The day we have all been counting down to, for different reasons, has arrived.
Uniforms are on.
Shoes are shiny and black, for the first and only time.
Lunchboxes are full.
We are ready for the first day of a new school year.
This morning I said farewell to my three, not so little, children as they made their way to their friends, new teachers - and away from me.
When the children were little they clung to be as though I was a rock and the school was the big wave trying to crash on them and take them away. As they got older, I would watch them play, but they would come back from time to time, to make sure I was still there. Today, was different. They really and truly did not look back. I got a quick good-bye and I was left, feeling a little awkward, reminding me of The Clash song, Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
The look from my teenager when I sidled over to her, to ask her what classroom was hers told me it was time to go. You know the look? My patience is running out with you in exactly two and a half seconds. Apparently, this is another inappropriate question to ask one's teenager, along with, are you going to brush your hair (after she has perfected her messy bun).
All of a sudden I felt the need to flee; I toddled back to my car and into my quiet house that smelt like it had one too many wet towels left on the carpet over summer. Both the house and I sighed in relief, mingled with a stab of sadness.
Sadness that my children need me a little less with every passing day, sad that the long and languishing days of summer holiday and all that comes with it, are over. Relief that my children are venturing forth in the world without needing to hold my hand at all times. Relief that me, the house and the dog get to restore ourselves and think about other things. Relief my children will be coming home at the end of their school day. Relief that while I know I'm becoming redundant to my children in some ways, in others way I know I am not.
My role as a parent is changing. I am co-captain of a ship that is now full, but I must keep it sailing. I need to make sure there is food aboard and the rats at bay. I need to be there to enjoy the days when the water is calm and steer the ship through the rough and wild storms. I need to work with my co-captain to navigate unchartered waters. I need to issue books for pleasure and talk through life, homework and friends. I need to cheer them on. Know when to hold tight and when to let go. I need to learn when to speak and when to (increasingly) say nothing. I need to be there, maybe not in the same intense way of times gone by, but as the captain of the ship to take my family into their futures.
At some point my ship will find its port and my children will hopefully not stumble or run, but walk off and into their own lives as adults. I don't know yet how I will feel when that day arrives, but I suspect that my husband and I will spend a long time walking through our ghost ship, laughing at our family memories, crying at our heartbreaking loss and forgetting the mundane domesticity that accompanies having a family. Not today, thank goodness. Today, I am cleaning our ship, thinking of my work, the days ahead and mostly, feeling the transition and tilt of the world.
This year I slipped into a bit of a frenzy while booking into events at the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF). I was overcome with a thirst for immersing myself in books, ideas and other writers who talk about the undertones of writing, life, art. Having conversations that make us think, ponder, question.
We are now in the midst of the MWF and I have been to some brilliant sessions. So far, I have listened to literary great, Joyce Carol Oates, Miles award winner, Sofie Laguna and panellists from Aboriginal literature and creative female writers.
While there are lots of different and unique ideas that emerged from these sessions, I feel there’s definitely some common themes that links these and other writers, like a daisy chain.
Write as a Witness
On a cold winter’s night in the packed Deakin Edge under the lights, angles and colours of Federation Square, we all hung off Joyce Carol Oates words.
She spoke of many things, but what I took from her speech was the concept of writing to bear witness, to give a voice to those who don’t have one, whether that be because they have been silenced, under represented, or lacking the skills.
Sofie Laguna also expressed the idea of giving a voice to her characters, whom she loves fiercely, wanting them and their story to be heard.
I am also working on an adult fiction book and the subject matters is very hard going emotional experience. Early on I was constantly asking myself: why am I writing this, so I dug deep and found that my story bears witness to a terrible time in our history. It’s difficult, rewarding, beautiful, disturbing, depressing, liberating - all at the same time. But, not to tell the story would be worse. I need to bear witness.
Another theme that struck me was the way that these writers put themselves into the shoes of their characters, often from multiple perspectives and opposing world views, in the same story. Joyce Carol Oats talked about this in her book, BOOK OF AMERICAN MARTYRS. She takes two diametrically opposed characters, and breathes empathy into both their stories. This takes intellectual prowess, guts, an enquiring mind, empathy and compassion. To inhabit characters worlds and bring them to life is an incredible skill and is a gift that links writers.
I love to hear about other writer’s writing process, looking for themes, but often only finding threads.
