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Toddler at the “Wheel” and Other Reading Aloud Hurdles

I need no encouragement to read aloud with my kids.

Parenting and literacy experts recommend it. Research supports it. Government programs like the Victorian Government’s Baby Bundle are based on it.

But I need not look that far.

Reading aloud with my kids creates calm after a big day. It gives us an opportunity to snuggle, bond and have fun together.

With a book in hand we’re no longer caregiver and dependent, rather joint adventurers on a journey that unfolds page by page.

The academic benefits of reading aloud to our children have also been demonstrated to me first hand. My eldest son’s reading skills advanced significantly after a holiday during which we (and not he!) read aloud chapter books most nights. Reading aloud also builds language and knowledge about the world.

But sometimes it’s hard. And, lately it’s been really hard.

There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Miss Gubby (22 months) loves books but likes to read them back to front or by skipping a few pages in the middle. She’ll often turn the page when I’m mid-sentence and even abruptly discard the book.
  2. Said toddler has also been interrupting read aloud sessions with her older brothers. The boys have even said “c’mon mum” or “keep reading mum” when Miss Gubby is in the middle of a deafening meltdown! But even if I were to persist, my heart would not be in it. She is tired by that time and wants my full attention.
  3. Finding the time. We don’t have a jam packed and structured after-school program and no compulsory homework. Nonetheless, by the time the kids play and the necessities (snacks, readers, showers, dinner etc) are done, there is little time left before bed. Stories can then feel rushed and the quality of the session, with less expression, fun and interaction, can be compromised.

We’ve faced other difficulties in the past too. One of our kids as a toddler went through a phase of throwing and ripping books. This seemed to occur more often at bedtime, when he was probably tired. Other kids can show little interest in reading and books.

I’m conscious that, as Mem Fox says in her book Reading Magic (Pan MacMillian, 2001, p 52), “[l]osing the joy means losing the usefulness.” She also says (p9) that “Reading aloud shouldn’t be thought of as a grimacing This-is-Good-for-Your-Child event for mothers and fathers.”

In this blog I share some ideas that may help address the problems identified above. Mention must be made of my friends who submitted some excellent ideas for developing a love of reading and books on one of my recent Instagram and Facebook posts. Most of these ideas have found their way into the below!

Hurdle 1: Toddler at the wheel and we’re “reading” back to front and upside down

Try:

  • accepting that the story won’t flow and being prepared to go off script, knowing that the child will still benefit from the experience:
    • read the pages in whatever order your child turns them
    • read the pages your child does pause on and, if they pause for some time, talk about the pictures too
    • interact with the text and the illustrations and ask questions / talk
  • reading books that don’t have a story (like first word books such as “101 First Words” published by Hinkler or “I Spy With My Little Eye: First Words” by Jeannette Rowe)

Hurdle 2: The multi-child juggle

Try:

  • welcoming interruptions so you engage all of your children in the read aloud experience. If pictures engage your less interested child, point them out as you read along and make eye contact to try to engage them in the story
  • giving your less interested child another activity to do in the vicinity of where you are reading so that they can move between the book and the activity and still hear the story being read (this tends to work for us sometimes!)
  • staggering bedtimes so you can read to one or a couple of children separately
  • putting each child into bed with a book to read or flip through independently and then visit each one separately for a one-on-one read aloud session (note may not work when you have a toddler!)
  • reading to a child/ren when the other one is in the shower or bath (in the bathroom if supervision is required!)
  • staging simultaneous read aloud sessions if you and your partner are both home (or a grandparent, other adult or older child is home)

Hurdle 3: Finding the time

Try:

  • to keep reading aloud part of your regular routine and grabbing extra opportunities to plug the gaps where the regular reading time doesn’t work, by:
    • keeping a book in your bag for trips to the doctor or to read while commuting or while waiting for breakfast or coffee etc
    • making age appropriate books accessible to your kids at home (eg on a low shelf or in your toy basket) so they can help themselves
    • reading with your child if they ask you to at any time (where possible)
  • take books on holidays with you
  • take advantage of times when you have visitors that can read with your children

