"My kids don't read the newspapers at all," a friend said to me recently, as he knows I work for The Straits Times.
My reply: His children could well regret this when they find themselves seeking a job later.
Noticing his visible shock at my remark, I explained that when children don't read the newspapers, they are indicating that they either dislike reading or have no interest in events that are happening in Singapore or abroad.
Left unchecked, these traits could impact a child's breadth of knowledge, which may return to haunt him when he joins a competitive working world.
The benefits of reading newspapers, which are timelier than textbooks and keep readers updated on current events, have been stated by various studies.
Years of research have led organisations, such as the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, to conclude that students who read newspapers more have shown greater interest in their government, neighbourhood events and foreign affairs.
Such interests would also spur them to read more, and they become better students by improving their language skills.
Parents who want their kids to do well should note that it is not just about tuition. If children are not reading, how can they acquire knowledge and language skills that will help them later?
Ponder for a moment - if you have done well in your career, I am sure you didn't get there by not having a habit of reading. If so, can the future generation do better if they skip reading and, by extension, miss an opportunity to be better learners?
If parents think that their children's knowledge gaps could be filled in schools and universities, they are in for a surprise. American educator Roland Barth noted that while it might be true that formal education some 50 years ago could equip college students with 75 per cent of the skills they might need, the figure today has fallen to just 2 per cent at graduation.
That means that they have to pick up the rest on their own.
While we can debate the percentages, many graduates will tell you that not everything they learn in school will be applicable at work, even for the most specialised courses, such as law and medicine.
Those who want to do well in their careers will have to constantly update and upgrade themselves.
And one can't simply plug in and download the latest version of knowledge to the brain. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, which is by reading. If children do not develop a habit of reading from a young age, how will they acquire knowledge and language skills that will be critical to them later in life?
By reading, I mean reading content that is useful, and not their friends' social media posts on what they did over the weekend.
Doing the latter only turns a child into someone who is clued in to what his friends are doing but an ignoramus in the real world. Reading other people's posts of articles also won't make you smarter, simply because your consumption will be dependent on what others want to read first.
Things were much simpler 50 years ago. There were fewer distractions - while you could watch TV and movies, they were not as widely accessible as today.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I recall reading a lot - not just a book or two, but entire collections by famous writers like Enid Blyton.
Some of my favourite novels were by American author and National Geographic Society correspondent Willard Price, who wrote about the adventures of two brothers who accompanied their father to track down endangered animals in far-flung places around the globe.
Although these were just stories, they excited my young mind, as I learnt about places which I had never heard of. More importantly, these books made reading fun and inculcated a thirst to gain new knowledge. Reading also helped me to write better because I learnt how authors used different styles in their works.
HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED
What's worrying is that Singaporeans are reading less now, going by the 15 per cent dip in the borrowing of books at our national libraries between 2012 and last year. While more people are reading e-books from the libraries now, this trend did not offset the overall decline in borrowings.
A study by think-tank DQ Institute and the Nanyang Technological University found that children today are spending too much time on their smartphones and tablets. The study, reported in The Straits Times last month, found that many children developed this habit from a young age and, by the time they hit 12, most would be spending more than six hours a day watching videos, listening to music and playing games on their screens. This means that they spend almost two days in a week on their devices.
While there is nothing wrong with kids having fun, a line has to be drawn to prevent them from wasting time on inappropriate content or, worse, developing antisocial behaviours.
Mr David Chiem, the founder and chairman of pre-school MindChamps, observed that when children use smart devices, they are exposed to an interactive world filled with sound and movement, which they have control over. They can touch, swipe and change the content whenever they want.
Now, picture the same kids in a classroom where learning is dictated by the teachers. Would you blame them if they find themselves distracted and bored outside of the hyper-stimulated conditions they have grown used to in their virtual world?
That said, it is not about stopping kids from using devices, but guiding them in their use. If children are taught early on to enjoy reading and learning, the devices can become their window to millions of e-books and informative materials, instead of just a road to endless hours of fun and games. But many parents are screen addicts too, happy to leave their children to their own devices. It is common to see a whole family glued to their own screens during outings.
SEEDS OF INNOVATION
The MindChamps founder noted in his book, the 3-Mind Revolution, that parents need to be aware that not only do their children have to put in hard work but they also need to be guided in the right direction if they want to stand out and become "champions" in life. Mr Chiem said: "When children step outside the school gates and into the real world, we expect them to suddenly become original and creative. How can we expect this of children if they haven't been adequately prepared?"
Some might point to success stories of the likes of Mr Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college. Yet, the Apple founder did not do so out of boredom, to go on spending his time playing computer games or watching videos all day long.
He merely stopped attending courses that he didn't like. He worked harder to earn money to stay at the same college to learn calligraphy, a skill which he put to good use later when he created the world's first personal computer with great typography.
Mr Jobs' example is a good life lesson that, before one can create, one needs to have a basic level of knowledge first.
Today's youth will have it tougher than their parents because it is no longer enough just to know. In the old days, you may impress potential employers by rattling off facts and figures. Today, any employer can retrieve facts instantly from the Web. To impress him, you will need to tell him how he might use those same facts and figures to grow his business and beat the competition.
To get ahead, one has to know what everyone else is doing so that one can exercise creativity and try to do things better. There is no shortcut to knowing what is happening in Singapore and the world other than to start reading and learning, a lot and all the time. Just like how I hope you have gained a new perspective by reading this.
• The writer is senior vice-president (business development) for The Straits Times.