Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon says there’s no greater pleasure than 20 minutes a day spent reading to your child – so fetch a book and snuggle down
All children need and love stories. Yet a recent poll of 2,000 mothers with children aged 0-7 (What? No fathers?!) found that only 64% of respondents said they read their children bedtime stories. Reasons for not reading to their kids included being too stressed or too tired, while nearly half said they couldn’t lure their kids away from computer games and TV.
Well, try harder. Reading to your kids is the absolute best time parents and children have together. I say this not only as a writer but as the parent of a now grown-up son. You snuggle up; it’s calm and cosy. There is nothing that reduces stress more than 20 minutes of reading together. My husband and I enjoyed it so much we did double shifts: he read to our son in the mornings, and I read in the evenings.
We continued bedtime stories until he was 11, when he literally pushed us out of his room. I’d still be reading to him today – he’s 24 – if he’d let me. And it’s not because I’m Supermum. It’s because reading to him and with him were some of the best times we had together.
Here are my 10 top tips for making reading to your children a joy.
1. Start early
I began looking at board books with Josh when my son was four months old. We both loved Helen Oxenbury’s enchanting stories Friends, Dressing and Playing. I would offer him the choice of two, and he would drop the one he didn’t want. Peepo, The Baby’s Catalogue and Dear Zoo were also big favourites. Babies have opinions, and don’t get enough opportunities to make choices. And they adore looking at books.
2. You are not too busy to read to your child
That’s like saying you don’t have time to feed them. Work late? Too tired? Too much on at night? There’s no law that says you can only read to kids at bedtime. Get up a bit earlier and read together in the morning. My husband often worked late and that’s what he did.
3. Get your child a library card
They can take home 10 lovely books a week. Then go back for 10 more. It’s a great outing, and again, it’s their choice. My son brought home some bizarre books – he was obsessed with a dreary book called Tiddles – but so what? We soon moved on to Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, as well as Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Cat in the Hat, John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing and the Ahlbergs’ Burglar Bill.
4. Think of all those great books you missed as a child
Now’s your chance. I read my son The Hobbit and all of Swallows and Amazons. And The Wind in the Willows.
5. Children are not frightened of words they don’t know
Swallows and Amazons is filled with arcane language – I had no idea what many of the sailing terms meant. After reading half a page of gibberish, I told my son I hadn’t understood many of the words. “Neither did I, but I liked hearing them,” he said.
6. Let them choose
When they’re older, get five books you’d also enjoy reading. Read the first few paragraphs of each aloud and then let your child decide. This isn’t homework: this is fun.
7. Don’t punish your child for learning to read by not reading to them any more
Kids can enjoy books that are much too hard for them to read on their own. My son really loved Harry Potter, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Norse Myths and Little House on the Prairie well before he could have tackled them alone.
8. Alternate chapters
My son and his father read all of CS Lewis’s Narnia books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials together. To speed things up, they alternated reading chapters out loud to each other, as the stories were so exciting it was hard to read only one chapter a day. This also encouraged my son to become a better reader, but in a relaxed way.
9. Get off their case
Reading by himself, my son much preferred non-fiction like the Horrible Histories to all the books I really wanted him to read. So I read him all of Roald Dahl and The Magic Faraway Tree and lots of myths and fairytales. I was happy. He was happy.
10. Try not to sob
To this day, I can’t read Tom’s Midnight Garden without crying at the end. My son, understandably, did not enjoy being read to by a weeping parent. We summoned his dad to take over. Within a few pages, he too was sobbing. I’m not sure our son ever heard the end.