 Hurdle 4: The book throwing toddler

Try:

  • choosing books that are more robust (board books, fabric books)
  • to accept that some books are going to get broken and tatty
  • keeping your very special books and borrowed books up and away and only bring them out when you think your child is less likely to rip them
  • reading at different times of the day (perhaps when your child is less tired)

Book 1

Hurdle 5: The child with less interest in reading and books

Try:

  • going to story time at your local library or local bookstore. Often a story time program will involve craft activities, broadening the scope of what might appeal to your child
  • allowing your child to choose the books they want to read without imposing your own judgment. Mem Fox in Reading Magic suggests not all books are good for kids (and may actually put kids off books and reading altogether), but also says “[a]ny book that a child owns and loves is a good book for them.” (p121)
  • modelling a love of reading and books yourself by reading in front of your children
  • reading in a different voice, singing some of the story or even acting it out
  • finding books that extend the experiences the child is having at home (eg read “Dear Zoo” by Rod Campbell after a trip to the zoo)
  • listening to audio books, which are not a substitute for reading aloud, but may build an interest in books and stories

And finally…

I think it’s important to acknowledge that on some days reading aloud may just be too hard, like:

  • days when there may not be enough hours in the day
  • days when your toddler may not settle into their bedtime routine, throwing out your reading time with your older kids

On those days, be kind to yourself and try again the next day!

Lauren x

PS: Have you experienced other difficulties reading aloud? Do you have other suggestions? I’d love to hear them!

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We’re Not Alone: The Letdown Season 1

The Letdown Season 1 (ABC/Netflix) is a brilliant comedy series about becoming new parents (and not just me thinks – it recently won an AACTA Award for Best Comedy Program!)

But it’s much more than just a funny and entertaining watch – The Letdown also exposes many of the challenges that parents face in the first weeks with a newborn. And in so doing it reminds us that as much as we can feel alone and isolated as parents, we are absolutely not alone.

Here are some of the themes in Season 1 that resonated with me:

A lot’s changed

“A lot’s changed,” says child and maternal health nurse Ambrose (Noni Hazelhurst) in the first mother’s group session attended by the series’ central character, mum Audrey (Alison Bell).

Well, isn’t that the truth!

Our life was turned upside down on the birth of our eldest child and rocked again, albeit a little more gently, when Dames and then Miss Gubby joined us.

Highest on the list of rude shocks for us was how our once intellectually stimulating relationship was reduced to talking about feeding, sleeping and pooing habits. And how about those 3am pyjama clad, slits for eyes discussions about whether to “go in”? If yes, then when? And for how long? And to do exactly what – pat, sing, cuddle and rock, breastfeed…again?

Coming in second was the mind-numbing exhaustion and the assault of hormones I felt. And how about that first experience of the baby blues? I was confused – surely, when everyone had said how exciting it was to be pregnant with a baby, the “baby blues” were made of cotton, size 000 and perfect for boys? But actually when the little guy arrived, I felt out of control, unable to do the Rolls Royce job parenting I was so accustomed to doing with everything else, worried about breaking this precious little bundle and a bit sad and frustrated to have left my old life behind (the days of drinking coffee at my own pace were over).

Alison Bell, The Letdown (ABC)

Parents: objects of public consumption and judgment

The mother’s group crowd around Audrey as she tries to breastfeed baby Stevie, with one lunging to physically assist and another reaching for her phone to take a photo.

The local drug dealer suggests Audrey try the footy hold breastfeeding position.

Audrey gets the evil eye from another mum for drinking caffeinated coffee while breastfeeding.

Yes, as a new parent, you’re fair game for the average punter. Prepare to be observed, advised, judged, reprimanded. And no need for said punter to know you, have a medical degree or qualifications in child rearing.

