I woke up to a familiar noise recently, one that I had not heard in a long time. It was a mother reading to her children and the joyous sounds of learning and laughing. Deb and I were staying in the home of a family with four small children over a weekend as we attended a mission’s conference in Lancaster. It has been quite a few years since our children were that age, but I still remember the sound very well. Typically, reading to children under the age of five requires a book with lots of pictures and a parent who can bring the text to life. It can be slow going as kids point to the pictures, ask lots of questions and often want you to read the story again. At some point in time, a small miracle happens as the child continues to grow. There is that magical day when they begin to read for themselves and want to show mom and dad that they know the words. What a delight it is when your child brings a book to you, curls up in your lap and demonstrates that they now know what the book is saying.
Reading to a child requires patience and persistence that can be in short supply these days. Even when I was growing up, some of my friends had the television as their constant companion and quasi “baby sitter”. The go to solution for many parents and children these days is some type of screen, often an IPad or other tablet. In some families, every child has their own devise by the age of five and the addiction has begun. While it is true that these devices can have books on them and interactive games, it is also true that parents are often leaving their kids alone to learn for themselves. Taking time to sit with fidgety children who want you to read the same thing over and over again can be challenging, but it is worth it. It may even be life changing.
Walt Mueller, the President and Founder of the Center for Parent Youth Understanding, recently reported on survey data that shows that teenagers aged 13-18 now spend nine hours a day on some type of devise and tweens ages 8-12 spend on average 6 hours a day on one. Lest we adults think we are immune from this reality, the same research showed that the typical adult in the USA now spends nine hours a day looking at a screen – the same amount as a teenager. The devise of choice for almost every age group is the smart phone, with laptops and tablets filling in the gap. We are now more addicted to screens than at any time in history and while social media is intended to be interactive, it often reinforces isolation and despair. Children at very young ages are comparing themselves to completely fake images on screen of the “perfect” lives of others and many are experiencing cyber bullying as early as middle school or before.
Occasionally, I find myself helping in the toddler nursery at our local church and I love it. Our nursery is filled with picture books and there is no screen in sight. More often than not, I am able to grab one of the books and begin reading to a child. Almost every time, the same thing happens. Children that were fussy stop crying and more than one child crowds around me to see what the book has to say. Then they start pulling books off the shelf and bringing it to me to read. It is amazing how quickly an hour goes by as we all get lost in a Bible story and imagine what it must have been like to be David, Noah or Samuel. It is hard to believe that simply reading a physical book to a child is becoming counter-cultural these days. I for one plan on being part of this counter revolution and instigating the curiosity of children one book at a time.