I must have been around 7 when my dad bought me my very first book- Snow White. It was a gift he brought back from a business trip and I remember being completely fascinated with the book, its hard cover, glossy pages, the beautiful images and colors and the crisp, poetic text that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
You might think that 7 years is kind of late for a kid to be reading her first book and well, today, I’m surprised myself when I look at it that way. After all, I did start reading to my daughter when she was just days old. And her collection of books is probably bigger than my husband’s and mine put together.
But the fact is, when I was growing up in India in the late 70′s and 80′s, I think it wasn’t uncommon for someone not be reading outside of the school curriculum at the age of 7 or 8. I don’t remember seeing any of my friends or cousins at that age reading books. They would either be doing school work or playing outside on the street. (TV had not yet entered our lives in a big way. )
But that did not mean we had any shortage of stories as kids. I remember vividly the tales my dad would spin at the dinner table just so I would finish up my vegetables. He would somehow keep going until my plate was clean. I didn’t realize then how much effort and creativity must have gone into those tales that would run into hours sometimes. There were times when I would deliberately chew slowly so the story would stretch a little longer. I remember lying down beside my granny and listening to her narrate incidents from the great Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharatha. So, in terms of visual and verbal inputs, language development, vocabulary and knowledge building – I don’t think that kids who like me, grew up listening to, not reading stories are any worse off than their reading counterparts.
But, of course, things are different today. Fast forward a few decades and here I am, making sure I bring home at least a handful of books from the library or book store every month to read to my 3-year-old.
As any parent who’s ever read to his or her kid will attest – babies tend to pick up language really fast when they’re read to regularly. We don’t speak English at home. But the number of English words and phrases my daughter has picked up, simply by being read to is astounding. I’m sure the same is the case with most babies. Somehow, when you read to them, even if they don’t understand what’s being said, they seem to learn the language. And of course, with the number of books available around, you can never really run out of stories to read to your kids. In fact, the opposite may be true. (If even after reading a dozen stories, your kids ask for one more, raise your hand.)
So, today’s kids grow up in a reading environment. ( Or are supposed to anyway, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, authors of parenting books and baby magazines) There are kids who start reading when they’re 4, some even younger. ( There are reading programs out there for 10 month old babies – have you seen them?) So, I’m guessing, that if a baby is read to regularly from the time she is a few months old and is exposed to a variety of books on a regular basis, then, it’s really not surprising that by the time she is 7, she is certainly likely to be better read than I was at her age.
And that’s great. I mean if my daughter is able to read by the time she is 4 or 5 and is a voracious reader by the time she turns 8, sure, I would be proud. (Just as I would be if she showed interest or aptitude in music, cooking, arts, sports or some other area)
But, in the process of making readers out of our kids, I wonder if we haven’t traded off imagination for reading comprehension, silly, made-up stories for timeless classics and granny’s memory for fairytale books.
I mean, who has the time or energy to come up with stories anymore? When was the last time you actually ‘told’ a story? And anyway, why bother when you have so many books to read aloud from? In fact, finding the time even to read to your baby for the recommended 20 minutes every day could be a challenge.
Which is fine, I guess. As long as we are exposing kids to language and literature, it probably shouldn’t matter if it’s from a book or from someone’s memory.
But, when I think back to the days when my cousins and I would listen in rapt attention to my granny or an uncle or my dad narrate a story, I get the feeling we experienced something that we are depriving our kids of. As the grown-ups narrated, we kids would hang on to each word they spoke, absorb each description, conjure up images relating to the setting or period. The beauty of it all was there was no visual aid in the form of a book to limit our imagination. I’m pretty sure each of us kids imagined the scene and characters differently although we were listening to the same story from the same narrator at the same time. With today’s children’s books, the scope for visualization and imagination is probably narrower. Kids are already shown what the scene or characters look like. So, there’s little left to the reader’s imagination.
Reading to your baby is definitely one of the most valuable and enjoyable shared activities you will ever experience. There is no question about that.
But if like me, you want to give your child some of the magic of listening to narrations that you experienced as a child, maybe you could mix it up a little. Every once in a while, take a break from books and make up silly stories with your kid instead. Instead of accepting the image in a book, encourage her to come up with a description of a castle or farm and then you could sketch it together. Add a twist to a fairy tale you read every night. Instead of reading from her favorite book again, see if you can narrate it to each other, taking turns with sentences or dialogues.
Reading to your baby is great . But when you don’t just stop with reading, and take it a step further, extraordinary things begin to happen. Your child develops better memory. His confidence gets a boost. He is likely to be less shy and more comfortable expressing himself. As he grows, he develops public speaking and communication skills. Kids who can make up stories and games are less likely to become bored easily.
Story-telling is a skill not too many of us care to develop or use. Now that we’re parents, maybe, it’s time to take it up.