Why you should read to your children.

Don’t worry; I’m not going back to that whole post a day thing. Like I said the other day, I had a bunch of posts lying around, so I decided to pop a couple of them on here to test them out. This will most likely be the last of them. I’m about to slap them all together into a dummy blog and sally forth to talk the powers that be into letting me start a blog for the bookshop I run. Wish me luck…

If they go for it, I might pop the odd link onto 23thorns, if I think the post is worthy. If not, the idea has been fun while it lasted, but you will never get to know the reasons why you should read romance novels about bare-chested cowboys, or books about birds, or quantum physics, or Englebert Humperdinck. And no, I can’t tell you now; I haven’t made them up yet…

As if you need a reason to learn more about "The Hump"!

As if you need a reason to learn more about “The Hump”!

Anyhow, here’s my post on why you should read to your children.

Because it will make them smarter.


Although it might have a strange effect on their hair.

Although it may have a strange effect on their hair.

That was easy, wasn’t it? We can all go home now. It was also, however, wrong. I don’t read many business books, but one of the few that I have read is an unusual little creature called “Freakonomics”. You should come and pick up a copy. From ♦♦♦♦ Books. In ♦♦♦♦. It might just change the way you think about the world.

One of the fascinating little snippets in “Freakonomics” deals with the effect of books on children. A bunch of scientists examined the early test scores of a bunch of small children to see whether books had any effect on them. The results were a little surprising.

First, they isolated the results of the kids who were read to every night by their parents. Their scores were the same as those of the rest of the kids. Which is disappointing.


You get what you get, apparently...

You get what you get, apparently…

Then they isolated the results of the kids whose families had lots of books in their houses. Their test scores were higher than those of the rest of the kids. This is wonderful news. All you need to do to make your children smarter is to go out and buy a huge pile of books. And I know just where you can do that. ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. Just saying.

Or not. “Freakonomics” had a pretty sensible sounding explanation for why this was happening. Genetics. Smart people tend to have smart children. And smart people tend to have houses full of books. Not always, on either count, but often enough to bump up those test scores. Sadly enough, all those books weren’t magically increasing the intelligence of the children in their proximity.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids' rooms.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids’ rooms.


This isn’t going well, is it? I’m trying to tell you why you should read to your children, and so far I’ve laid out some fairly good reasons why you shouldn’t bother. But.

A few years ago, a YouTube clip appeared on the interweb. A ten-year-old boy had gone to a funfair, where he had had his face painted like a zombie. He was being interviewed by a reporter using that breathlessly excited, palpably patronising tone reporters use when they are forced to interview little children.


I don't think he was buying it...

I don’t think he was buying it…

“You’re looking good!” she cooed. “You just got an awesome facepaint job! What do you think?”

“I”, replied the redoubtable young man, staring off into the middle distance, “like turtles.”

Do you want to be responsible for making that guy? Or that girl? Do you really want to be to blame when one day, years from now, some poor sausage feels their heart sink as, shortly after sitting down for a formal dinner, they find their companion for the next four hours, the fruit of your loins, the apple of your eye, turning toward them and announcing “I changed my favourite colour today! It’s green now”?

Do you want to find yourself living out your own final years in Shady Acres, and have your only visitor in months lean slowly toward the bed to which you are confined and say, with all the energy and excitement of a resting caterpillar, “I dug a hole, Dad”?


Although, to be fair, that's a pretty damn good hole.

Although, to be fair, that’s a pretty damn good hole.

I am not a scientist. I’m a bookseller. I have not read the research those scientists produced, and I don’t have the faintest idea of how you would go about testing the intelligence of small children. The little buggers can’t even drive, let alone read or write. I am, however, pretty sure those tests don’t cover things like the size of their worlds and breadth of their imaginations or whether they were interesting people or not.

And that’s the thing. You are not, as a parent, slowly and carefully building a super genius, just like you are not building a super-fast runner or a really good hitter of golf balls. Or at least I hope you aren’t. You’re making a person. A whole one. And then you are unleashing that person on the world. That sort of thing comes with a few responsibilities. Duties.

You need to make a person that the rest of us will like being around. A person who is witty and interesting and engaging, who makes four-hour formal dinners more bearable, not endless. A person who can talk about anything, with anyone, anywhere. A person whose world is wide enough and deep enough for the rest of us to dive into without cracking our heads on a shallow sheet of rock just below the surface.