What is it with new life? Do people get a touch of collective baby brain within a 20m radius of a newborn? Why is it that people, who are usually so reserved and absorbed by their phones, suddenly look up and pay attention when they see a pram?

While most are well-meaning, albeit sometimes a little clumsy, it cannot be said for all. On a couple of recent flights, our kids couldn’t even put their tray tables down without attracting scorn from the woman in the seat in front (memo to her: you were young once too!) On the way back, we struck another who took a swipe at Miss Gubby within minutes of sitting down – apparently as a substitute for telling us with her words to be careful touching the back of her chair.

But in my experience there’s no need to wait until your little cherub arrives for people to take a step into your world uninvited – cue pregnant bump and they’re in!

In my third pregnancy I had very red cheeks from chronic rosacea and couldn’t apply foundation to hide it because my skin was desert dry. Already extremely self-conscious of it, someone asked if I was severely sunburnt!

And then of course there is the pregnant belly grope. I had to wait until my third pregnancy for one of those and boy was it uncomfortable. Even Damien didn’t touch my belly without invitation!

In my experience, people’s hands continue to wander once bubs arrives too – around the plastic rain cover, into your pram and onto his or her gorgeous cheeks, chin and mouth! And while they’re in there fossicking around, maybe they’ll tell you your baby is hungry or tired, having known your little angel for only moments!

The-Letdown-Alison-Bell-plays-Audrey-6107

Negotiating different beliefs and upbringings

A knock to the head from a falling pine cone reminds Audrey’s partner Jeremy (Brendan Cowell) of his promise to baptise baby Stevie a Catholic in his family tradition, made during the throes of Audrey’s difficult labour. But Audrey doesn’t believe in God.

Audrey objects to Stevie’s grandmother reading her “Babar”, a book from Jeremy’s childhood because it has imperialist themes and Babar is a dictator.

In many respects, Damien and I had very similar upbringings. We both grew up in small towns in rural Victoria. Our families lived modestly, we attended local schools and we didn’t want for much, though I would have liked a hyper-colour t-shirt in the 90s if the truth be told! But there are nevertheless differences in our childhood experiences that range from the particular Christian faith our families follow, to the tomato sauce we prefer (homemade or bought).

The Christian faith our children will be encouraged to follow was an uncontroversial choice and resolved for us long before we had children (we were married in the Catholic Church).

However, on a seemingly more mundane topic – dog ownership – there is more contention. I grew up with big drooling Labradors breathing in my ears and lounging at my feet. Damien on the other hand, whose mum is nervous about dogs and dislikes the drool and hot breath bit, never had a dog as a pet. He also harbours fears about dogs and small children. As the safety of our kids is high priority, it’s a topic we’ll revisit when the kids are older.

 

There’s a saying in my family that “it’s better to laugh than to cry”.

I cried a lot in the early newborn days.

But the Letdown Season 1 has squared the ledger – it gave me many laughs reflecting on those times.

And maybe it will for you too!

Lauren x

PS The amazing team at The Letdown are now working on Season 2. I can’t wait to find out what (or who!) comes next😊

All photos featured in this blog are courtesy of the ABC.

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Tips for Calm and Connected Car Trips

Taking a road trip this Christmas/summer holiday period?

Whether it’s to join family for Christmas dinner, to visit the beach or to do something more adventurous, most of us will be on the road at some point over the next month and clocking up a few kms.

With a backseat lined with youngsters, car trips can be a special form of torture. In the car, children can fidget, fight, whinge, scream and shout, need to stop at the most inopportune times and ask the “are we there yet?” question on repeat! Our kids generally do these things when the traffic is terrible or we’re about to do a tricky manoeuvre in an unfamiliar place – ie just when we really need to concentrate!

But while little travellers are always going to have their moments, it is possible for family car trips for the most part to be a calm experience for everyone involved. And not only that, taking a road trip with your tribe can be a great time to connect as a family.

My top tips for having calm and connected car trips with your family are set out below.

