Once upon a time … | Sunday Observer

Once upon a time …

14 November, 2021

`Once upon a time a girl named Cinderella lived with her stepmother and two stepsisters. Poor Cinderella had to work hard all day long so the others could rest. It was she who had to wake up each morning when it was still dark and cold to start the fire. It was she who cooked the meals. It was she who kept the fire going. The poor girl could not stay clean, from all the ashes and cinders by the fire.’

If you have a past snuggling up in the bed, listening to this story or a similar one, then probably you had a nighttime routine of bedtime stories. Bedtime stories have long been known to foster parent-child bond and prepare the child for sleep. With new digital solutions offered to modern parents, should old-fashioned bedtime stories be dumped into the trash bin? According to research, for a parent who hopes to raise a literate child, the best option may be the one that has been there for generations: the bedtime story.

Quality time

“Bedtime stories are important because parents can spend time with their children before the sleep time. Both the mother and father should take turns in reading bedtime stories for their children. These stories can involve a lot of picture books. Pictures can capture the attention of the child and in a few words we can explain what the picture means and the child can contribute to the story. Looking at the story and adding their ideas to it can improve a child’s imaginative skills and it will help them on a journey of creativity for the future,” Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kaleniya and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa said.

Emotional connection

He added that bed times story telling makes an emotional connection between the parent and the child as the last thing of the day. “Parents who have attended work or have done work at home, the child who has done school work or tuition classes are now winding up and going to sleep, as the last thing of the day it is good to add a better memory to child’s emotional memories with the bedtime stories. When we read a bedtime story, the child can easily have the space to connect with us in his childhood imaginative world and that is a happy place for the child because the story is something that creates curiosity and energy in them. It is very important that the child has a relaxing time just before going to sleep,” Dr. Chandradasa said.

He said that bedtime story is the perfect option as screen time just before sleep impairs the quality of sleep which will affect them in long term and shot term mental consequences.

Building a dialogue with the child

“Bedtime stories also add language skills to the child. Parents can start at the level of the child’s language, expressive language that is what they talk, comprehensive language that they understand, as the parent keeps on reading they can add new vocabulary to express the ideas in the story. They can learn new words, phrases and language context or pragmatics,” he clarified.

Dr. Chandradasa said, bedtime stories can be used to impart certain character skills to children. “For example if it is a story where honesty is honoured or bravery is celebrated the parent can question the child on his thoughts of the story. The parent can build a dialogue with the child so that the parent can modify the child’s thoughts in a better way. For example if a person has achieved a significant success in a story because of hard work we can connect those experiences with our own experiences or with the child’s experiences where the child has won something because he has practised, prepared and trained for that occasion. So by connecting the story with real life, we can improve certain character skills like motivation, persistence, perseverance, and planning which are beneficial for children in their life,” he said.

Perfect opportunity

“Bedtime story is a perfect opportunity for working parents to connect with the child and compensate for the hours they missed when they were at work. Research has shown it is a good opportunity especially for fathers to connect with their sons and daughters because bedtime story is a space that the child will like and the father can easily connect to that space and spend quality time with the child and sometimes the same bedtime story can be told by the mother and by the father and the child can also read by him or herself.

When different people read the same story, we can add things that are unique to our personality and character that can enrich the story as well as the creativity of the child. So sometimes a child may like the version of the mother or sometimes the version of the father or may be his/her version but different versions bring different perspectives and build different lateral thinking of the child. The child will understand how the story can evolve with our own experiences and our own beliefs,” Dr. Chandradasa added.

Improvement of logical skills

Neural research shows that when parents interact verbally with children, they gain more than parents ever thought possible including improvement of logical skills, lowering stress levels and mastery of language. The child will start to remember the rhyming words, observe the patterns of the words, predict the possible outcome which will later assist them in tackling math problems and promote critical thinking.

Senior Lecturer and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Dr. Dulangi Dahanayakealso confirmed that bedtime stories will benefit the child in numerous ways.

“There are different perspectives that we look at when we consider mental health. If we look at child mental health, we look at developmental, emotional and the behavioural aspects and also the physical aspects. Children can develop their language. Even preverbal children who have not started speaking when they hear words will assist in stimulating language development. It also helps in developing joint or shared attention.

