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The Science of a Bedtime Story

Kanzi Kamel By Kanzi Kamel Published on November 3, 2015
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Dragons Love Tacos is not your typical bedtime story.

“Once upon a time …” has begun many a childhood night. Once mothers or fathers perch at the edge of twin beds and begin a fairy tale with that internationally recognized phrase, they have their children’s attention. The story typically follows with exaggerated character imitations in hushed tones in a feeble attempt to put the children to sleep. However, according to science, there’s more than just a few pages and a kiss on the forehead to the perfect bedtime story.

Many parents trade off on bedtime duty. One day it’s mom, the next it’s dad. But which parent reads bedtime stories better?

A study commissioned by Harvard University concluded that children’s intelligence benefits more when listening to bedtime stories read by their father. The study found that women tend to ask more factual questions when they read to their children, while men ask more abstract questions. For example, while reading “The Three Little Pigs,” a mother – like a teacher, according to the study – might ask, “What color is this pig’s house?” Meanwhile, the father might say, “Do you remember the old brick house we used to pass on the way to school?”

For children under the age of two in particular, abstract questions are more challenging and thus encourage learning and language development. Lead researcher on the study Elisabeth Duursma said, “The impact is huge, particularly if dads start reading to kids under the age of two. Reading is seen as a female activity and kids seem to be more tuned in when their dad reads to them – it’s special.”

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Ada Twist, Scientist is a welcome and diverse addition to bedtime stories.

Today, however, some parents are of the opinion that children shouldn’t be exposed to fairy tales and fantasy. Instead, they argue, children should be taught science from a young age. Perhaps the best counterargument to this comes from Albert Einstein himself: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

There’s more to the science of a perfect bedtime story, too. A new study of 2000 families revealed that the ideal story should last only 8.6 minutes. Participants said the story should include a dragon, a wizard and a fairy and should “ideally revolve around a mythical castle.” Of course, it should also have a happy ending. Interestingly enough, the survey concluded that nearly all children preferred fantasy to love stories.

Your move, Disney.


Egyptian-American food enthusiast born in Chicago, raised in Beirut, and living in Dublin. Multitasker at Bookwitty. Intimately familiar with the term "identity crisis".


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