Why bed-time stories are so important

It’s 7.15pm on a weeknight.  Mr Ueckerman is out at a dinner.  The boys and I have eaten and I’m cleaning up.  I ask Mr 6 to help Mr almost-4 to put on his pyjamas and read him a book, though not entirely sure how that will pan out.  He happily agrees; he loves being a helpful big brother… mostly.

Ten minutes later, I peek in to their bedroom.  There they are, on one of the beds, Mr 6 reading a book to his little brother.

It’s one of those moments that make you stop, absorb the scene and file it away for later.  It doesn’t matter that 45 minutes ago they were both complaining because I didn’t cook spaghetti for dinner.  This is one of those moments that I’ll cherish forever.  My two boys, together, reading, sharing a book.  The family ritual of us parents sharing a book with them before bedtime has become so ingrained that they can do it without us.  Of course, it will be many years before I will stop reading to them, but it feels like my mission has succeeded.

As a book lover, there was never a doubt that I would read to my children daily.  It was something I really looked forward to.  But it wasn’t until my eldest son was four months old that it occurred to me that I should just start already.

We were in a hotel room in Melbourne, visiting from our (then) home in Amsterdam. He was lying on the bed and we’d just returned from a gathering with my family during which my sister had given him a selection of Beatrix Potter books. It just seemed right that I should read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to him right then and there.  The broad smile throughout the entire reading told me that I had done the right thing, and I’ve read to him every day ever since.

I would read before every nap, before bed-time and on-demand.  Early on, his dad also realised that this was a special bonding activity and so would also read to him before bed-time.

When his little brother was born, we continued.  I would feed the baby, with the toddler beside me and a book in my hands.  Reading continued as a part of our bed-time routine.  “Just one more book”, was (and still is) a phrase commonly heard in our household.

Later on, I came across Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic, which talks about the importance of reading to children daily from birth and how this process has a substantial impact on their learning to read.

My eldest son was actually resistant with learning to read.  Maybe he was afraid we would stop reading to him.  Maybe he didn’t like the hard work.  While Mem Fox isn’t a fan of phonics, he began to learn phonics at school and this gave him a simple framework to begin reading and gave him the confidence he needed to get going.  He quickly surpassed the phonics stage and improved rapidly.

Now my youngest son is showing us the fruits of all this reading – he decided to read a Spot book to me a few days ago.  One we hadn’t read in months.  While he was very interested in phonics last year, he has shown no interest in reading this year.  But it seems, all this time, he was learning to read anyway.  He’ll be four soon.

But more than just my children learning to read, there are other advantages to our reading together.  Mr 6 adores this time as “us” time – when his brother is just settling into bed, we are finally getting to spend some valuable time together and this is when he opens up about his problems, speaks candidly about his day and asks questions that are on his mind.

It also helps with the bed-time routine.  The bath/pyjamas/teeth part of the routine happens quickly when they know that the quicker they do it, the more time they have for books.  And, while there are usually requests for one more book or one more page, it helps to define when it’s time for lights out.  They know that after the last book, it’s time for sleep, and then they go off to dream land full of stories from books and feeling connected after spending close bonding time with me and their dad.  The impact of this on their behaviour and their general happiness cannot be understated.  Connection is one of the key drivers in children’s behaviour; connected kids are much more likely to want to do good, to want to please.

And don’t forget the myriad facts, phrases and snippets of knowledge they are learning from these books.  The periods in history that are covered; the range of emotions the characters feel; the endless possibilities of the imagination.  These are all valuable lessons! Tonight we were learning about gorillas and black panthers and sign language and Arthurian Legend.  From a children’s adventure story.

And when I say “we”, I mean it.  There’s still plenty left for me to learn.