When a child is around eight or nine months he/she starts to point to different objects and they share that attention between the object and the parent rather than just looking only at the parent or only at the object. In the first year of life children develop this ability of shared attention which in turn will develop their language and communication skills. When parents read bedtime stories, pointing at pictures will stimulate the shared attention and will help the child communicate better,” she explained.

Dr. Dahanayaka said that the ability to sustain attention will also develop in bedtime story reading. “When they watch the screen, it is moving rapidly. We need not put any effort to sustain their attention but reading a story helps stimulate the developmental function of sustaining attention. They develop language skills, reading skills, imagination and creativity later in life. One of the most common complaints that children make is that they are bored. When they learn to read together and eventually they will learn to read on their own, they will learn to keep themselves occupied.

It will also improve the emotional development of the child such as a sense of connectedness, the tactile sensation such as touching, cuddling, sharing the emotions in the story and will also create a sense of security and comfort in terms of attachment relationship,” she said.

Imparting life skills

“Reading bedtime stories will also impart life skills such as empathy, problem solving while promoting sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is also very important as the secretion of growth hormones of a child will happen during the sleep. A better sleep will help a child concentrate and feel refreshed in the morning.

Hearing the parents’ voice is also soothing and will create a secure and a comfortable atmosphere for a child to fall asleep. Reading a bedtime story as a routine will create familiarity and comfort. At the same time story reading is beneficial for parents as well. It helps parents relax after a hard day of work. So bedtime stories have an added advantages for both children and parents,” she emphasized.

Reading bedtime stories also enhances a child’s brain development and activates brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension.

“Bedtime stories have multiple benefits in relation to a child's socio-emotional development and psychological well-being. The act of reading bedtime stories as parent and child can be critical in forming and enhancing a close bond. Childhood attachment and a solid parent-child bond are essential for healthy development which includes feelings of respect, security, love, comfort and managing emotions.

Reading stories allows children to engage their imagination and explore multiple scenarios such as real and fictional that can help form their identity, values and beliefs. It also informs their decision making as they learn how the world operates and how to navigate different circumstances. It is a useful tool for parents to start exploring important social and life skills including important psychological aspects such as expressing emotions, understanding love, respect, resolving conflict, healthy communication, manners, ethics and relationships,” Clinical Psychologist and founder of Bright Minds LK,Tashyade Silva said. De Silva is a Member of the British Psychological Society and is a strong advocate of Mental Health and Child Development who works predominantly with children, adolescents, and young adults to address varying mental health related concerns as well as developmental delays and special needs.

Presentation of concepts

She added that bedtime stories allow parents to introduce language in a fun and engaging manner. “Children are constantly observing, modelling and learning from our behaviour. Reading aloud allows the child to hear words not only enhances their vocabulary, but also encourages speech and vocalisation. The presentation of concepts and stories allow the child to find meaning and consolidate learning on how to handle different situations including making friends, managing conflict, decisions making and problem solving. When children are asked to read, they are practising this skill which in turn will increase their proficiency. Learning can be consolidated through application, asking the child questions, making them interact with the book for example to point to where the elephant is, how many trees can you see etc,” De Silva explained.

She said a parent who is responsive to the child’s needs and is available, allows a child to develop a sense of security which in turn enables them to explore the world without fear. “Children learn through all five senses and modes including seeing, hearing, and doing. Particularly for younger children, play is a great source of learning as they explore in an unstructured way. To understand your child and the challenges they face, spending time with them is essential. Through observation you will begin to notice what they find challenging and you can immediately provide support and guidance to overcome these.

Reinforcement and consistency are also essential. Sometimes professional intervention may be necessary and early intervention is the best in enabling better outcomes. While it's important to navigate challenges with accommodations/modification in the way they learn and interact, recognising and harnessing their strengths will allow your child to feel confident and allow their true potential to shine,” De Silva added. At Bright Minds LK, De Silva offers counselling online as well as in-person, providing assessments and interventions related to learning difficulties including behavioural interventions.

It is not too late to snuggle up under a cozy blanket with your child and read a bedtime story daily as it will definitely create a pleasant experience and cultivate their love for reading.