By Sara Evans
One thing this plague year has done away with is the notion that parenting is primarily the purview of mothers. Masked fathers have been snuggling newborns on their chests, pushing strollers, chatting with toddlers, throwing balls and helping kids to balance their bikes. For families to survive in these challenging times, fathers had to contribute. And without Nanas and nannies, sitters and preschools, that’s meant more hands-on childcare.
Dr. Evelyn Hartman, a New York psychotherapist, notes that these are especially challenging and stressful times and that communication between parents and children is vital. It can be a real struggle to limit screen time, and to keep kids off their devices once virtual learning is over. What children need now is face to face contact, and one of the best ways parents can provide that is by reading to them.
While mothers usually stick to the content and elaborate on the illustrations, fathers provide some added value. Their style is to ask more wide-ranging questions, to encourage curiosity and speculation. (How did our hero or heroine deal with all those challenges? What does it mean to be brave?)
What’s more, story time with dad can enhance language skills and inspire children to explore a broader range of reading materials, says Nancy Flanagan Knapp, associate professor at the University of Georgia, “And perhaps most important, it sends a message to boys that reading isn’t just for girls.”
There are emotional benefits, too, when fathers cozy up for bedtime stories. Reading allows men to show their softer, less competitive natures. When dads pick up a book and hunker down on the bed, they hug, and kiss, and hold their children close. This sends a powerful message: I love you—and this is our special time together.
When our son was slow to the reading game, my husband David regularly took him to the children’s shop of the Metropolitan Museum and together they picked out some beautifully illustrated classics: Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, The Jungle Book. With our daughter, David read Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, and the magical, feminist books by Madeleine L’Engle. Fortunately there were some overlaps, too. Both children loved Edward Lear’s The Pobble Who Has No Toes, and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake. These books are just as funny and just as mesmerizing today. For a wonderful guide to the perennial classics, see A Shimmer of Joy: One Hundred Children’s Pictures Books by Chris Loker (Godine, November 2020).
My children grew up to be passionate about books and our son, Chris, has kept up the ritual of reading to his offspring, too.
“Our kids are very physical,” he explains, “and our daytime interactions are very high energy. Bedtime storytelling is a chance to take things down a notch and have some intimate time together.”
My grandsons, four and six, now have their favorites—Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day, and Mercer Mayer’s What a Bad Dream–reassuring reads in this uncertain time, when daytime schedules run amok and sleep can be a little anxious.
Start your own storytelling tradition
My friend David Bloom believes it’s never too early to start reading to a child. He whispered Red Sox stats to his son, Josh, in utero, and couldn’t wait to crack a book with him. As soon as Josh was old enough, David regaled him with detective tales featuring Freddy the Pig. “I loved those reading sessions because they brought us together,” David says, “but they also allowed me to return to my own childhood. Storytelling time was a reminder of the magic of the spoken word.”
Now grown, Josh says these stories inspired his love of folklore and the theatre. “I came to understand the storytelling is as old as mankind itself.,” he says. “Parents reading to their children brings back the magic of old ways.”
Equally riveting—and surely not to be forgotten—are a parent’s own origin stories. My husband often regaled our children with “Treorchy Tales,” about his boyhood in a coal mining town in South Wales, where there was no electricity, the lavatory was an outhouse, and each winter sleds were made from wooden boards supplied by the local coffin maker. Our children found these stories fascinating and hilarious.
Today our grandchildren are entranced by tales of their summer visits to that part of the world. Chris weaves a spell as he talks about ruined castles where dragons might appear any minute, the fortified manor houses where warring tribes of Brits fought in hand-to-hand combat, and the Roman goldmine that was dug into the Welsh hillside over 2,000 years ago.
The stories fathers tell and the books they read aloud, are the glue that holds families together. Like DNA, they are carried down through the generations. In an ideal world, every child has a father figure who happily fills the role of reader, and raconteur. Fathers are the fixed foot of the compass in a rapidly spinning world. Paired with the final hug and kiss of the day, these bedtime stories offer hope and promise: “I am here with you tonight; I will be here when you wake.”
Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home. She has written about travel, child development, gardening, antiques and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living.