Parental sine qua non

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

January 24, 2009 at 12:13 AM EST

While parents cast about at great expense looking for programs to improve their children's brainpower, a magic bullet exists at low cost that has never quite received its due. It is a life-enhancing, literacy-inducing, time-travelling device, colloquially known as a “book.” It works optimally when a parent or two read it out loud. Best of all, it is free at public libraries, though woe betide the person who returns it late.

This device – sold separately, as they say (the book and the parental reading unit) – is far, far better than a Baby Einstein video. Imagine, if it only had the name. Let's do the Baby Einstein before bed. Think how eagerly parents would embrace it.

What parent-child reading needs is marketing. It is getting some. Beginning Friday, and ending Saturday, thousands of Canadian adults and children are attempting to enter the Guinness World Records, for “most children reading with an adult, multiple locations,” trying to grab the record of 78,791 from the Americans, who set it in 2006. At last word, Canada had 187,043 people registered. Everyone is reading the same five books by the Canadian author Robert Munsch. Corny? No.

Not when research has found that parental involvement in their children's reading is a more important influence on literacy than family wealth, or the level of parental education. Not when, of all school subjects, reading is the most sensitive to parental involvement, according to the research. And not when literacy is the sine qua non of school success, and much else that is good in life.

Even if it is corny, it is the right kind of corny. And it pales next to Britain's focus on literacy. Canada has an annual Family Literacy Day – this Tuesday – sponsored by the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation and Honda Canada; Britain just finished a National Year of Reading, which is being followed by a national Reading for Life campaign. Young fathers, particularly working-class fathers, are one focus of that campaign; research has found that fathers' role in reading to their children has been undervalued. The goal is for all families “to see reading as an important part of their daily lives and part of the culture of their home.”

Teaching children to love reading is not a job that can be offloaded on a video, or a daycare centre or the schools. The joy of reading is either in the air at home or it is not, and children, even small ones, can detect the difference.

Editor's Note: The newspaper version of this editorial and the earlier online version of this incorrectly said that Family Literacy Day was Monday. It is Tuesday. This online version has been corrected.