Now 18 months, Hal loves to have the same books read over and over again. His father, Roger Mills, on the importance of predictability.
There has been a major change in our lives since my last entry in Hal’s reading diary. A couple of weeks ago, after months and months of slow deliberation, followed by some unexpectedly brisk decision making, we moved out of our home in Queens Park in north west London, and set up a new home in a cottage next to a farm in the middle of the countryside in Sussex.
This is a huge upheaval for us, and we were naturally concerned about how Hal would handle the change. We thought about it a lot and decided that the first thing I should do when I got to the cottage (I was the advance party delegated to show the removals team where to put things), was to set up Hal’s room so that there would at least be familiar things for him to see when he got to the new house.
It worked splendidly. A wide-eyed Hal arrived, clearly not quite sure what was going on. And then he spotted his favourite toy, a plastic multi-storey car park and there was a gurgle of surprise and delight. We went upstairs and there were more happy cries when he saw his cot, his menagerie of soft animals, and his books. With so many old friends around him Hal knew that the new place was home and he never showed the smallest sign of disorientation.
What this brought home to me was how enormously important it is to a small child that life should feel predictable. Predictability makes life feel safe, and if a child has it, it will gradually be internalised so that the child builds up a reservoir of confidence rather than anxiety.
Books can play an important part in this. These days reading is a vital part of Hal’s bedtime ritual. He has supper, plays outside and then goes for his bath. After the bath he does his teeth and then my wife Jo or I sit with him and read at least three books with him before it is time for his bottle and bed. Reading with Hal has become one of those things that he knows happens every night, one of the things that makes him know the world is not full of frightening, unexpected happenings.
The small child’s love of predictability makes sense of another feature of children’s reading habits (as well as video ones) – they always want to read the same book all the time. Children (and quite a few adults too) aren’t interested in novelty. Hal wants The Tiger who came to Tea, Each Peach Pear Plum and Esther’s Trunk almost every evening. He wants to hear the same words (they can get almost mantra-like to the reader at times) and he wants to see the same pictures. New books do get introduced, but it has to be one at a time, and the new one has to be repeated often till it too becomes familiar.
Psychoanalysts know all about the child’s need for predictability. It might seem strange to the lay person, but analysts do their utmost to make sure that changes in the therapy set up are minimal. The patient comes at the same hour, the session lasts for the same period of time, efforts are made to make sure that the room in which the therapy happens looks exactly the same each session. Analysts’ patients can be upset by even tiny changes – a light that is normally on that is switched off one week can make a patient feel decidedly unsettled. And it is all because the child part of each of us wants predictability.
In an earlier diary entry I talked about how books give the small child a wonderful feeling of being with another person. This month’s main argument is that the experience of being read to, for a child, is part of what makes the world seem safe and predictable. Both points reinforce the idea that the importance of books for children goes way beyond the words and pictures on the page. It is the experience of reading as well that it vital.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.