“If you want your child to love books, surround him or her with books”

Image credit: KC Wong

Dad Talk is a fortnightly column where our guest contributor KC Wong muses on parenthood and being a father to his two children.

Previously, I wrote about why I encourage my kids to read for pleasure. That begs the question: how do we start? Like most things in life, achieving success requires conviction, commitment and consistency. Nurturing early readers is no different.

The conviction part comes when you believe in the idea of reading and its positive outcome. Apart from the tangible benefits I mentioned in my earlier article, there are tons of scientific studies that confirm what we have long suspected and believed to be true – reading makes you smarter, in addition to making you happier. Once you are convinced and possess the conviction, commitment comes naturally.

My wife started reading to my daughter as soon as she was born. We had a limited infant vocabulary with which to converse with her, so why not read to her in proper English? It also set the tone for our subsequent conversations with her. There was never really any “baby-talk” as we always spoke to her in full sentences and used seemingly big words. The sight of her bewildered eyes looking at us as we spoke still tickles me.

When my daughter turned two, she started reading aloud on her own from her repertoire of stories, not because she understood the words, but because she remembered them and how they were pronounced. We read her different types of books: picture books, pop-up books, large format books (books the size of a small table), and books that came with sounds. If certain books did not interest her, we would swap them with other titles, and re-introduce them later. The idea was to constantly pique her interest and get her excited about books.

As someone once said: “If you find reading boring, you are not doing it right.”

We used to observe eager parents who introduced very wordy books to their children, only to see the young children totally turned off books after awhile. If you have the same issue with your kids, do not give up. The problem probably lies in the choice of books.

We started with very simple ones – single words accompanied by pictures on each page – to build my daughter’s vocabulary and confidence. Slowly, we moved on to short picture stories and then longer ones. All kids have their favourite books. As parents, we must be ready to re-read those hundreds of times and with equal levels of enthusiasm each time.

I never fail to receive surprised stares from first-time visitors to our flat when they realise we don’t own a TV set or digital tablets. Technically there is a small TV set in my parents’ bedroom but the kids are not allowed to watch any programmes without our permission. At first, friends and relatives baulked at such a “draconian” measure, and a few even cited child abuse, albeit jokingly. Today, some of them lament that they should have followed suit after their kids’ initial daily dosage of Dora The Explorer, High-5 and Peppa Pig ballooned into heavy addiction to Nicklelodeon, Disney, and YouTube.

If you, like my wife and I, are more convinced of the ills of digital entertainment than its benefits, it makes sense to exclude these devices from our children’s lives right from the start. Rather than indulging them for short-term “gains” and risk dealing with addiction and subsequent withdrawal issues later on, it’s better to nip the problem in the bud.

My kids do not own handphones. If they need to message their friends individually or via a group chat, they use my wife’s handphone. Don’t ever let them fool you into thinking they need to discuss school work on mobile messaging apps. Have you seen what they talk about in group chats? And on a side note, how productive are your own professional chat groups anyway?

My children understand and have accepted our reasons for not jumping on the digital bandwagon. Despite this, they still occasionally succumb when they hang out with their older cousins and enjoy bouts of Angry Birds, Subway Surfers, Pokemon-Go or Snapchat, to which we turn a blind eye. I am not an autocrat, by the way.

What we took away, we replaced with books. Lots and lots of books. When you do not have a TV console in a flat, you will be surprised by how many books you can fill in the space that would otherwise be taken up. We have bookshelves filled with books in the living room, in the kids’ room, and in the master bedroom; we have books inside the car and we always make sure they pack a book or two in their backpacks, in addition to their water bottles.

Like what life coaches always preach: if you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people. If you want your child to love books, surround him or her with books. It is a no-brainer.

To many parents, not having an entertainment set at home may seem like a huge sacrifice. However, I can assure you that you will reap bigger rewards from the abundance of quality time at your disposal. In any case, you can still “cheat” after lights are out. Snuggle up in bed with your spouse and catch up on the latest Korean drama or Netflix series together on the laptop or tablet that your kids don’t know about. I only mentioned making a commitment, not entering monkhood.

This ties up nicely with the last point: consistency. As parents, we are role models to our children. We both consume news and stories on mobile devices, and would strategically reveal our phone displays to our children, to show them we are not wasting time on social media or games. It is important to be consistent in what we preach and practise, lest we lose our credibility and moral high ground.

As a consolation, the “hard work” that my wife and I put in lasted only about four years. Once the firstborn became a keen reader, our number two naturally followed whatever his elder sister did, and soon he too fell in love with books. When that happened, my wife and I stopped being discreet and started blatantly watching our favourite shows on our handphones. 

Sometimes they will just pop over our shoulders, shake their heads, and with a tone not dissimilar to a parent’s, remark: “Tsk tsk tsk... watching Goblin again, huh.” Then they will proceed to choose their favourite spots on the sofas and go back to their beloved books.

Read part one here.


KC Wong is a photographer and father of two. He has a daughter aged 11 and a son aged nine.

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