Some writers are driven by deadlines and word counts. Others by the conscious act of dreaming.
Some need the story mapped and planned, in great detail. Others let the story and characters take them on a journey, becoming the pencil to channel some other unworldly sprit. Many are a mixture of the two, with the high level story arc written with a finger in the sky, and the busy pen filling in all the spaces in between.
Some can only write in quiet solitude with the curtains drawn. Others can write sitting in the corridor outside their babies bedroom while they nap. I have learnt to write absolutely anywhere, plans, trains and automobiles.
My books are written in 10 000 little stitches of time, woven together with love and hard work. Others don’t sleep as the story comes rushing out in one big wave that has to be written. Most are somewhere in between, with the key being to stay connected with your story while it finds its way into the world.
Some dream of their ideas, some wake with a spark that must be put down on paper. Others slave, waiting, the ideas coming as the words are born.
For some, writing is calm and an escape, for others it’s almost a physically draining act: thinking, writing, planning, dreaming, talking, acting, walking, over and over again. Obsessed.
Some might say, we writers are all so different, that there is not one way of creating. They would be true. But, it would be wrong to say that there isn’t a link here that makes everything make perfect sense.
Laguna explained this well in her talk. When she was pregnant with her second child, she was talking to her mum, worried about her writing time once baby arrived, to which her Mother replied, ‘Try and not write.’
Indeed. Try and stop writers from writing. Let me tell you, you won’t be able to. The average income for a writer is around $11K a year. Writing can be lonely and discouraging, particularly when unpublished. So, why would anyone, logically, choose to do it?
Because the call to write is not a logical thing. It’s primal. We don’t understand why, or how, we just know we have to . We would never take the option to stop. Try and stop writers writing.
Relationship between the Writer and the Reader
Now, writers are always thinking, or should be, about their readers, serving them with every word put down on the page. Personally, I have learnt the more I am enjoying my writing, the worse it usually is. The more I sweat over it, ready to pull my hair out, the better it gets.
Joyce Carol Oats talked about writing her author voice out of the story, choosing to serve the reader and let them bring the story to life through the characters and plot. As one of the Aboriginal literature panellists said, the relationship between the reader and the writer is an important one. There needs to be trust. The writer needs to trust the reader. The reader doesn’t need to be told the story, they need to be shown. On the flip side, I would say the reader also needs to trust the author to take them by the hand on a journey where they can learn more about life (and usually the author’s obsessions), and maybe even be changed somehow.
Festivals such as the MWF are important, SO important, because the author can help us focus our thinking and ideas on the written form of art. For within writing, there lies the myriad of fascinating questions, statements, obsessions, perspectives, about ourselves and life.
There is something about getting out into wide open spaces that is good for your soul. Not just to recharge the batteries, but to bring a sense of space and wonder back into your life.
Recently, my husband and I took our three children on an Australian outback holiday. We drove from coast to coast, starting at the bottom of Australia, in Victoria, where we live, to the very top in Darwin. Now, Australia is one big country and we travelled over 6000 km to do this. We were lucky enough to see the Flinders Ranges, Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, Uluru, Kings Canyon, Dunmurra, Litchfield National Parks, Kakadu and Darwin. Half of the time we stayed in accommodation and the other half in a campervan.
I know what you’re thinking - this just takes, "are we there yet," to a whole new level. Yes, it did. There were definitely more than a few ehm, moments, and I now have a much higher appreciation for my bathroom, but there was so much more than that.
I have decided to share the key moments in this trip, and how they impacted on me. Why? Because I do hope that it inspires some of you to get out and take an adventure in your own backyard.
In no particular order:
Number One: Space
I don’t want to sound like a space cadet, but I do believe that looking into wide open spaces gives you a feeling of more space in your own life. Personally, this experience has left me more inspired and ready to write. I distinctively remember the moment when we left civilisation and hit the open roads, where there is nothing to see, but animals, red dirt, a bit of scrub and those skies that go on forever. I didn’t realise that I was craving this, until I had this experience. It was pure joy being able to look out and not have to think, just be. It was akin to meditation.
Number Two: The night sky
Like most people, we live our lives indoors. At night, we scurry around after our children, cooking, talking, eating, thinking. When we go to bed, we shut up our houses, checking everything is locked. Boy, are we missing out. When you are in the outback, you get the best view in the world. And, all you have to do is look up. There, waiting for you, is another dimension, a pathway into another galaxy. We were lucky enough to do an astronomy session at Uluru on our trip, so a little knowledge, a whole lot of interest and a star tracker app on your phone, the whole family can get involved.
