‘It’s never too early to introduce a child to books,” says Penny Hochfeld, former children’s book manager at Exclusive Books.
“The experience of being cuddled on a parent or caregiver’s lap, with attention directed to a cloth or board book with big, clear, colourful pictures, will encourage children to associate books with pleasure and comfort.”
She suggests that parents start reading to children as young as three months, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time.
“What is critical is that the child learns that when you are reading you are giving her or him your full attention. That association can’t come too early — books mean time with a parent or caregiver so books are associated early on with something positive.”
As children get older reading becomes “a safe way to learn about life”. Through books a child is able to observe other people, to learn that her or his fears or hopes or troubles are not unique.
Books build character
Books also provide a useful way for parents to approach problems.
Whether it is to discourage bullying or bossiness or overcome irrational fears, or whether to teach about death or illness or physical development, there is probably a book somewhere that can make the necessary point painlessly and accessibly.
But books are not only learning tools, “they encourage imagination and open up the whole world for children,” says Hochfeld, “enabling them to learn that there’s a world beyond theirs. If you read you live many lives.”
And, at the level of learning, reading is the best way to pick up vocabulary and acquire language skills, which is particularly important in a country like South Africa, where many children are not being taught in their home language.
So, how do you instil a love of reading in your children? “Encourage them by example,” Hochfeld says. “If children never see their parents reading for pleasure, it’s hard for them to accept that it’s a pleasurable way to spend time. Reading for pleasure is what you want to encourage — not for work, or school, or an exam, it’s just for them.”
Homework vs leisure reading
To do that, she says, reading homework should not be confused with leisure reading and leisure reading should not be used as teaching time.
It is important when children are very young for parents to choose books they, the parents, will enjoy reading, because they may find themselves reading a favourite book several times a day for months on end. But older children, she says, must be allowed to develop their own tastes.
Hochfeld advises parents to take their children to the library and allow them time to sit and browse.
“Older children should be allowed to choose their own books in libraries and, if possible, in bookshops. Show them how to judge a book ‘by its cover’ and by the blurb they’ll make mistakes, but that’s too bad.”