They’ve been road tested by our family of five on a road trip of just a few kms length… six thousand kms in fact! See the image at the top of this post – taken in Goondiwindi, a mere 1315 kms from Melbourne!

But before we begin, a bit more about the “connected” bit…

On our six thousand km epic adventure to Noosa and back last year, not only were the days of travel to get us from point A to point B, they were also a time for reconnecting with each other. We talked, listened to music, played car games, listened to audio books and sometimes just sat in silence and looked out the window (mostly silence only ensued when the kids were asleep!)

Not one video was played or YouTube clip was streamed while we drove. And, while we’re not against our kids enjoying some TV or other visual media at other times, we were keen to make the most of our time on the road as a shared family experience. To me, videos in the car are not a together activity because they are at best limited to backseat travellers and at worst limited to only some of them and they also tend to make our kids zone out of the world around them. Children can miss out on the scenery, the conversation and other goings on in the car (our Noosa trip involved some travel through the middle of New South Wales, through country that was so different to home).

Of course, we all do what we have to at various times with our kids.  Maybe use of a video device to placate your bunch, particularly when the driving is hard, might just do the trick for you. But for other parts of the journey, consider using the time to connect as a family.

In my view, audio books are in a different league to videos (and as such they are a feature of my tips below). Audio books can be enjoyed together as a family if played through the car. They also allow everyone to continue to engage with their surrounds.

Top Tips for Calm and Connected Car Trips with your Kids

  1. Pack a water bottle for each family member – it helps to keep everyone comfortable and hydrated.
  2. Have snacks ready – is a child ever as hungry as when they are in the car?  If you’re on an adventure like we were last year, having food with us was essential because we couldn’t rely on food being available where we needed to stop.
  3. Chat about what you can see and what experiences you have had and you have coming up. As a family, we’re practicing gratefulness at the dinner table. I’d like to keep this up over the Christmas and holiday period and I think our time in the car will be perfect for this. Ask on a daily basis: (1) what each member of the family is grateful for (yes, Mum and Dad too); (2) who they are grateful for; and, (3) what they are looking forward to on holidays/on the next day, etc.
  4. Top up your music playlist. Maybe think about the lyrics of your fav titles before adding them to your road trip playlist though – we made the mistake of adding Dido’s “Don’t Leave Home” song to our list last year. It played so much that our kids could recite some of the words. Not so good – it’s a song about drug addiction!
  5. Download a selection of audiobooks. While there are paid subscription services, you may be able to access some fantastic titles for free using your library membership. Our boys are right into the Zac Power collection of books by H.I. Larry and even Damien and I appreciate their suspenseful plots. There are classics too like some Enid Blyton books on my library’s list.
  6. Take breaks at sensible intervals.  Don’t push through if everyone’s comfortable without having another stop close that you can pull into. We got caught with this a couple of times and it resulted in frazzled children (and frazzled adults)!
  7. Have some fun car games up your sleeve for when the scenery gets a bit same-same, the kids get a bit restless or you need a change of pace. I like spoken games for car trips to manage the risk of car sickness. I also prefer games that don’t require resources – because they can get lost under seats!

Games for Calm and Connected Car Trips

The short slide show below includes some ideas for car games suitable for pre-school and primary school children. There are some classics that I am sure you have heard of, and maybe a few new ones too. Adapt as necessary to your children’s interests and capabilities. Of course our Miss Gubby is too young (18 months) to get involved in a lot of the games that suit our boys. That said, however, she loves to join in the laughter and fun!

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The power of the “let kids be kids” idea: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy

Picture of a man in a santa claus costume

We all want our kids to have a joyful and magical childhood and “be kids” for as long as they can.

I realised the power of this idea last week when reflecting on how we as a family have adopted the Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy myths.

Chances are you’ve bought in too. Read on to find out more!

Stop here, Tooth Fairy!

Recently our 7 year old, Little Mate, lost his fifth tooth.

The Tooth Fairy was a bit slack and didn’t deposit the much-awaited funds for some time.

One night as we were sitting around the dinner table, he asked me “Are you and Dad the Tooth Fairy?”