I did have to laugh, after so much moving around, when one of our children said, "Well, at least the Southern Cross is familiar." And, she will always know due South now at night, which is I’m sure where she wanted to head at times!
Number Three: Living on the edge
Really, for us city folk, being in the outback feels a little like you are living on the edge. You never know what might run out on the road, what the places will be like where you are staying (particularly when you hear things like, "Don’t worry love, we’ve never turned away anyone in twenty years), or what animal you might meet in the bathroom or sometimes, your bed. I kind of like this, it adds to the thrill. More than that, it gets the whole family talking and more importantly, laughing. Wondering whether your bed will have bed bugs can actually be rather amusing (as long as there’s not), and listening to dogs/ dingos howling at the full moon in Kakadu was something I will never forget.
Number Four: Sense of History
There is nothing in the world like being an a completely untouched, ancient part of the world. It absolutely has to be one of my favourite things. To look around and see nature in its raw form feels so rare, and so, so beautiful.
We were lucky enough to witness this a few times on our trip. Being near Uluru, feelings its energy, learning its story is a gift. Just being in the wilderness at Kakadu, being its witness, is beyond words.
Australia is an old country, and its stories and heart are hidden from those who do not go out in search of it. Exploring part of this great country helped me understand where I live, and not only its recent history and the tragic actions of the first white settlers here. But, also much further back, when Aboriginal people and their land lived together in complete harmony for 50 000 plus years.
It was a time when history was told in stories. Where elders raised their children with deliberate intent for the whole being. Where knowledge, not belongings and money, was valued. Where trees were not just trees, but gave shelter, tools or knowledge about the seasons, animals and food.
Learning a little about Aboriginal history was an important and extremely interesting thing to do. It gave us an appreciation for this beautiful culture and a thirst to learn more.
Seeing some of the social issues that some Aboriginal people are facing in the transition to this new world, is heartbreaking. I am dumbfounded that this is kept quiet and is not on the lips of our politicians or being discussed in mainstream media.
There are very real issues that needs discussion, attention, empathy, healing and a new way forward that is based on respect. For me, the word respect is what matters most. It’s overdue, but is at the heart of this.
For example, hoards of people still climb Uluru, an ancient and important spiritual site for Aboriginal people. It makes my blood boil. If we were asked to take our shoes off to enter a church, we would. So, why don’t we respect the traditional owners of this land, and do what they ask - in their church. Enough said.
Number five: Time as a family
Spending time in the outback as a family has been a gift, and one that I will always cherish. Sure, spending hours in the car and small spaces was not always fun, but there was fun to be had in so many unexpected ways.
Listening to our children talk to each other (because let's face it, they had nothing else to do) and get to know each other was a highlight. We laughed together over so many silly things, and I can honestly say, that was my favourite part. We all know each other more, and we still love each other.
As my husband said, this trip will just get better with time. One of my children literally covered her eyes when she saw a campervan in the street after our trip, so I am thinking it could take her a bit longer, but seriously, these memories are the gold of childhoods - the good, the bad and the ugly.
Best family memory from trip: Doing the chicken dance as a family in Dunmurra at the (proudly displayed) 2* restaurant lost in the 70s. It was one of the funniest things we have done. How did that happen? You will have to go and find out for yourself.
So, I leave you with this.
The days are long, the years are short.
Children lay in our arms one minute, and fill the bed the next.
Wrinkle, wrinkle on the wall, who is the fairest of them all.
So, get out there and explore your own backyard, or perhaps look over the fence, and wonder what they are having for dinner. It may not sound as exciting as Paris or Rome (okay, go visit there as well), but it will give you gifts and experiences in ways you don’t expect.
Don’t wait. Just go. And, enjoy, all of it.
As a writer, I have come to expect and accept judgement of my work. My job is to produce writing for others to read, learn from and hopefully, enjoy. To succeed, my work needs to shine under the eyes of my peers, teachers, agents and publishers, and that's before it gets into the hands of my readers.
Judgement is important, as it tells us what's working and what needs improvement. It can motivate us to improve and push the boundaries of our own work, so that we can become the best we can be.
