No substitute for reading to kids

MY children find it amusing that I am reading to my five-month-old granddaughter, Tia. She has yet to recognise faces, what more to understand what is read to her. She might not even know the pictures in the book. At best she would be quiet, motionless sometimes or trying to grab the book I am reading from.

I learned from my great grandmother, a village midwife, who sang lullabies while delivering babies. The villagers liked her. She wasn’t just soothing the nerves of panicked young mothers but more importantly made the laborious and painful process of giving birth a memorable one.

She was illiterate but she had hundreds of stories to tell.

Her cucu (grandchildren) would huddle around her, listening to ceri­ta teladan (moral stories) like Ba­wang Putih Bawang Merah; Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup; Si Tenggang; the adventures of Hang Tuah and Semerluki, great warriors both; or tales of the frivolously delightful village idiots in the form of Pak Pandir and Lebai Malang.

She was a storyteller extraordinaire. She sang too and recited the pantun and seloka, popular Malay verses of her time.

I have seen her telling stories to babies in her arm. When I asked why she did that she answered with a laugh, that the babies would re­­cognise her voice forever.

She wasn’t dead wrong. A child behaviourist she wasn’t. But she knew telling stories to babies was the best cuddle time. It doesn’t matter whose babies. Story time was a great socialisation process for kids like me who lived 27km away from the nearest town. Electricity was many decades away. Radio was a rich man’s pet back then.

She made me like stories. I crea­ted my world of make-believe while listening to her. I realised there were other “worlds” than the one that I lived in – a world of fantasy and grandeur, with stories of greatness and laughter or sadness and stupidity.

When I went to an English school in the 60s, I was introduced to nur­sery rhymes and abridged stories from great novels and plays from England. It reminded me of my grandmother’s stories told to me while she was chewing the sireh (betel leaves).

I inculcated in my own children the love for books and stories. It was easier to raise kids back in the 1980s and 1990s than now.

I have seen babies today left to watch Cartoon Network on TV.

Children’s progress sadly is determined by how early they can play games on smart gadgets.

I can’t stop the tide of digitalisation and the millions of choices offered for children in the form of games and entertainment and education.

Don’t get me wrong. I embrace the latest state-of-the art technology available.

But reading or telling stories to children is not just about familiari­sing them about communication; introducing concepts like numbers, colours or shapes; or building skills in memory and listening.

By reading and telling stories, one is closer to the babies and kids emotionally and psychologically and for them to understand the joy of learning.

My theatre training taught me about the importance of delivery, expressions, emotions, the need for varying sounds, intonation and how to communicate effectively.

It is no secret that young parents today are not buying books for their children unlike parents of my gene­ration.

Yes, things have changed. The information highway is redefining the rules of engagement even with toddlers and kids. So too methodo­logy in raising children now.

I may be a dinosaur in today’s world but I believe there are simply too many device options, apps and games designed for babies and kids these days. Most parents have the touchscreen devices. And I believe strongly that parents must limit the “screen time” for their children.

In a study conducted by Cohen Children’s Medical Centre of New York, a concern was raised about parents who are now substituting books and general baby toys for smartphones or devices.

One of the most damning observation by one of the researchers was, “Many parents did not seem to bring any other distraction for their children except the touchscreen devices.”

In another landmark pilot programme sponsored by the Bezos Foundation, it was reported that “screen time is no substitute for one-on-one spoken interaction and play that nurtures babies’ language development”.

The American Academy of Paediatrics even called for paediatricians to encourage parents to read to their infants, including the newborns.

We have yet to see the real impact of today’s voracious obsession with smart gadgets for babies and children.

The digital revolution after all is still in its infancy. We are still on a learning curve. There are many benefits of the digital world but there are equally as many disadvantages too.

For now I’ll stick to the ways of my grandmother when it comes to telling stories to my granddaughter. Call it interpersonal interaction between the generations.

A bit old-fashioned perhaps but I want the best of both worlds for her!

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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