I was ill-prepared for such a direct question, but calling on my usual approach of being open, upfront and honest with our children, I said “Yes.”

Neither Little Mate or Dames (our 5 year old who is yet to lose a tooth) showed shock or disappointment at my answer.  Instead Little Mate said, “Well, when are you going to give me money for my tooth?”

When I told Damien later, it was he who felt the disappointment. His reaction surprised me – he was, after all, the kid who had Santa Claus pegged from early on and spilled the beans to the other children in his home town (Mr Lawson with the golden tooth was easy to pick dressed as Santa Claus).

Days later, and miraculously, the Tooth Fairy did visit Little Mate – leaving a deposit under Little Mate’s bed while we were away on holidays – so it could not possibly have been Mum and Dad and the Tooth Fairy story lived to see another day!

We’re in (and it shocks me!)

On reflection, it shocks me that we as a family have bought into the myths of Santa Claus and co. And while we haven’t ever gone to elaborate lengths to foster these aspects of Christmas, Easter and losing a tooth (I can’t remember Santa’s ever receiving biscuits and milk for supper and the best and most exciting gifts for our kids always come from us), we have nonetheless played along with the kid’s conversations about how amazing it is that the Easter Bunny can find us even when we’re on holidays and that Santa can still deliver us presents, even without a fireplace! And I must admit that planting chocolate Easter eggs as Easter Bunny has been an incredibly joyful experience for both Damien and I.

There are three reasons why I feel shocked by this:

  • both Damien and I take an open, educative and honest approach when it comes to our kids. I always try to explain something if asked no matter how challenging the concept might be – six months ago when I was putting the final touches on my book and Little Mate was also into book creation and (re)creating a favourite book of his, we had a chat about copyright laws;
  • I never accept what people say, take advice or other things at face value. I think critically and usually research widely and canvas other’s views. I can hand on heart say that I never did any of these things when it came to Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy; and
  • sharing this realisation with Damien while writing this post, I learned that Damien was “not comfortable” with the stories. Normally we would discuss and come to a landing on anything either of us felt uncomfortable about in the parenting sphere – but this also never happened.

So why are we in?

Why did we buy in to these myths at the expense of the way we usually parent? Why did Damien feel disappointed that I’d spilled the beans on the Tooth Fairy, when he felt uncomfortable with the story in the first place?

I think it’s because it’s such a powerful idea – that we should let kids be kids – so powerful in fact that we would put our parenting practices and principles on hold to uphold it.

And how do we know what being a kid is like?

Well, we know this from our own experiences as children.  Believing in Santa and co is a significant childhood tradition, particularly in my family. Getting a gift from Santa is a tradition to which feelings of hope, surprise and thrill attach. And we feel sentimental about our childhoods and we want our children to feel the magic and the wonder that we felt when we were little and thinking about a big guy in a red suit and a big bag of presents for us and our family.

We also want our kids to be kids for as long as possible. Parents over the last few days have told me how they hope that the Santa and related myths continue in their families for as long as possible and they dread the day that their child finds out the truth. It’s a sign of growing up and a loss of innocence – and we don’t want our kids to do that too fast!

And just to be clear – in making these discoveries while writing this post – I haven’t felt guilt or regret about the approach we have taken. Perhaps more I’ve felt trepidation about having the chat when the need finally arises. And, also sadness that, at least for our two boys, the time for them to know the truth draws closer.

Lauren x

PS

The idea that kids should be kids deserves more than a single blog post as it plays a part in how we address many issues with our kids, such as:

  • sex, our bodies and sexuality
  • relationships and divorce
  • wellbeing, sickness and death
  • homework, testing and grades in school
  • violence and crime
  • stranger danger and sexual predators

Stay tuned for more posts on this in the new year!

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Time well spent: playing board games with our kids!

“Can we play a family game?”

It’s a request we are getting more and more frequently in our house, particularly from Dames (our second child).

