures will help them to be both happy and pleasant, and clever and pleased with themselves.

Read Green Sheep. Focus on FIRST YEAR OF LIFE. Talk about the worry of people being scared to wreck the book: that’s what it’s for. It’s useless wrapped in tissue paper at the bottom of a drawer or on a high shelf or at the back of a wardrobe! [Mention board books: their size and their hardiness.]

So now we have dealt with the hearts and the brains. How about their words?

Their words: It is more important for children to learn to talk well than it is for them to recognise letters before they start school. Children who talk well and clearly, with an interesting and wide vocabulary, learn to read very easily. This is because they’ve been read to so often they’ve probably heard a thousand stories at least, in their first five years. As a result of all this hearing of words they will have learnt many words themselves and will use them in cute ways: [football boy story: Mum you’re in the minority]. They will also have learnt from all the books I have read so far which words rhyme with what. Children who can’t hear rhyme by the time they are four find learning to read very difficult. Dyslexic children are known to have very little sense of rhythm and no ability to recognise rhyme. Yet we know that children who can recite six rhymes by heart by the time they are four are always in the top reading group by the time they are eight. Read Goodnight Sleep Tight.

How do little children learn words from having been read to? It’s not only from the actual words in the book—such a ‘mischievous’ in the Magic Hat and ‘eiderdown’ in Ten Little Fingers—but also from the extended sentences and energetic interaction and chat that we have with them over the things in the pictures and the things on the page. Even people who can’t read or can’t read very well can still pore over the pictures and talk in adult language about what’s on the page, sharing opinions and comments back and forth with the child who’s next to them on the floor or on the couch or the bed.

Speech pathologists despair when children come to them unable to speak at the age of four because in the houses they live in the tv has been on all day all of their of their lives, and no real conversation has ever happened between the parents of these children and their offspring, only instructions. Reading to a child provides endless opportunities for adult talk and meaningful conversation. Read Whoever You Are and demonstrate the chat.

Let’s re-cap for a moment: Why are we reading to children? For fun! And for their hearts, their brains, their words! And also their futures!

Let’s turn now to their futures: children who are not read to tend to find many aspects of life a little more difficult than children who are read to: school is difficult; jobs are more difficult to find and difficult to keep; choices of jobs are limited; good health, amazingly, is difficult to maintain in people who can’t read about health and heed the warnings and advice; self-esteem is sometimes difficult to find and hard to hang on to; a sense of peace as loved a human being is often disturbed and disrupted; and altogether they have a little less serenity in their lives because reading is such a huge part of our lives and if they can’t do it they’re sort of stuffed, though no fault of their own.

For me as an ex-teacher of teachers the thing I want most of all is for children to be happy at school; and successful children are happier than unsuccessful children and reading them helps to make them successful. Why wouldn’t we do it? Who wouldn’t want to feel the love in this story, for example, and change a child’s future for the better at the same time? Read Koala Lou.

If you own any of my books already, and if they are personally signed, I do hope you are not treating them carefully by putting them away on a shelf too high for a child to reach, or wrapping them up and hiding them away at the back of a cupboard. Books are there to be read and wrecked, and loved and pored over. They’re useless unless they’re in kids’ hands and hearts.

In your homes and or the fun-filled play groups you may belong to, or the pre-schools your children attend, and of course in their schools, here’s hoping that books and stories and talking and laughter will always play a part. In this way the hearts, the brains, the words and the futures of little children everywhere will live happily ever after.