The truth is that there is very little you can do to change someone’s intelligence. It’s in there already, like eye colour or whether their earlobes hang loose or are connected to their heads. There is, however, a great deal you can do to influence the way they use that intelligence. Things like vocabulary and general knowledge and mental agility and imagination might not matter much when it comes to early test scores, but they start to matter a great deal later on.

So how do you give your children a wide vocabulary and a broad general knowledge? And a vivid imagination and insight into the behaviour of others and an understanding of how the natural world works and an informed idea of politics and a well-developed sense of humour? Well, it’s easy. And very, very hard. You turn them into readers. And how do you turn them into readers? It’s not an exact science, but reading to them in bed every night when they’re small is a pretty good place to start. And even if it doesn’t take, you will have at least started them out in life with the knowledge that there is more to their world than the dreck that they watch on the Disney Channel.

So that’s why you should read to your children. The big reason. One day, I might get stuck next to them at a formal dinner, and you don’t want to make me sad.

"You won't like me when I'm sad." (The quotation marks are there because I'm quoting from the script of a new movie I'm writing; "The Incredible Sulk" Sorry.

“You won’t like me when I’m sad.”
(The quotation marks are there because I’m quoting from the script of a new movie I’m writing; “The Incredible Sulk”)


But there’s another reason. A smaller reason. A quieter one. But maybe, in its own subtle way, a more important one.

If you already have slightly older children, you will already know this, but if you’re just starting out, I have some disconcerting news for you. You just gave birth to a monster. A werewolf.

A rather special kind of werewolf. One whose changes are triggered not by the phases of the moon, but by the onset of evening. As your kids get a little bit older, you are going to start noticing something. Every day, starting at round about four o’clock, your precious little angel is going to turn into the devil incarnate.


I don't read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

I don’t read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

And stay that way until bedtime. Happy or sad, they will bounce off walls and run screaming down passages. Burglar bars will become ladders. Furniture will become mountains to be scaled. The floor will turn to lava, and blankets and cushions will be ripped from the bottom of piles in your linen cupboard and strewn across the carpet to make it safe to walk on.

Supper will become a test of wills, an intricate game of chess with the pieces replaced by bowls of pudding and threats of no TV. As an opening move, your special little star will fall to their knees twenty minutes before supper, weeping because they are so starving. And then they will refuse to eat.

The announcement of bathtime will become a declaration of war, a pitched battle fought over bubblebath and wildly varying but very specific temperature requirements, followed shortly afterward by another pitched battle to get them out again. Be very, very careful to choose the right towel. And jammies.


I said purple! These are mauve!

I said purple! These are mauve!

Your children will become both hyper-clumsy and hyper-sensitive to pain. They will walk into tables and trip over carpets before falling to the ground clutching themselves and screaming like world cup soccer players trying to get a penalty. And God help you if you try to get them into the bath with anything even resembling an injury. Bathwater is like kryptonite for toddlers.

And then you have to try and get the little buggers into bed…

Yup. The last few hours you spend with your child are, for a while at least, going to be harrowing. There will be hysteria. Sulking. Shouting. Shrieking. Tears will be shed, doors will be slammed, threats made, bags packed. And that’s just going to be you. Your children will be worse. You may not believe me, but this is gospel. Check with any parents out there. They may have different names for it; the witching hour, the daily hell, crazy hour, Armageddon, Ragnarock. But they will all recognise it.

Fear not! Like all things parenting, this too will pass. However…

Remember how, when you started out on the relationship that led your having kids in the first place, everyone told you never to go to bed angry? It gets said so much that it sounds trite, but it’s good advice. And here’s the thing; it doesn’t just apply to you and your partner.

There’s a way to make things right. A way to calm the troubled soul of your little werewolves before you release them into sleep. A way for you to smile and talk and laugh a little, to draw a line under the ordeal you have just been through. A way to lie shoulder to shoulder under the warmth of the blankets and remember that you do actually like each other, and that the thing with werewolves is that the teeth only come out when the moon is full.


The hair, however, is pretty much always like that...

The hair, however, is pretty much always like that…

Books. Read to your child. Every night. They will love it, and believe it or not, so will you, if you choose the right books. It will become a ceremony; the choosing of the story for the evening, getting the pillows arranged just so, using the right voices for the right characters…

Slowly, as you travel the well-worn paths of an old favourite or step cautiously into a new, unexplored world, the light of madness will be exorcised from your child’s eyes, and they will soften and unwind at your side. A drowsy little head will ease down onto your shoulder, a small warm hand will come to rest on your arm, and as sleep slowly brings its sweet release, you will find that the devil has been driven out, and your sweet little angel is back, and the whole ordeal will be that much easier to deal with the next day.