Quite often the request is made when the kitchen is a flurry of activity, pots and pans clanking, pasta sauce slopped in all directions and our youngest, Miss Gubby, is at her most vocal wanting to be fed. We try to say yes, but we can’t always.

On weekends we say “maybe, after we get through all our jobs” (dinner, baths, etc).

The other difficulty we face now is that Miss Gubby is too young to participate and still needs to be watched around small items. So, game time is usually only when Miss Gubby is sleeping.

I was reminded of the importance of making time to play board games with our children recently. And not just because I was reminded of the benefits of board games that I was already aware of – for example, teaching a child to follow rules, to be good sport as a loser (and a good and gracious sport as a winner), taking turns, sharing, accepting the good with the bad and knowing that luck can turn (either way!) in an instant, the value of persistence and, of course, communication and counting.

Sharing a game of Monopoly with our boys gave us the opportunity to teach them a very important life lesson – and hopefully, because it was experienced in an authentic setting and not just taught, one that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

The game

As only befits a birthday, I was ruler of our family for the day in October and got to decide what we would do.

So, while Miss Gubby had a nice long afternoon nap and we were housebound, I decided that all remaining members of our family would play Monopoly.

So out came the board, the houses and hotels, the Community Chest cards and the counters – the ship, the top hat etc.

The boys (7 and 5 years) wowed us with their adding and subtracting and reading the cards and the street names. They also wowed us with their strategy.  Little Mate (the eldest) was focusing on some advice that Damien had given him about the properties with the highest “return on investment”. Dames was more interested in stock-piling cash.

We laughed, we whooped (when going past GO and collecting $200!) and we cursed (mostly when sent to jail)!

And then Miss Gubby woke up and we abandoned ship/top hat etc.

We returned to the game once Miss Gubby was down for the night. What was obvious however was that one of the boys had helped himself to some finance from the bank. Quite a bit of it in fact.

We expressed our disappointment at the behaviour and determined that the boy in question should not benefit from the next few throws of the dice.  And, sure enough, with the illegally obtained finance gone and no ability to earn, the boy in question was soon bankrupted from the game.

When the winner had been determined, we continued our conversation about the incident. Our little guy, who always tries to do the right thing, was clearly devastated by what he had done and had not appreciated the enormity of it.

Nonetheless we took the opportunity to talk about how it was the wrong thing to do and how it was important to play by the rules.

We also talked about how we wanted both boys to remember this lesson for the rest of their lives because the consequences of cheating and stealing were serious – that, if they stole money or other things in later life, they would be taken away from their family and put in jail; that, with a conviction, they may not be able to travel overseas and get certain jobs. We also talked about how much we valued honest people and honesty and that sometimes doing the right thing was not always the easy thing.

Being there with our children and sharing the game gave us the opportunity to have this discussion in a situation that was authentic and hopefully memorable for them.

A recent seminar on resilience that I attended at the boys school advocated the benefits of an engaged family environment when children are young – because that environment can provide a soft landing and a safe space without judgment where children can make errors and learn from them. To me what transpired through that game of Monopoly was exactly what the educator was talking about that night.

As well as overtly teaching a lesson, we also modelled good behaviour to our children during the game of Monopoly. Board games with an element of chance (eg that involve the role of a dice) can be a great way for parents to model good behaviour to their children because generally the playing field is level and everyone is in the same boat.

In the Monopoly game we played we were all struggling on the property ladder, we all landed on someone’s hotel and had to scrape together the rent (including sometimes mortgaging properties to stay afloat)! Nonetheless, neither Damien nor I robbed the bank!

P.S.

I’ve been wondering if we got too heavy in explaining the consequences of stealing with the boys. You want to teach the “do not steal” lesson to last a lifetime, but you also don’t want to scare the living daylights out of them!  It’s that question of kids should be kids isn’t it? But what does that mean, where are the boundaries and does that mean sometimes parents must lie? Stay tuned for more – I’ll be discussing the idea that kids should be kids next on this blog!