Compulsion is unlikely to inculcate the habit, but persistence and patience will.
Today was the last day of my self-conceived experiment at a school in Lahore. A few months ago I had offered three hours a week of my precious time to read stories to my daughter’s kindergarten classmates.
I was convinced that after months of interacting with these children I‘d be able to flush out and pacify a bully terrorising my delicate daughter. It would also, I reasoned, provide a good opportunity for a bookseller like myself to test that age-old lament that the youth of today lack the attention span for books – although granted, by “youth” most parents didn’t have these snotty nosed cherubs in mind.
Motivated by self-interest, I rummaged through the children’s section of my bookshop selecting the stories that had proven to be a hit with my daughter. I anticipated some resistance to the notion of sitting still for 15 minutes and hence photocopied coloring pages, which I dangled in front of the children as bribes before I began.
Three months later: I’m the toast of the Kindergarten section. Upon my appearance five-year-olds scramble onto a shorn off carpet and jostle each other for a better view. They listen with their mouths agape enwrapped in the tale unfolding before them. They shout “Story!” when they cross me in the corridor and craft handmade cards featuring the narrative of a memorable yarn.
But you know what? It’s not me. It’s the books.
Yesterday I came across the results of a survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust in the UK, which found that three in 10 children do not own a single book of their own and that:
“children who did not own books were two-and-a-half times more likely to read below their expected level than children who had their own books.”
Now that’s a handy statistic for a bookseller in Pakistan to bandy about.
I expect a slew of parents turning up with their errant spawn in tow complaining how their “Babloo” doesn’t pick up a book; oblivious of course as to how their own disinterest in reading was complicit in their child’s waning enthusiasm. The survey goes on to confirm that children who do not live with books or see their parents reading will suffer from lower levels of literacy which “is strongly evident by 11 but emerges earlier.”
In other words, by the time Babloo comes to me it’s already too late.
The literacy argument serves to underline the importance of stories to parents but daily life in Pakistan has made it all the more urgent. Today, the average Pakistani is anxiety-ridden and obsessed with the fate of the nation. Their once active imaginations have become furtive and prone to conspiracies and they readily make snap judgments. Studies have revealed that aside from providing an escape, reading fiction makes a person more able to empathise and encourages compassion, virtues that are conspicuously absent in Pakistan today.
It has become increasingly difficult to shield ones children from the instability and mayhem that has permeated our lives, but stories provide a welcome diversion, feeding young imaginations, raising attention spans and putting children firmly on the path to becoming healthy Pakistanis. This is a grave responsibility, which should be shared by parents and extended family members across the sexes.
Children must be read to as often as possible and offered a wide array of books beyond the dated Enid Blyton that is invariably thrust upon them. Also, contrary to popular belief, comics are good. If the avid comic reader Edward Said can grow up to become a world respected scholar whose to say Babloo won’t?
Reading is above all else a joy for both parent and child – compulsion is unlikely to inculcate the habit, but persistence and patience will.
Oh and that bully, he doesn’t bother my daughter anymore.
This article was published on the Express Tribune Blog