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When I was eight my parents took us to Europe – my sister was 6 and my brother was 4. It was 1984 and the dollar was worth almost one British Pound. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. We packed three canvas army duffle bags that my mom had purchased from the local surplus store. They were huge and heavy and strong. In fact, there is a photo somewhere of each of us three kids standing inside of them. Once packed, only my dad could lift them and certainly only one at a time.
In a whirlwind 2 weeks, we visited magical places like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, stayed in a German hotel named for a famous teddy bear that had piles of cuddly critters in every room, rode into the Alps on a gondola and walked on the snow capped mountain side in our jellie shoes. Best of all, we ran through our favorite Do-Re-Mi scenes in Salzburg. My favorite stops, however, were in England and Scotland. We stayed at a magnificent castle and made friends with the local bagpiper who gave us kids a tour of all of the secret places in the haunted fortress.
While we were in Burgundy, I believe, my mom stayed up late at night bartering with the bed and breakfast owner on a series of Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. She bought them… without telling my dad… she snuck back into the room and dumped all of the dirty laundry out and then buried the tapestries in the bottom of the bag. Lest you think that she got away with it, let me just let you imagine how red faced she was when she was trying to explain to the customs official that she had something in her bag that she wanted to declare without informing her husband. Of course this was in 1984 and no one suspected foul-play. Needless to say, she ended up confessing the whole thing in an airport as we children gawked at the scene.
Those tapestries were one of my very favorite parts of my parents’ house while I was growing up and I have loved seeing similar ones throughout my own travel.
I was very fortunate as a child to have my imagination set on fire by my parents’ love for travel. To this day, my siblings and I have vivid shared memories of our travel. We all live far apart geographically and have very differing ideas about how the world is and should be but we have some common vernacular because of our shared travel. We have common ideas about how cool castles are and that the best candy really does come from street cart vendors in Salzburg. We all remember what Jimmy’s feet looked liked in his Superman sandals buried in the snow – and it is a warm memory of laughter and awe.
When we began TJEd in early 2012, my oldest was five and half years old. He had a three and half year old sister and a nearly one year old brother. In the next 20 months, we would fall in love with TJEd for lots of reasons but in part because we would go on to lose three babies and I would find myself in a health crisis due to a misdiagnosis of MS. With all of the stress of health, grief and the day to day life with three very little children, TJEd was a calm constant. Everything I read about TJEd was giving me permission to pull my children close to me, look deeply into their eyes and invite them to travel all of space and time with me through our bookshelf. With all of my limitations, with all of the chaos of our crisis, I began to see that we had an opportunity for meaningful control. Through regular and loving read aloud, we could build family culture, nurture our relationships, open our minds, explore our imaginations and build a common vernacular. We could develop shared memories that will hopefully stay with us in the same way that my siblings and I remember spending hours following our family friend Paschal (years later on a family trip to Ireland) through the County Wicklow countryside trying to find Sally Gap. All anyone has to do is say “Sally’s Gap” at a family event and we all groan and laugh.
As we began to really listen to Core and Love of Learning and read Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning, we knew that “Ingredient #12: Evenings” was going to be a lynchpin for us – a do or die juncture. Our evenings had historically been stressful. Hungry little kids, tired daddy and sick and tired mama had created an environment which sought the fastest path to bedtime possible. The idea of setting the evening aside as something special and adding Family Read Aloud just felt so foreign. So uncomfortable. Such a game changer.
In February we will mark our 2 year anniversary with Leadership Education. Looking back on these nearly 2 years, I have realized that “Ingredient #12: Evenings” are the reason why we have stayed on course – and – they have become a favorite part of our day!
But how did we do it with little kids?
As we began to unpack “Evenings,” we struggled with the practical and logistical questions:
- What do we read?
- How do we make time for it after dinner?
- How do we get these little kids to sit still?
- How long should we read?
- What about the child who hates being read to?
And, like many who are starting out, we made a lot of mistakes. We chose books that weren’t a fit. Had unrealistic expectations of how quiet the kids should be. Had unreasonable hopes for length of time. Had the wrong person reading the right text (which was easily remedied by switching readers).
Here are some of the tricks that we have learned along the way. And, thanks to this beautiful ingredient, we have traveled all over the world and visited strange and imaginary places. I did have to pack a travel basket but never any real luggage. *wink*
Itinerary for Happy Family Read Aloud:
- Decide to have a love for travel: know that this “trip” will forever impact your family culture and treasure the opportunity to share it with the people you love most!
- Pick the right destination: start with a book that celebrates the family you have – not the family you wish you had! Read something that everyone will enjoy – even the stubborn listener. Do not worry if babies are getting anything out of it. If the oldests are laughing and loving it, the babies will associate reading with love and family.
- Plan Your Journey: when you travel to a foreign place, you know that you need a passport and might need shots. To take this trip, you do not need those things but you do need to think about your travel plans earlier in the day. Don’t wait until evening to get organized for the Evenings. Think about it in the morning and plan your day so that you can have dinner on the table and out of the way in time for your family trip. Make sure that the family room is tidy and feels inviting. Get a fire ready or light a candle. Whatever it takes to get you in the mood to make this happen.
- Wear Your Travel Clothes: Jammies are comfortable. Kids cuddle better in jammies. Dress for the trip – relaxed and snuggle worthy.
- Pack Your Travel Basket or Carry On Luggage: Listening is hard work for most people. No matter how good the book is, many of us need something to do with our hands. Have a supply of read aloud only activities that come out when the journey begins. In our home, that is colored pencils and Dover coloring books (or other coloring things), puzzles and felt scenes. Someday it will include knitting, crocheting, embroidery and calligraphy.
- Plan for more than one stop: sometimes it is easier for young listeners to listen to shorter bursts in more books than one long marathon. In our house, we read one chapter from a saint biography (as part of our family canon) and one or two chapters from a family classic. Sometimes, when the mood is right, we add a chapter from a math or science classic. By visiting several places on each trip, my children are less antsy and more content to trust that something will appeal to them every night.
- Have the right tour guide: some readers are not skilled readers. We appreciate all of the readers who add to our travel but we know that some books are better left to the pros. Pick the right tour guide and it can make a substantial different.
- Learn the Local Language: Readers who preview the classic ahead of time with an audio version of the book have the opportunity to get a feel for the texture of the book. It is my practice to listen to a book from Audible (or the library) before I read it to my children. I learn the tempo of the book, the texture of the language, hear all of the names pronounced correctly and get a sense of how the book could sound.
- Advertise the Trip: The best commercial I have discovered for family read aloud has been my children overhearing whatever book I am previewing I carry my audiobook around the house with me. They are always eavesdropping and asking when that book is coming up in rotation.
- When in Rome…. do as the Romans do. What this means to you: DO THE VOICES and ACCENTS. No matter how silly you may sound, you will permanently endear yourself to your children. Let them get caught up in the magic of the book because you let yourself go and enjoyed the local culture.
- Don’t forget to plan for the layovers: if you have very little listeners or a large range of ages, consider having a special reading time at another point in the day that those littles can enjoy too. I have found that my 3 year old listens much better at night if we lead off with a Golden Book, Mr. Putter and Tabby or a Dr. Seuss classic. I make sure to snuggle him in the afternoons with 3-5 books of his choice as well. This keeps him feeling like the trip is for him too.
What would you add? What has made your travel less stressful and more lifegiving? What have been your favorite family read alouds?