Welcome to Day 18 of #30PostsHathSept. [PLEASE READ all my other challenge posts HERE.] I hope you are inspired and informed by today’s post. Painting by Félix Schlesinger (1833-1910)
Just say or imagine the magic words “once upon a time…” and many of us may immediately relax, wrapped in the wonder of the neurohormone oxytocin.
While bedtime stories do not always begin with this iconic phrase (and publishers today actually strongly discourage its use), bedtime stories have helped generations of children settle down for a dream-filled sleep.
The precise moment when bedtime stories began can’t be traced to a single book or time period. Oral tradition by far pre-dates print books, as do soothing lullabies sung to young children. Bedtime is a quiet time to help children ease into the night.
Surprisingly, the books we consider today as classic children’s books (and bedtime stories) were not originally written for children. These include fables, folktales, world mythology, and fairy tales. Due to their ready availability, these types of stories – and their sanitized variations – were among the first books read to children. Their morals, and the morals found in religious texts which were also widely read, became powerful teaching tools – and bedtime reads – for children during the historical Puritan and Victorian Periods of the 1700’s and 1800’s. Other more recent books, written initially as bedtime stories, are often considered too complex or lengthy for many of today’s parents. A couple of these examples include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh.
Are bedtime stories now becoming passé?
A study by Booktrust showed that today’s young parents read less to their children than previous generations. A lack of confidence was brought up as one reason. Another study by Littlewoods of 2,000 parents found that only 64% of parents read bedtime stories to their children (and only 13% read nightly). Stress and lack of time were cited as reasons. Almost half of the respondents reported that video games, television, and toys were more engaging for their children.
Sad. I spent countless hours reading aloud to my son when he was younger. Bedtime books. Daytime reads. Picture books. Novels. And everything in between. While I can only speak for myself, I firmly believe parents receive as much pleasure as do the children from the bonding that occurs during these daily interactions. I know I certainly did.
Yet, the average child is read to only three times per week. A different study of 2,000 parents found that 12% of parents believed bedtime was the most stressful time of the day. 36% of parents are motivated – not by love – but by guilt to read to their children. Heartbreakingly, almost a third need to do so via Skype or telephone.
What did this study of parents feel was the “perfect” bedtime story? An average of eight minutes and thirty seconds. That’s it. Just 510 seconds. At an average of only three times per week. Another study found average bedtime reading to last only seven minutes.
Also to be considered is the importance of sociocultural development and learning amongst the many differing cultures. There may be differences in which cultures respond better to written word vs. those who have deep and lasting oral traditions. Either way, the importance of story remains. The need also remains that bedtime books and stories must aspire to more closely align with sociocultural norms in each population. There now exists a large and healthy push towards diversity in books for children.
What might all these different studies tell us?
Parents are stressed. Time is increasingly limited, in part as more families earn dual-incomes. Many more children today are children of divorce, with visitation often split between parents. Nearly 30% of families are single-parent households. While individual homes may not own any more or less books than a generation or two ago, access to libraries and increasingly restricted library hours – as well as the physical availability of libraries in poorer neighborhoods – may contribute to making the act of bedtime reading more difficult. Current bedtime books may also not speak to all children of multiple ethnicities and races.
More factors may also play roles.
The distractions of video games and movies, as well as regular computer use by children, all coalesce to make both reading time and sleepiness more challenging. Some parents even use computer apps that read stories with their children. I recently wrote a blog that touched upon our addiction to technology. Overuse of technology can make falling asleep more difficult, both because the activities can stimulate neurotransmitters, and that the blue light emitted from computer screens as well as all artificial light can affect our circadian rhythms.
Children are not getting the same level of physical activity as in the past. Physical activity is a known to aid sleep in adults. Exercise and physical activity likewise improve sleep in children. It isn’t uncommon for some parents to place white noise machines in their children’s bedrooms and medicate them nightly with melatonin.
Some parents have found themselves utilizing bedtime books that assist them solely with the psychological aspects of sleep deprivation. The popular new book, The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, may owe its success to its ability to act as subliminal messaging, instilling a feeling of sleepiness in a child. Other such bedtime books using psychological techniques help with children of trauma and anxiety, and contain repetitive, calming and specific meditation methods (including deep muscle relaxation) to help sleep arrive.
But are these bedtime stories? Or therapy? And how does the bonding differ between parent and child? Not to be overlooked is the 2011 bedtime book for adults (not for children) that may speak to the stresses of modern parents. Entitled Go The F**K To Sleep, you can watch Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton read the book to a group of parents HERE.
Some of you may be aware of reports touting bedtime reading as a way to boost academic performance, increase vocabulary, improve literacy, and contribute to the social and emotional well being of children. This is also true worldwide. Many pediatricians’ offices now provide free books to children through a program with organizations like Reach-Out-And-Read, Too Small To Fail, and Scholastic. Other non-profit organizations like First Book have been helping families in need enjoy books for a long time.
But for some families, bedtime is a time reserved for other activities. For example, the Freschi family in California watches TED.com videos as a replacement for bedtime stories. The disadvantages remain of blue light and computer use, but the togetherness and the sharing of information, language, and story add serious advantages. At 14-18 minutes in length, the duration of a TED.com video is twice as long as the average bedtime read, and unlike movies or video games, the videography is not hyperactive or disorienting.
Bedtime books and bedtime stories. Their benefits are known. The bonding is irreplaceable. The need for more diverse books is obvious. But will bedtime books persist despite the complexities of life today? Or will they evolve into something that fits people’s hectic lives?
I can’t say where bedtime stories will be in a generation or more, but in the words of the remarkable Mr. Fred Rogers,
“Bedtime is especially hard for young children because it means being separated from parents….Young children can’t be sure when they’ll be back again with the people they love.”
And listen to him talk about bedtime,
So cherish the time in life when you have the privilege to read to your children. Every book, every minute. You are building dreams. And so much more.
I’ll certainly sleep on that.
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