WHEN I was young, I had friends who had to read under the duvet covers at night to hide books from their parents even though the content was far from inappropriate. This was mainstream literature borrowed from the school library. To this day I ponder over what prompted the parents to discourage their children from reading books. During the summer holidays when most school-going children are not on a clockwork schedule and can read for leisure, it might be a good time to inculcate the habit.
Social conditioning is the main culprit in too many households that want the best education available for their children and will delight in raving to friends and family about their child’s fantastic academic performance at school but will have a simultaneous need to stunt curiosity and mental growth.
Why is it that our children come out of school with fantastic examination results and yet do not have the ability to contribute constructively to a debate of any sort? Why do so many of them remain silent in front of their ‘elders’, their teachers, parents, family and friends? Why are we so afraid to speak? Perhaps because we are afraid to let our children read all sorts of literature. We love to control what they read for fear of what they might learn and how they might then break social barriers and express themselves.
Reading comes with its own joy and is as important to mental fitness as is food and nutrition to the body. Few things in life can substitute for the satisfaction of curling up with a good book in bed. Whilst many people now read e-books, it is apparent by the day that ‘real’ books are not going anywhere.
The benefits are endless; perhaps much more than the benefits of eating broccoli or mangoes.
In fact, almost 90 per cent of e-book owners say they read more paperbacks than e-books. Studies by the University of California at Berkley show that the earlier children are exposed to books, especially the ones whose parents read to them as toddlers, the higher their scores on intelligence tests later in life. Children learn more vocabulary from books than they ever will from prime-time television. Pictures in books open up a world of knowledge, pique curiosity, send the mind reeling in different directions, start conversations that dig deep into their thought processes, identity, their place and role in life.
So why does it take us so long to start reading to our children? As a teacher, I have met hundreds of parents who often complained that their child just doesn’t like to read and cannot get through a book cover to cover. I often asked these parents, out of curiosity, when they had first exposed their child to books and it turned out that it was well after the child had started formal schooling. The child’s association with books then is an entirely different one; these are children who associate books with academic pressure and hard work, whereas those who grew up with parents who read stories to them since birth associate books with parental bonding, sharing experiences and family memories. These are children who derive pure joy from reading, and it is embedded deep within them.
Research shows that children who are used to reading as a pastime are less likely to suffer from loneliness and depression — much less than those who have not developed the reading habit. Reading helps adolescents relax, it helps develop a sense of self-worth, it inculcates empathy for others, it boosts brain power, it reduces the probability of diseases such as Alzheimer’s later in life, it teaches empathy and generosity, it provides multiple perspectives on life and so forth. The benefits are endless — perhaps much more than the benefits of eating broccoli or mangoes.
So why do parents shelve this aspect of child-rearing until much later? Some leave it to the teachers altogether although reading is such a necessary part of a parent-child bond. A study by the Scholastic Education Research Foundation found that, when it comes to being read to aloud at home, over 80pc of children between the ages of four and 10 said they loved it and it is their favourite part of the day because it is a special time with the parents.
Many children get the impetus to read from an adult who shows interest in hearing about the stories. It is not just reading that children love but recapping the story. A love of reading cannot be inculcated as an isolated activity. If parents show interest in what the child thinks about the story and listen to their perspective, children gain the analytical ability and confidence to relay their opinions.
The writer is a lecturer of Communication Skills at Amity University, Dubai.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2019