Boys brought to book live happily ever after

SITTING on his father's knee gurgling over the pages of a picture book he can't yet read, it his hard to imagine how this cherub could grow up to terrorise a community and develop a too familiar understanding of the prison system.

In actuality, if this scene were to be repeated more often, one expert in gang culture believes this innocent child might escape being dragged into a life of violence and criminality.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan of the Scotland-wide Violence Reduction Unit says: "As a police officer, when you start researching how you could prevent violence, reading is a key companion. Research will fill rooms on how it affects brain development.

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"If you look at the young guys in the most deprived areas, where there are challenges for health and education, you see a prevalence of gang culture, as well as alcohol and drugs. You go to Polmont prison and you find many of them struggle with literacy and numeracy."

Mr Carnochan believes exposure to reading and listening from an age could prevent youngsters heading down the wrong path. "As children learn language they can communicate much better, which a lot of those young people find difficult," he explains. "The way they solve differences is through violence rather than through debate or discussion."

He believes reading with a parent could instil communication abilities crucial to such young people in later life.

"That ability to listen to people, to understand, to judge and to make good decisions," he says. "A lot of those young guys just don't have that."

He concedes many of the parents of youngsters who go off the rails have often no experience of books or reading with their own parents themselves.

"Parents find it really difficult and there is no handbook to being a parent. We need to support parents as much as we can an if they have not been parented themselves they don't know how to do it."

Attempting to offer that support is the Book Trust which, since 1992, has provided free packs of books to pre-school children. Starting with just 300 babies in Birmingham, it became a national scheme seven years later and, by March 2000, was the first national baby book-gifting scheme in the world. In Scotland it is funded by the Scottish Government, which has a strong focus on the importance of early years, and the scheme is sponsored by 25 publishers to gift free books to children aged from birth up to three.

From a bag filled with solid picturebooks for chubby little baby hands to grasp, up to packs – complete with crayons, colouring pads and number cards – for 18-month-old toddlers and a treasure chest for three-year-olds with more narrative books and colouring pencils, the charity aims to help parents encourage their children to engage with books by offering materials appropriate to each age group.

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The packs are distributed through health visitors, nurseries or local libraries where the charity holds Rhymetime sessions for parents to sing nursery rhymes and read stories along with their children.

Mr Carnochan is keen to stress there is no particular type of book to give children the best start. "You need children's books that capture the imagination, they don't have to have to be specifically moral tales or be about how to cross the road," he says. "It is about that quality time interaction. Sometimes it is the simple things that make the difference."

Caroline McLeod, development manager of the Scottish Book Trust, says: "Babies don't come with a manual, and parenting can often be a challenging job.

"It is, therefore, imperative that we give parents the support they need to give their babies the best possible start in life, and the best possible future chances."

Sue Palmer is child development expert and author of a book called 21st Century Boys: How modern life is driving them off the rails.

She says it is particularly important for parents to view reading as just as important activity for boys as for girls.

"It's how they learn to relate to people, which is fundamental in this early relationship with parents, which is why it's so important," she says.

"It can give a focus for talk because spoken language comes before reading and the levels of children's language in the early years is one of the most important predictors of being able to get along in the future.

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"Boys particularly benefit from a lot of time and attention and being read to when they are little.

"One great thing is for fathers to share books with their sons."

Perhaps sitting on daddy's knee pointing a sticky finger at a copy of Happy Dog Sad Dog will give that baby boy a greater gift than either of them will every know – a stay-out-of-jail card.