Bookish parenting: Expectations versus reality

This post originally ran on Book Riot.


Reading to your children is wonderful, and it is something parents are told they should be doing from the day they were born. Reading to your children even when they are babies can lead to better vocabularies and literacy skills. I recently read Reading Magic by Mem Fox, a great book that goes into more detail about the benefits of reading aloud and how we can make the most of these read-aloud experiences. Being the compulsive rule-follower that I am, I’ve tried to do everything I’m ‘supposed’ to do as a parent, and especially when it comes to reading. But there are still five ways I feel like I haven’t quite succeeded.

  1. I didn’t read to my baby when I was pregnant with her. Apparently babies can hear in utero (at least after a certain week of pregnancy/development), and you are encouraged to read to your pregnant belly. I didn’t do this. I was busy trying to read all the books I wanted to read before the baby arrived, and figured she’d get plenty of books read to her once she entered the world.
  2. You’re meant to read to your baby from the beginning! Like, from day one! The earlier you start, the more they will benefit. My baby came three weeks early and I didn’t even have a hospital bag packed. She was born at 3:20AM, and what I mostly remember of that first day was wanting to sleep (I was in labour and delivering a baby waaay past my bedtime) and trying to figure out how to breastfeed. We didn’t even have any books with us (that whole no hospital bag thing…). I have no idea how anyone actually reads to their baby on day one. Aren’t you both just busy sleeping? Or is it someone else doing the reading? Or is day one not literally the 24-hour period following the baby’s expulsion from the womb?
  3. Related to the second point: I didn’t start reading to my baby on day two, or day three, or even day four, for that matter. I attempted some reading when she was around three weeks old but regular reading didn’t really happen until she was closer to six weeks old. Six wasted weeks! In those first few weeks, I was more concerned with figuring out how to keep us both alive. In the haze of feeding and vomiting (her, not me), dirty nappies, and not enough sleep, books didn’t rate very highly. I look back on those first weeks and wonder how I could have incorporated reading into that period — and realise that I don’t actually have very many clear memories of that time. I’m just happy to get through it, books or no books.
  4. Bedtime is meant to be a wonderful time for stories and reading, bonding time for parent and child. 95% of the time, we are not reading books as part of bedtime. Our bedtime routine now, at fifteen months old, is something that isn’t recommended anyway, because for the most part we are still rocking her to sleep or using the bedtime bottle to get her to sleep. We tried putting her down a few nights ago while still awake so she could learn to get herself to sleep and she ended up wailing and then angry-vomiting all over the side of her bed. Point being, books and stories are not part of this routine. We’ve tried on numerous occasions to incorporate it but it seems to keep her stimulated and more awake. We may revisit this approach later.
  5. Reading aloud is supposed to be a way for children to learn to develop their attention spans, to sit still long enough and pay attention to a story and engage their imaginations. This might be a benefit for older children, but it doesn’t seem to work with toddlers. Reading with my fifteen-month-old happens more like this:

Me: Brown bear brown bear what do you see? I see a red bird looking at me. Red bird red bird…

Tilly: *Hands me another book, makes the noise indicating she wants me to read.*

Me: Beep beep! Sheep in a jeep on a hill that’s steep. Uh oh! The jeep won’t go. Sheep leap to push the jeep…

Tilly: *Hands me another book, makes the noise indicating she wants me to read.*

Me: I’ll tell you a story of this, and I’ll tell you a story of that. I’ll tell you a story of cavernous caves and a chimp with a magic hat…

Tilly: *Hands me back the first book*

Me: (without skipping a beat) …what do you see? I see a yellow duck looking at me. Yellow duck, yellow duck, what do you see?

Attention span? What attention span? Again, perhaps this is something that will improve as she gets older. But for now, reading is not really a quiet, contemplative activity where we sit still and listen to entire stories. Reading happens in pretty much every room in the house, where she’ll toddle up to me with a book asking me to read it, and then wander off almost as soon as I start reading. We read a lot of beginnings. (If you look closely at the Instagram picture above, you can see that I’m reading two books at once.)

So despite the best of intentions, it turns out the magic of reading aloud isn’t what I imagined, at least not for now. I’m going to keep doing it the way we have been doing it so far (read widely, read often, and sometimes read the same damn book over and over), and hope that one day we will have that enchanting bedtime reading experience, and we can read endings as well as beginnings.


I wrote that post about three months ago, and now, at 17-months-old, I can report that reading aloud has changed again, slightly. Instead of reading only one or two pages of each book before Tilly hands me another book, she will, 75% of the time, sit for the whole book as long as it’s a book that she likes and isn’t too long. The other great development in her reading life is she will read to herself. Tilly will happily sit in front of her bookshelves and pull them all off, and then page through them reading to herself. It is a delight to watch. Today, for the first time, she put all her books back on the shelf before walking out of her room.

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