Reading at the table (and other book-related dilemmas)

I’m genuinely interested in people’s views on how they present books and reading in their own homes, because I find myself conflicted about the best approach to take with C and H.

Obviously when children are very young (I’m talking about the can’t-hold-their-own-head-up stage through to the wow-I-can-kind-of-sort-of-roll stage) they are not often holding the books themselves.  If they are, the books are likely to be of the robust, pretty much indestructible board / cloth / bath book variety, which are great for getting very little ones interested in books and used to some of the techniques involved in reading them, i.e., how to turn pages, where to hold them so you can see the pictures,etc.  Although at the time, reading with C and H during this phase felt like a game more than anything else, I can definitely see the benefits of them having been able to handle books from such a young age.

I can also now see that those were the halcyon days, which presented no greater mental challenge to me then the gentle encouragement not to force wax crayons through the holes in ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’.

Because NOW we have a whole new set of issues.

Firstly, H (at nearly two) insists on dragging his favourite books around everywhere, but often leaves them on the floor.  He’s not doing this to be naughty (well, not most of the time) but simply because he gets distracted and moves on to something else. The books might then get accidentally trodden upon as we tear around putting out pretend fires, or they might try to use them as a road when we get out our impressive fleet of toy cars.  Obviously I emphasise to the boys that this is not how we treat books, but I’m worried about swinging too far in the other direction and leaving them thinking that books are sooooooooooo delicate and precious that we must never touch them or get them out.

Secondly, C likes to ‘read’ (at three and a half, he’s not officially reading, but he tells himself full stories using the pictures as prompts and can (and often does!) recite his favourite books off by heart) EVERYWHERE.  He takes books to bed at night (we now have to select his ‘keeping’ books and his ‘reading’ books from the bookcase each night), he reads in the car and he also reads at the table.  To be fair to him, he is usually very careful with the books.  However, I still have my beloved grandpa’s voice in the back of my mind, telling me that meals are a time for ‘bright and helpful conversation’ and not for solitary activities like enjoying a story by yourself, so I ask C to put the books away.  As a compromise, I often read the boys a story or two while they eat (my husband and I eat later) but I do appreciate that this isn’t the same as C getting to peruse a story by himself.  I also want the boys to feel that not only is reading immensely pleasurable, but that it’s also like eating and breathing – necessary for their very survival!  Maybe I shouldn’t stop them reading whenever or wherever the mood takes them?

Thirdly, and this is the one I wrestle with the most, whether to treat bedtime stories as an inalienable right or as something that can be taken away as a punishment.  Throughout the day, the boys have time-outs (for the number of minutes that corresponds to their age in years) when their behaviour isn’t quite what it should be.  We then talk about what went wrong, how we could make it better and then they say sorry and we have a cuddle and move on.  During the final half hour of the day this isn’t always possible, what with baths to be had, teeth to be cleaned and pyjamas to be wriggled on.  C in particular seems to find the bedtime routine ‘tricky’ sometimes and will push and push and push and do his level best to ensure we all get as wound up as possible.  Clearly we don’t to send him to bed feeling sad or grumpy, but equally we feel that he needs to be aware that some behaviour isn’t acceptable even if you’re tired and weary and he’s still too young to understand us carrying a punishment over to the next day (which seems quite a negative way to start a day anyway!).

So, occasionally, we have told him that if he doesn’t start playing along he’ll lose a bedtime story (he usually has three).  Only once has he got down to having no stories and in that case we gave him the chance to do something good (from memory it was to carry H’s toothbrush over to him, or something equally minor) so that he could ‘earn’ a story back.  He was devastated to consider the possibility of having NO stories, so it was an effective sanction, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.  Shouldn’t he be getting stories anyway, regardless of anything else?  We do read during the day, but nothing beats snuggling up just before you go to sleep and having someone there to give you a big cuddle and read to you.

I’m sure, as always, that the answer lies in moderation and consistency, which is pretty much the path we’re following.  But I don’t want the boys to feel ‘moderately’ interested in reading – I want them to be as passionate about it as I am!  For those of you who live with, or work with, very young children – what do you do?  This is an issue I’ll need to get my head around for Story Seekers if I’m hoping to offer the sessions to babies and toddlers (as well as older children) and therefore your opinions will be very gratefully received!