Yet, we all know that critical judgement can, at times, lead us to feeling uncomfortable. It can feel paralysing and shameful. It can feed a cycle of self-judgement, which is often worse than the original judgement. I feel this is particularly hard for artists who actually put part of themselves into their work. Critical judgement can feel deeply personal. Heck, judgement can leave us feeling like a wounded animal, licking our wounds in a pool of mud, asking why on earth would anyone be a writer?!
However, I still strongly believe in the power of getting feedback. We all need feedback to help us grow, learn and develop. It's critical. Yet, after some recent time spent in the mud pit, I decided that there has to be a better way to gain the benefits of feedback. I decided it was time to judge judgement. My discoveries have been a revelation, and I wanted to share them, in the hope they may help others.
· Almost immediately, I discovered that the only person to change my reaction to judgement is me. We can't control other people's behaviour, but, we can change our own.
· I have also learnt to accept that judgement is uncomfortable. No one likes to feel uncomfortable, so too often we look for the easiest way to stop the feeling. We quickly put together a narrative about what the feedback is telling us. Who cares what the narrative is, so long as we stop feeling uncomfortable.
· We need to get more comfortable about being uncomfortable. Importantly, we need to search for the truth in what we are being told. If we stay open and look for the truth, we will be given insights into ourselves and our work that will help us grow. If we remain closed, we will not grow as people, and our work will reflect this.
· Being judged can also press lots of our buttons. Perhaps we were harshly judged as a child, or figures of authority truly scare us? This can turn feedback into a whole lot of internal dialogue and feelings that have nothing to do with what is being said right now. To break these cycles, we need to be more aware of what patterns of behaviour might really be going on, and break them. Gaining a deeper understanding of yourself, and learning new patters of healthy behaviour can really help.
· I also have come to realise that the judge is not always right. Not one person knows everything, meaning not all feedback will be right for you. What we need to do is listen, learn, and importantly ask: what rings true for me, and what does not. Take what works, and discard the rest. Then, continue on with your work. Find the 'truth' to set yourself free, and not the story that makes us feel less comfortable.
· I have also come to think of critical judgement as a kind of test. It's like the universe is asking, ʻDo you really want to do this?’ It's a challenge, and it can lead us to work out what is important to us. Once you are through, you can feel empowered and more fired up than ever. I can do this!
· Judges can be our teachers, both the ones that leave us feeling great, and ones, not so great. Learn from both. Importantly, use these learnings to help you formulate your plans for how you can become the best judge you can be. At some point, you will become the expert and give feedback to those in your care. It is a responsibility. We need to figure out what kind of teacher we want to be.
· Also, remember to set some boundaries for yourself when you receive feedback, so that it's delivered respectfully. This might mean standing up for yourself, and setting a boundary you are comfortable with. This is important, as it will really impact how empowered you feel in the process. Passively receiving critical judgement is not healthy for anyone involved.
· There is one last thing that I want to share. This was a revelation to me. I have learnt the importance of putting up personal boundaries to protect my creative space. Recently, I allowed judgement into my internal creative space. The place where I create, wonder, dream and write. I did not put boundaries around what is sacred to me. I stopped writing and trusting my creative process that had never let me down. When I realised what I had done, I did what I should have done in the first place. I closed the outside door to my own creative space, and made it disappear. There is now nothing in my space but all the things that matter to me. No one can enter, unless invited. From now on, I will protect this space fiercely.
What have I learnt from my little exploration? Overall, it's just so important to receive feedback. It is like what water and sunlight is to plants. It truly helps us grow. But, to gain feedback openly requires having the courage to stay vulnerable. To be open. To listen carefully. To let ourselves feel uncomfortable. To craft the truthful story. Discard the crap. Only then can be become the best we can be.
"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." Theodore Roosevelt.
Behind the picket fence
You see it all the time. Everywhere you look. Toddlers and children interacting with technology. Their little hands gliding effortlessly across screens. They talk to machines that talk back. They play games, watch movies, follow sport, take photos, do their homework, and follow their friends every move. And, they don't just bring out their "best toys" on Sundays, they interact with technology every-single-day, wherever they go.
What is perhaps more interesting is that for the younger generation, technology is not new, it just is. Just like trips to the park, and going to school, technology is just there, an every-day part of their life.
