CYNTHIA BANHAM July 19, 2012
"A recent British study found nearly two-thirds of parents never read to their infants."
What a perplexing time to become a new parent. The latest popular books on the subject say that unless you are French you probably are bringing up your child to be a lazy, selfish brat.
Children are more cosseted and constrained - because of intense homework regimes, or fears about strangers, or getting injured in tree houses - than at any time before.
Yet, on the internet and social media, children have an impossible-to-curtail freedom to socialise, embarrass or prejudice themselves (as they'll later discover), and generally to get into more trouble than their parents ever did at such an age.
And how can we blame them for their love of this technology, when modern mothers put their babes to sleep using "white noise" apps?
Amid the confusion, the fear, and the conflicting advice, I have taken solace in the one thing that hasn't changed much since I was a child: children's literature.
We only have to look at the outpouring of tributes that followed the death in May of the American author Maurice Sendak to appreciate how deeply the books we read as children affect us.
Sendak's seminal Where the Wild Things Are reads as fresh, as captivating and, I'm sure, for a little child, as frightening today as it did when first published in 1963.
Indeed, as debate rages in Britain over whether children's books should be subject to an age-based ratings system because they have become too scary, it's worth remembering Sendak's book was banned when first published.
Apparently, the award-winning tale about Max, the boy whose imagination transports him to a land inhabited by monsters after being punished by his mother for misbehaving, was considered inappropriate for children. Sendak once told an interviewer it took two years "before librarians began to see that's all the kids were taking out of the library over and over and over again".
The British debate was sparked by a rethink by the author GP Taylor, who has come to believe the books about vampires he wrote for children are too dark for the target audience.
Children's literature - including debate about which monsters are suitable for children - hasn't changed much in decades. But, arguments about vampires aside, I am enjoying the opportunity afforded by new parenthood to reimmerse myself in the books that shaped me.
I have been stocking my son's shelves with The Enchanted Wood, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings. I'm also relishing the chance to scour the "best children's books of all time" lists on the internet in search of once loved books I'd forgotten and to discover new ones.
It was on one such list (published by The Guardian) that I found what has become a new favourite, the moving and poetic The Snail and the Whale. Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones but, when I first read this book to my son (still then in the womb) about the "great big, grey-blue humpback whale" who gets beached because of confusion caused by noisy speedboats, I cried.
Other parents have been the most fruitful source of the modern classics. By the time you have received your fifth copy of Good Night Moon, you are up to date on what's been happening in the world of children's fiction over the past 30 years.
As ever, they include the unexpectedly funny (like the book about a baby whose avocado diet gives him superhuman strength) and the surprisingly didactic. It is striking how many modern children's books are built around teaching little ones to understand, and not fear, difference. Someone sent me a book about a hen who longs for a baby and tells her friends she would love any bird - whether an owl or swan or seagull - that she was lucky enough to call her own. (One wonders whether these lessons aren't secretly directed at the parents, since children aren't born with prejudices but rather learn them from grown-ups.)
Finally for me, reading out loud to my son is something I know I can do as well as any other parent - no matter what my physical limitations - and that makes it even more special.
Dorothea Brande wrote in 1934 that: "Fiction supplies the only philosophy that many readers know; it establishes their ethical, social, and material standards; it confirms them in their prejudices or opens their minds to a wider world."
If this is even partly true of adult fiction, it is a hundred times more true of the books we read - or have read to us - as children.
Yet a recent British study found nearly two-thirds of parents never read to their infants, meaning, as one newspaper reported, "babies are missing out on a crucial window" in their language development. What a loss were we not to share with our children the one experience we know without question is beneficial to them.