Fathers and stories

Fathers and stories
Posted 22 February 2013 by Matt Haig

Anyone listening to the Today programme this morning may have heard me talking about the sad fact that dads are trailing far behind their partners when it comes to reading to their kids.

The reason I was on the radio talking about this is because of research carried out for BookTrust that reveals only a staggering 13% of fathers are the main reader with their child. In response, Book Trust is launching a campaign to get more Dads involved with bedtime reading.


I think this is a massively important thing. Now, I am a father and yes, I do read to my kids. Not every night, but at least half the time. I don't do this because of political correctness. I do it because I like doing it. I do it because I genuinely can't think of a more wonderful thing to do with my kids than read or invent stories, helping them to slip towards sleep with food for their dreams.


Of course, I work from home so it is quite easy for me to do this. Also, as a writer, I am already well and truly convinced of the value and pleasure of literature and of sharing stories. That is my life.


And it is important to note that, according to this latest research, a quarter of fathers blame working late for not reading to their kids. I'm sure that explains a small part of the picture (though surely a lot of mothers work late too). But a larger part of the picture has to do with cultural perceptions.


More women read books than men. The ratio is around 70:30. And many kids are growing up seeing their mother read and not their father. This may explain why more girls view themselves as book readers than boys.


But with the reading gender divide between boys and girls widening more than ever at the moment, and with boys' literacy levels falling near-continuously, it is time to re-balance the reading culture.


Notice I keep using the word culture. I do this because there is nothing inherently feminine about the concept of books. Storytelling should not be a gendered thing. Homer was a man. Shakespeare was a man. J M Barrie was a man. Hemingway - who definitely read to his children (there is photographic proof) - was the manliest man there has ever been. But somehow, the culture surrounding books and storytelling - and especially as it applies to children - has been, to a degree, feminised.


If a man goes to a parent and child reading group at a library he will very often find himself being the only man there. I know this because I have been that only man. How can this change? Well, libraries could have specific Father and Child reading sessions (Greenwich Library already does this). But it is going to take a lot to persuade some men that being a good Dad can be as much about reading the Gruffalo as taking your child to football practice or swimming lessons.


And I think the answer isn't just at the micro-level of the father-toddler context but at the macro level of men and books generally. We live in a world where marketing drives culture. If marketing minds see that more women are buying books, then more books end up being marketed towards women, and so the gender divide widens and men will end up in a literary ghetto of military history and sport books if we aren't careful.


As with so many things the solution will lie in seeing the human, rather than seeing the gender. Stories are part of all of us. They are universal. There is nothing more wonderfully human than telling a child a story. Fathers were telling children stories long before the invention of football or the X-Box. And so it is not a case of teaching men new tricks, but getting them to practice the oldest trick in the world. The very easy, but very magic trick of sharing stories.


I have been ready to my son since he was an infant. He attends a Catholic grade school that has a really strong reading program. He is finishing the 3rd grade soon and is one of the top readers in his class. He also ranked very high on the ISTEP reading tests as well.

The bond that we shared reading together was priceless. Even now, I am not reading to him, but it is still a nightly ritual for us to be in the same room and read independently. We talk about what we are reading and he really loves it.

I have Liz Barden of Big Hat Books in Indianapolis to thank for keeping us in books that are exciting and fun to read. She also has lots of authors that do book signings at her store and that gives my son and me the opportunity to meet the writers of the works we love!

Charlie - Indianapolis, Indiana
22 April 2013

A few years ago work took me away from my family overseas for several months. Not being able to read bedtime stories to my kids was one of the things I missed the most. When I had to go abroad for a second extended period we decided to try bedtime stories via Skype - it worked brilliantly with "daddy in the computer" being able to take part in the bedtime routine. Of course it helped that I was able to carve out the time each day, but it was absolutely worth it.

Paul Franklin
3 March 2013

I had monthly visits to see my daughter from 3 weeks onwards. I used to read to her until she was six, and supplemented this by sending tapes of me reading stories for her. Her family moved to Switzerland. On one occasion when I was visiting, my daughter and stepson dragged me into their bedroom, pointing at the bookshelf. Pleased as I was to see their interest in books, I was glad to see a row of my tapes. Fine moment.

Greg Sweetnam
25 February 2013

Matt, I heard you on the radio. A good cause and one which I fully support :) Just two comments.
1. The lack of fathers in libraries durng story time is probably because most of them are at work at those times.
2. Just because fathers don't read as much as mothers to their children does not mean that children have no male role models for reading. What about grandfathers? My husband (a grandfather) reads to our grandchildren more than I do.

Margret Geraghty
22 February 2013

What a fantastic blog post. As a dad, I thoroughly enjoy reading stories to my kids. My wife even says I do it much better than her as I make up accents and noises and really go for it. Quite often run out of steam and need a drink of water! It's the most rewarding thing in the world.

Marc Bowker
22 February 2013

The hardest folk to convince (dads OR mums) are the ones who aren't engaged with books on any level themselves. They are the toughest nuts to crack and ideally the people we're aiming our #readitmummiesanddaddies2013 campaign at over at ReadItDaddy.

Providing as much information, links and stories from authors, Illustrators, parents, librarians and book folk to eventually put 'out there' as a resource for people to dip into was our aim this year but it's been amazing to hear from a lot of parents (and thankfully a LOT of dads) who are realising just how rewarding reading to their children can be. It's not always about pushing them towards some sort of academic excellence, it's an activity that should always begin on the basis of being fun and a shared experience rather than yet another way of pushing children harder to achieve reading goals at a very early age.

22 February 2013

I think this is a brilliant campaign but it's not just dads and books or even men and books - it's just as much to do with men and children.

There are very few men who work in early years settings (or in libraries, come to that). Not only are children not seeing their dads read, they are not seeing men read at nursery or infant school. In fact, they don't see men as part of the culture of early education at all - a double negative whammy when it comes to boys education and literacy.

We need to get away from the idea that there 'must be something wrong' with men who want to spend time working with, helping and teaching young children. Most people are decent folk!

22 February 2013

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