And that’s not all. They will remember this. Forever. The time you spend doing this will become a part of their being, like the times you sing to them, or swing them around by their arms on the lawn, or run outside with them in the dark, or in the rain, a touchstone used to measure other joys. The stories you read them will become part of the magic of childhood they carry around as adults. No-one has ever said that about television.


The magic of childhood.

The cheap sleight-of-hand trick of childhood.

So that’s about it then. Read to your children. Do it to make them better at being smart. Do it to make them interesting, and witty, and engaging. Do it to calm them, and to make them happy, and to fill their hearts with magical memories. Do it because books should be part of the fabric of childhood.

But most of all do it for me. I might just end up sitting next to them at a formal dinner one day…”


17 thoughts on “Why you should read to your children.

  1. You took the words out of my mouth! When I was beginning to test the waters of freelance writing, one night–despite being sleepy–I wrote an article entitled “How to Raise a Reader.” Someone must share the knowledge of the importance of this endeavor, because a client bought the piece within a short time for a generous fee. Your post makes many vital points in an engaging manner.

    We may live in different cities, but I’d like to know the name and location of your bookstore. Much success in this worthwhile enterprise!

  2. sula1968 says:

    Pretty pretty please don’t leave us, I so love your blog. I’m not sure about those studies in ‘Freakanomics’ (haven’t read it), I believe that even at age 6 my son shows evidence that he is a child who is read to. Recently at a market a stranger spoke to him for 5 mins and then said to us (his parents) “You read to him don’t you?” Oh well regardless, it is a wonderful bonding time and it certainly influences vocabulary.

  3. marjma2014 says:

    I love talking to my oldest daughter about books, she is an avid bookworm. It’s great to have that connection with your child especially as they go through the teenage years.

  4. And may I add, read WITH them as they grow older. After they can read, still read books above their reading level to them. And read YA books with them; read series with them and discuss them. It works. And you get to impart some of your wisdom, (we’re all wise!), on them and you get to hear how their minds are working..at least , SOME of the time.

  5. I heard of a study done in a disadvantaged area where they gave some kids books. one thought it was a hat, the other put a pile together and thought it was a seat. It’s just so important so they don’t grow up wearing books on their head, but especially important as education is a free gift we can give our kids and the time doing so sitting side by side with them priceless. great post. Peace and Ommm from the Temple. 🙂

  6. mariekeates says:

    Ah, the bedtime book ritual. It was something passed down in our house and I hope it carries on with my granddaughter’s children one day. Winnie The Pooh was my favourite and my boys loved it too.

  7. Arkenaten says:

    Books are where it’s at. I had to have some excuse to read all those great childrens’ stories without my wife thinking i had gone for a loop….so we made a couple of kids and a year or two later I bought loads and loads of books.
    Reading to my kids was some of the best fun I had after making them.

  8. Kami says:

    Instead of working at a bookstore could you do a daily worldwide “news” show where you entertain us with your brilliant observations about life, wildlife, children and sports? Please? Pretty please? I get all giddy when my email shows you’ve posted to your blog. I know I’ll laugh, cry, chortle and walk away envious to the bone of your skill with words. Here’s hoping the bookstore powers that be recognize your genius and give you free reign.

  9. Lyn says:

    Although my parents read — my father the newspaper and a colourful Russian news magazine (English version) and my mother the usual women’s magazine of the time, they never read to me. My father however bought me a new book every two weeks like Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels – that sort of thing and I would wait impatiently for him to come home from town and then spend the next few hours lying on the grass in the sun as I went off on my own adventure. When the question was asked, “What would you like for your birthday/Christmas.” the response was always the same, “A book please.”

    When my children came along, I always read to them. Two of them (the girls) still have a huge love for books. My son only reads technical naval books now – too busy to read for enjoyment. My nine grandchildren are all bookaholics – well, the ones who can read anyway. The younger ones are always read to by their parents.

    Books are one of the greatest joys in life. My favourite books are still the ones written for 10-12 year olds and teens – especially mystery or fantasy.

