Following my post on The Purpose of Reading, I got a comment from someone called Drum advertising a small (and no doubt worthy) booklet on "How to ENJOY READING ALOUD to young children". (His capital letters, not mine.)
When my children were younger, one of the most important factors in my own enjoyment (not that that mattered much in the scheme of things) was the choice of book. Some of the books they wanted to hear were absolutely dismal to read: heavy and badly-written prose with no natural rhythm or style. I don't want to name and shame here, but if you think Builders and Postmen you'll be on the right lines. Whereas some books were an absolute delight to read. I particularly liked Dr Seuss (especially the fish having hysterics in anapestic tetrameters), and when they were older they got some Just-So-Stories as well ("the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees").
But I still want to quibble with the way this "Bad-Dads-Don't-Read" agenda is being presented, because it is confusing about the true purpose of bedtime reading. If the purpose of (bedtime) reading is defined solely in terms of the educational benefit to children, this is not sufficient reason why it has to be the father who does the reading.
Let’s compare with cooking tea. It may well be a good thing for fathers to cook tea for their children sometimes; but this is not just because children need to eat, as there are many other ways of achieving this purpose. (Give them some money and send them round the lane for some chips. Or a kebab with salad, if you’re worried about nutrition.)
According to the research, more mothers than fathers read bedtime stories. I expect that more mothers than fathers cook tea and wash clothes too. We may agree that children need bedtime stories, but perhaps not quite as much or as urgently as they need food and clean clothes.
Many parents provide for the physical and mental and emotional needs of their children by earning money, which is used to purchase goods and services for their children, including take-away food and child-care. If the children need bedtime stories, there are plenty of pre-recorded tapes available. But I think it is sad if parents cannot at least sometimes manage to provide for the needs of their children more directly – by actually cooking the food and helping with the homework themselves. The reason for this is not instrumental (just because the children need to eat, or the children need to learn stuff) but deeply embedded in the nature of parenthood.
My sons possess some tapes of Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books. (These used to belong to my late grandmother, whose eyesight had failed. Reading to elderly relatives raises some of the same issues as reading to children.) Fry has a plummy voice, and can do a better range of accents than I can, but I still thought it was better if I read the books to my sons. (I regret that I was not able to read them to my grandmother as well.) Sometimes I even tried to make up some stories myself. (They weren’t very good, but that wasn’t the point.)
Cooking for your children, reading or making up bedtime stories, these are what some philosophers call “focal practices”: that means they have value in themselves, and are not just done as a means to some other end. But we must choose our own focal practices, rather than merely conform to external pressure. If a father chooses to spend the time with his children building castles, or singing songs about elephants, rather than reading stories about elephants and castles, isn’t that just as good?
The advocates of reading-to-children imply that there is something special about parents reading to children. And there is: but then lots of other things are special too.
And here’s a final note for fathers (and mothers). If you didn’t read to your children when they were young, make sure you read to your grandchildren. Or get them to read to you.