I Taught My Daughter To Read. She Taught Me To Slow Down.
Roald Dahl’s The BFG was the first real book my five-year-old daughter and I read together.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the BFG is a terrifying yet funny story about Sophie. The BFG kidnaps this young British orphan from her bed and whisks her away to Giant Country, a land populated by even larger giants who eat small children.
Teaching my daughter how to read the BFG was an exercise in how to slow down. It wasn’t a lesson I set out to learn either.
On a normal day, I devour business and self-help books. I’m hungry for advice and strategies to apply at work or in my business. I usually have three titles on the go: Kindle, paperback, and audiobook. If information is currency, I’ve tried to become rich.
I don’t stop at reading these non-fiction books either. I take the good ones apart. I outline and mind-map lessons from the ones that engage me and abandon the rest. Occasionally, I read novels for pleasure, but my patience for fiction is short.
A five-year-old has little interest in who Nike founder Phil Knight is, Steve Jobs’s attempts to put a ding in the universe or why Elon Musk wants to go the Mars.
Suffice to say, we relied on a paperback copy of the BFG, with an orange and yellow cover and illustrations from Quentin Blake that felt like portals back into my childhood.
I found reading aloud The BFG to her hard at first. The pace got to me. It’s not like this was the first book I’d shared with her. I’ve known for years how books can help a child develop their vocabulary and I always went out of my way to purchase a few around Christmas and birthdays.
But here’s the thing:
A Child Doesn’t Keep the Same Time As Their Parent
You can read a book to a baby or a toddler in a few minutes. They’ve a short attention span and five or ten short pages, each a couple of sentences long, is more than enough.
I tried to read to my daughter like she was still a toddler. I sat on the edge of bed at night and rushed through the start of the book. Why read a whole chapter when a few pages are enough?
“Slow down, Daddy. I want to hear about Sophie’s school.”
Each night, she stopped me to ask questions like:
“Why is the BFG so tall?”
“Do giants really eat small children?”
“What’s a whizpopper?”
(That’s the BFG’s word for flatulence).
My daughter was learning how to read in school too. So, she wanted to to tackle some bigger words herself like “mountain” and “giant country” and “horse feathers”.
So we’d sit and sound out syllable by syllable, and all the while I could only think about how I was falling behind at work.
Why did Steve Jobs buy Pixar in the first place? And would Elon Musk every rescue Tesla?
It took us a few months to read all of The BFG. I don’t even remember reaching “The End”. It felt more like painting than reading.
We’d read one chapter and then turn to previous one, to fill in what she understood about the BFG, Sophie and Giant Country.
Then, one Spring evening it happened.
My night my daughter stood in the hall in her pyjamas holding a tattered copy of the BFG.
The two of us high-fived the end of dream country.
Reading Unlocks The Keys to an Inner World
I bought my daughter some of Dahl’s other books like Fantastic Mister M.Fox and James and the Giant Peach. I even fished a tattered, yellow copy of Mathilda out from our attic.
Finishing the BFG gave my daughter new found confidence to tackle books on her own. In Easons, our local bookstore, she asked for books by David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson.
Although I could technically read these books too, these were stories she found rather than ones I presented to her. It’s harder for an adult to climb down the rabbit hole to a new world, with the same sense of wonder.
Seven now, she’d sit up straight in bed in the way only a child can, surrounded by Beanie Boo teddy bears, whispering sentence after sentence. I envied her lack of self-consciousness.
“This is Tom. He is twelve and goes to a posh boarding school.”
(That’s from The Midnight Gang by David Walliams)
Occasionally, she asked me how to sound out a word or what boarding school is. Over time her questions became less frequent. I stood at the door, listening to her vocabulary expand and attention span grow.
Putting her to bed didn’t take as long either, so I’d more free time in the evenings.
I returned to Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Phil Knight. I’d even more time to work on my to-do list.
One morning after she left for school, I thumbed through the dozen or so read books on her desk. It was quite the pile.
At first, I felt proud of her ability to finish these books without asking me many questions or losing interest.
Then, I saw the books for what they were. Markers for the new ways my daughter didn’t need me as much any more.
And that stack would only grow.
What I’m Reading
From 15 years of heroin addiction to becoming a neuroscience lecturer