The joys of reading books to your children

Samantha Ellis delves into the new book 'The Enchanted Hour' by Meghan Cox Gurdon


Author Meghan Cox Gurdon is a “zealot” for reading aloud. Her parents stopped reading to her once she could read on her own, but she started reading to her first child the minute she got home from hospital, and is still reading, for an hour each night, to her youngest.
As The Wall Street Journal’s children’s book critic, she devours children’s fiction even outside the “enchanted hour” at bedtime.
She has read through exhaustion, head colds “and once, stupidly, right after oral surgery (and popped a stitch halfway through How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin)”.
This book is mostly about why she puts herself through it all.
As such, it’s catnip to a certain kind of parent who, like Cox Gurdon, finds reading to their children a life raft after stormy days.
In our age of screens, it might also be counter-cultural. While screens scatter, even shatter, our focus, books engage our “deep, sustained attention”.
Dipping into the neuroscience, Cox Gurdon finds that MRI scans have shown that children who are read to, become more mentally agile and receptive to narrative, and that when premature babies hear their parents read stories, their heartbeats stabilise and their breathing becomes regular.
The second-century Roman doctor Antyllus actually prescribed recitation. “Ideally,” he said, “one should declaim epic verse from memory.”
This is daunting, even for the committed parent, but Cox Gurdon reassures us that Goodnight Moon is just as good at helping babies develop the “linguistic scaffolding” for speech and exposing them to more vocabulary than they would otherwise encounter.
Cox Gurdon also gives other reasons to read aloud, on how a child might want to hear the same book again and again because it is an “old friend” or because it is “helping him perform quiet interior work to do with fear or sadness that he can’t articulate”.
Or how, to quote Chris Riddell: “A good book is an empathy machine.”
She is also good on the value of escapism. She meets a profoundly autistic teenager whose parents didn’t read to him because they assumed he could not understand or just wasn’t listening.
When a new therapy enabled him to communicate, he asked them to read to him, saying, heartbreakingly: “It takes me to another place in which I’m completely normal.”
When Cox Gurdon asks him if parents should read to children who don’t seem to be paying attention, he replies: “A million times yes. We are always listening.”
Cox Gurdon also explores the bond that reading creates: the cuddle as you read, the shared purpose, the conversations that books open up.
She quotes Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, the NYU professor, on a 2015 study into how parents of different backgrounds shared the same picture book (Mercer Mayer’s Frog, Where Are You?) with their children.
Prof Tamis-LeMonda found that, fascinatingly, Chinese parents tended to point out moral lessons, Latino parents more often discussed feelings, while African-Americans turned the conversation to goals and hard work.
Another NYU study Cox Gurdon cites found that fathers tended to talk more about numbers — asking children to count blocks or teddy bears — than mothers.
Some parents censor as they read — from Bowdlerising Shakespeare to a mother who substitutes “Be quiet” for a book’s “Shut up“.
One could add that many feminist mothers subvert the sexism of picture books by making male characters female.
Yet if this book has a flaw, it is that there are too many examples, too many quotes, too many anecdotes. By the time Cox Gurdon digressed into reading to adults in hospital and nursing homes, I was impatient to get the final chapter, about how to read to your child.
Just start, she says, and keep going. She encourages the reader to have fun, pointing out that in the earliest surviving volume of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, he wrote in the margin that the wolf’s threats to Little Red Riding Hood “should be said in a loud voice to make the child afraid that the wolf will eat him”.
But while I’ve tried one of Cox Gurdon’s tips for engaging reluctant readers – reading to my son while he’s in the bath – I would have loved more on the how and less of the why...

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