Hal is now 28 months and videos are claiming more of his attention than books. His father, Roger Mills, explains.
Something that I have been increasingly aware of over recent months is that Hal seems far fonder of watching videos than he is of reading books. He certainly still enjoys his bedtime read. But whereas with videos he will often get obsessed with one film and demand to see it over and over (we are just exiting a two-week Wizard of Oz phase), he almost never develops a craze for a particular book. What is more, reading seems to be very much a nighttime thing for him and while he rarely, if ever, asks to be read to during the day he will frequently request a video.
To the book-loving parent this is mildly depressing. Looking at Hal motionless in front of the screen I invariably feel that I am letting him down somehow. To a lot of people this will probably seem to be a rather precious reaction. Get real. Every parent knows that vids buy you the most precious commodity you can have – time. But though I remind myself to be realistic, the sight of Hal transfixed by TV still produces a pang.
The fundamental difficulty here is that I have a firm conviction that reading is better for you than watching something on TV. My fear is that, even now, habits that will be with Hal for the rest of his life are being laid down. If he becomes a viewer rather than a reader now perhaps that is the way he will be as he grows up. Where does this visceral feeling that reading is better for you come from? Part of it stems from the thought that people with a habit of reading tend to have better stocked minds than those who depend on radio and TV for their information. But another argument, that feels even more important, is to do with the nature of reading itself, or to be exact the nature of reading fiction.
When you read fiction, however exhaustively something is described, you have to recreate what is being evoked with your imagination. The words provide a skeleton, but the reader makes the picture complete. Film, it is true, requires the viewer to reconstruct the narrative in some ways, most obviously when snappy editing or visual clues ask you to put two and two together. But the fact that a film presents both sounds and sights means that there is so much less for the imagination to do. The reconstructive work of reading fiction, I’d argue, makes your mind more alive, and consequently more fulfilled, than the more passive act of viewing. This is the real root of my anxieties that Hal might not develop a reading habit.
But perhaps my concerns are a little premature. Though it seems likely that a basic predisposition towards reading is influenced by whether it is a part of life from the earliest years, at the same time it would be impossible to argue that Hal, at this stage, is turning his back on the reconstructive pleasure of reading. Hal’s principal literary pleasure at the moment is looking at images in his picture books and naming the things he sees. Some of these books have narratives or course, but it doesn’t feel as if he connects with the emotional tensions at the moment, and until it does, it will probably be impossible to tell whether he is going to be a keen reader of not.
And if it is too early to tell, why am I fretting about it? Perhaps the real reason is that there is someone else in our household who is more of a viewer than a reader, while feeling constantly uneasy about not finding more time for reading. I regret to have to admit that that someone is me.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.