Parenting and Print: Defending the Traditional Bedtime Story


Though the one-time 'family television set' has been almost entirely sacrificed to more individualistic distractions such as smartphones and other digital toys, it remains yet possible to spend quality time cuddling up to one's children on the sofa before an episode of The Simpsons or in front of some animated film. As for bedtime reading, and despite the fact that we too admit to enjoying our iPhone amusements no less than any other urban tribe, for us nothing can replace the traditional storybook in paper and text. Rather than scrolling down an e-book, we prefer our 'pillow lit' on pages we can feel and which are crisp to the touch : we still want the familiar smell of fresh print and we like to hear the sound of the leaves as they turn.

I guess most of us choose such bedtime stories according to what can strike a happy balance between cultivating a genuine appetite for adventure and what offers light, fun education that avoids being a pedagogical mouthful. The very best among these storylines tend to give importance to grandparents, free time with mum and dad or to valuing friends, siblings, animals or the environment around us. Soft hints at responsible emotional management and the celebration of equality, social tolerance and diversity in our families and communities are also among the essential elements of any winning plot.

But aphorisms aside, when reality hits home we are perhaps more superficial than we are willing to acknowledge. I'm not always as convinced that it is so important to me on a Monday night how much my children are actually being taught from the content of a bedtime story - given that it is usually designed far less to amuse through dispensing action and special effects than it is to appeal more gently to the imagination. Indeed, whatever may be the qualities of the printed bedtime story book, I suspect that for many parents its greatest merit lies -paradoxically- in its dexterity in putting children to sleep. Doubtless this plays some part in motivating tired mums after a long day's work to moderate their reading voice to a monotonous drone which soon has their kids nodding off out of sheer self-defence.

To many, 'classical' bedtime storytelling may begin to sound obsolete, though reading in an unflighty, pedestrian voice can help sleepy kids to drop off feeling safe and secure

In my experience, encouraging a relationship with books assists in communicating to children the idea of literacy as an invitation to that exciting 'effort' and 'quest' which can also be an adventure in itself. When bedtime storybooks are not simply downloadable from our pcs or just a quick click away then usually they have some prized place upon a bookshelf somewhere in the house. We must rise from our chairs to reach them, then physically find and open them to begin reading. They become those coveted stories we take out only at that special time before going to sleep. More importantly, as parents snuggle up to their children at bedtime it is many hands that hold those books up to the light as they are being read : there is joint engagement, questions are asked and discussed and often a climate of complicity prevails.

A last defence of the bedtime story, this time resonating more with the regular day-to-day life of ordinary families everywhere (and, I believe, no less relevant) : as a father I have often found this 'night ritual' especially useful for its ability to signal closure to a child's day. The fact that it comes just before going to sleep also makes it instrumental in offering our kids an appreciation for order by which they feel secure and taken care of. This is why the bedtime story has its appropriate post-dinner slot after all the homework is behind us and everyone's teeth have been brushed - and a likely reason my second child regularly dozes off within minutes of my beginning to read.