    After reading your blog for a while, and especially love the ones where you write about your children and that comment from the little boy, when asked a question by the reporter, sounded just like something your son would say. Oh, one of my favourites of all your posts about your children would have to be, Grappling Hook Baby – absolutely priceless 😀

  10. I was a teacher for thirty years and it became increasingly obvious to me that those children who grew up with books in the house and being read to were far more likely to form an easy attachment to reading and learning in general than those who didn’t. Some children, like myself and narf77 grew up sans parental reading and books but have a natural connection to the written word and therefore read to themselves from a very young age. I read prolifically all my life – I don’t remember not being able to read – I read everything I could lay my hands on. It was my safe place and it led me to see there were other ways of living and being.

    I find that these studies that are done often miss the crux of ‘becoming a fully rounded human-being’ and I am happy to see you addressed this. Reading to and with your children is a great and wonderful gift – a gift that is being eroded by parking them in front of the television and/or giving them video games to amuse themselves with. These activities coupled with the loss of playing outside have changed childhood – not for the better.

    Playing outside and being read to should be mandatory childhood experiences.

    Good luck with the bosses – I hope they see the blog idea is at least worthy of a shot. Perhaps if they say no you might consider running short parental info classes on ‘why books’ in store – now there would be a rollicking half hour!!

  11. Reading this, I was instantly taken back to my own childhood, with my Mum sitting beside the bed, reading to us in a sweet and lovely . . . hang on, that was just a dream wasn’t it? Lol

    Seriously, my mum did me the best favour in the world by teaching me to read as a tot, and encouraging that love of reading throughout my childhood (with 7 kids, I guess she was just happy that one of us was quiet! Lol)

    Having that love, I made sure my own child was brought up the same, and Mr Night Owl and myself would take it in turns to read her favourite story of the moment with her, although she always preferred her Dad, as ‘he did the best voices’ 🙂

    You are right, though, in that reading, and having that love of books, will totally broaden the outlook of every child, and will also give them a place they can escape to when life gets tough – I’m just grateful my Mum took the time out of a very busy life, to instil that love in me 🙂

  12. barbielea says:

    Yes, completely with you on the Journey to Bedtime. Not convinced about the whole “intelligence predetermined by genetics” bit though. I don’t intend to hijack your main message and take you off-topic here, but the qualitative experience of bedtime reading you describe is neither equal to “read books = smart” or “good genes = smart”. And I think that kind of experience is where the answer is, if there is one. It takes guts and optimism to foster your curiosity about the world, the ability to concentrate to be able to reason things through, some belief in yourself to actually go forth and make the world listen to your opinion. These are traits that can be nurtured in early childhood – by your parents. Maybe parents who read are better set up to do this than parents who don’t. Read books = better parents = intelligent children …

  13. narf77 says:

    Run free Mr 23Thorns, just a word of advice, don’t run with scissors…

    I haven’t seen “The Hump” in years…time hasn’t been kind to The Hump now has it. I am not entirely sure that my little sister would be as inclined to squeal should he walk into her lounge room today as she once may have been.

    It was all going along SWIMMINGLY till you hit me in the solar plexus with that frigging werewolf! My parents didn’t read to me as a child. I read to myself. I snuck into my dad’s enormous book pile and pilfered “grown up” books and some of those grown up books contained werewolves. Cheers Mr 23Thorns. Most people love revisiting their childhood book reading memories. Me…not so much…

    I decided to read to my kids as I love books and wanted to pass that love on. I didn’t care if my kids grew up to be doctors and lawyers (which is lucky really, because they didn’t) but I DID care that they developed a good imagination and sense of humour to accompany it. Life might suck at times but if you have a good imagination and a good sense of humour you tend to find a way to make it through to the good bits.

    So I read to my kids…they read to themselves…they still read…are they smarter than the average bear? Not entirely sure but if you love Korean pop bands then you would LOVE to sit near my daughters at a dinner party and if you are into robotics and gemmology then you could do worse than sitting next to my son.

    When my children decide to stop being lazy pillocks and get together to formulate a plant to take over the world I will ask them to make it quick and painless for you Mr 23Thorns, the least I can do…

  14. Dalo 2013 says:

    Geez, you truly are a good writer…always enjoy what I am reading and even more so when I agree with what you have written. Made me think back on how much I use to treasure books as a kid (and surprised at how my parents would buy me almost any book I really wanted). Of course, these days I just treasure DVDs of the latest show. Come to think of it, I use to be interesting, witty and engaging versus my current state. Hmmm, maybe I’ll pick up a book tonight and read to myself.

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