  1. Removing stories is a punishment I have given before, usually if my daughter is being exceptionally naughty before bedtime. Otherwise, earlier in the day, I try other sanctions. Because she’s older I ask her to sit down and write about why she’s done what she’s done. But removing bedtime stories is usually a tragedy in our house – for all concerned. I think I like bedtime stories as much as she does!

  2. Thanks for your comment – that sounds very similar to us. I only consider removing stories in exceptional circumstances and if it’s too close to the end of the day to use any other sanction. But, as you say, I feel as if I’m punishing myself as well – I look forward to bedtime stories for the whole day and I feel incomplete if I haven’t snuggled up and read to the boys. Luckily, even the threat of stories being removed is enough as C clearly feels similarly to Holly about them!

  3. Very interesting post Lolly. So here’s how it works in our home. With the exception of pop up books which are inherently fairly fragile, all books are fair game in our home. They are taken all sorts of places, sometimes getting a little worn in the process. But I’m definitely in the camp that a book with a creased spine, or a bit of food stuck between pages is a book which has been read and loved, rather than being treated as a museum piece to sit on a shelf. But I know not everyone feels the same. I actually like seeing the creases left by dogears in books – it’s a sure sign of the time spent reading them and enjoying them. Of course we don’t advocate covering them with pen or tearing pages, but you wouldn’t want a teddy they loved to remain looking like it had just come out if its packaging, would you? Wouldn’t the love shown to that teddy be clear from how much it has been cuddled and taken places (perhaps leaving it a little less than pristine)? – anyway, that’s what I feel.

    As to reading at meal times, we nearly always read at mealtimes. During the week (like you) adults eat at a different time to the kids, so sometimes I read to them, or sometimes they look at their own books. Actually we find this aids conversation enormously – trying instead to find out what happened at school, for example, can be like getting blood out of a stone, but talking about the story, or hearing laughter and asking what was the source always gets conversation flowing.
    At the weekend often us grownups will be reading the newspaper at the table whilst the kids are reading other things -and I love it! They see us reading, and we never end up sitting in silence as everyone’s reading matter creates conversation.

  4. Clare Trowell · · Reply

    First of all you are doing well. Short stories wirh lots of repitition are best for toddlers. My younger child wanted to have ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ EVERY night for 18 months! Of course she destroyed the actual book. She still remembers this fondly… Now she is 18. If your kids become true book lovers they will end up reading wherever they are by the time they are 10 table, in the bath, undercovers after lights out or even up trees.Dont worry about books + dinner! Keeping order is tough at the end of the day when everyone is tired but my advice is NEVER take away a bedtime story as punishment…you can think of something else. Well done they are very young but they already love books!Just a word of warning…however much you try you can only encourage, you cannot make them love books passionately. Our children are individuals! My kids are 24 and 18 now…24 year old has always been mad on readingbut 18 year old only started properlyreading in 6th Form. So they find their own way. You are doing all the right things for your two.

  5. Zoe, thanks so much for your comments. My gut instinct is the same as yours, in that I’d much rather the boys loved their books to pieces than never touched them. Indeed, that’s exactly what we’ve done so far and many old favourites are covered in sellotape! With a few books (‘You Choose’, for example) we’re onto our second or third copy, as the books simply fell apart though such heavy use.
    I really appreciate hearing about what other people do at dinner times especially. Up until now I’ve not even thought about the fact that the boys bring books to the table, but something suddenly triggered my grandpa’s and my mum’s voices saying that mealtimes were not a time for reading (though both my parents and all my grandparents loved books and reading). I can definitely see how reading would spark conversation though, as that’s exactly what happens with C at bedtime – the story reading always encourages general chat and sometimes he brings up things that are clearly very important to him but that he hasn’t mentioned at any other time. It makes sense that this theory would apply at other times as well.
    Thanks for taking the time to write such a helpful reply, it’s definitely given me food for thought!

  6. Thanks so much for your comments, Clare, I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. I’m aware of what you say about not being able to ‘make’ the boys love books and reading – unfortunately it’s becoming increasingly harder to ‘make’ them do anything at all if they have other ideas 😉 Much as I’d love to feel that the boys were already lifelong avid readers, in reality I’d much rather they were strong-minded and independent and discovered their own passions, rather than simply feeling that they had to follow mine. All I do is hope that, by trying to make reading as fun as possible and by letting them see how a whole range of different people enjoy reading, they develop a love of books that is all their own.
    Thanks again for your thoughts!

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