Generation Y - people born after 1978 are the first generation who have lived most of their lives in the digital world. Peter Hinssen, author of The New Normal, calls this group the digital natives and the rest of us digital immigrants, and suggests a simple test to distinguish the two. You put a camera on a table and ask: "What is this?" A digital immigrant will say: "That's a digital camera,' whereas the digital native will say: "It's a camera." Digital natives have never used an analogue camera in their lives.
Digital natives do not know of a life where phones were attached to the wall, or the real purpose of liquid paper - to rub out pesky mistakes on hand-written or typed out work. They don't know of the excitement of getting a VCR or trying to figure out what computers were and how to use them. They don't know what it is like to store phone numbers in a rolodex and keep a street directory in a car. They will never know what it was like to go out without a phone and have to make plans about where and when to meet, well in advance. They will never know the feeling of being disconnected and for that to feel normal. They will never sit on a train full of people who read books, look out the window, talk to each other. And, when they open up their (physical) mail box at home, they will expect a bill or maybe a card, but not a long hand-written letter that conveys news, thoughts, feelings and aspirations. Instead, they will see the stories of people's lives through small attention grabs of social media. Look at me. Look at me. This is now normal for our children.
There is no doubt we live in the age of technology. Every part of our lives is aided and enabled by smart technology that is evolving so quickly it is hard to even imagine what the future will look like. And, as a society, the common experience of remembering a time when technology was not an every-day part of our life (and that we were okay) is fast disappearing.
But, what about the children, these digital natives, how will technology shape their lives? Will they fondly reminisce about when the first generation iPhone came out? Will they laugh about how they used text books when they started school? Will they display the books read to them as a child, remembering a time when stories were held between the sheets of paper? And, when they grow, how will technology continue to evolve to enable them in their lives: their work, social time, health and fitness, relationships. We can't imagine how technology could advance more, but that is just old-fashioned thinking now, and our children will not fall into that trap.
As a nation, Australia is tucked away, far from the other side of the world. A place people know and love by reputation, but do not perhaps fully understand. So, how is the rapid advances in technology impacting on modern Australia? 24 hour news, social media, connecting technology and business across boundaries means that we are a more-connected country and world than ever people. People are buying real estate without setting foot in Australia, we are doing global business deals in cyber-board rooms, we are collaborating with people and ideas around the world through technology. Every day we are learning more about each other, opening our minds to possibilities, closing the gaps that had seemed impossible to bridge. In short, technology has, is and will continue to shape our country in new ways - unforseen, unplanned, uncapitalised. Quite simply technology is enabling us to organically connect and enable not only ourselves, but our country. Ways that we probably don't understand yet, and maybe, never will. It's pretty extraordinary when you think about it.
In the tidal wave of technology, people have stopped wishing it would go away and leave us alone. People have stopped worrying about being left behind and gone and done a course, or asked a family member how to send an email. People have decided it is easier paying a bill online and not lining up at the post office. People have decided it is fun to email jokes to our friends. And, heck, why not embrace sharing precious moments with everyone we ever knew! In all this embracing, we have stopped asking the question: was it better before, was life more meaningful, was I happier, was I more connected with real living, breathing people who dropped by and talked about what was really happening behind their picket fences, behind the gloss of the polaroids. And, in that sharing came compassion and the creation of kinder people. Perhaps a time when narcissism was a concept and not a way of life.
In all the technology that rules our life, have we lost a part of our humanness that we will never find again? And, more importantly, have our children and their children lost the ability to even ask these questions. Because, remember, for our children, technology just is. It just is part of their history, their current life and they don't even question whether it will be there in the future - it just will be. And, this makes me sad. Sad for them, sad for us all as in modern Australia, because every day, as we gain that little bit more out of technology, we are also, at the same time, losing a little bit more of our past. It is sailing away from us, and there is no one to even wave it good-bye, because no one is looking.
What can Australia do about it? We can't ignore the reality and humongous benefits gained by living in the age of technology, but neither should we forget the time before; a simpler time where we were forced to connect more in person, to take our time, to stand in line and smile at the little person toddling through the shop. To live more in the moment, without distractions and instant communication. To run your hand across the screen and not expect something to happen, not to ask your parents to cut your sandwiches into landscape pieces.
The shaping of modern Australia and its people will depend not only on how much we embrace the opportunities that technology provides, but how much we look back and remember the time that came before. It will take a collective push to turn, look and see the ship that is sailing and then anchor it not too far away, so that people can go and visit it, descend deep into its hull and listen to the tales of the past. And, when they emerge and go back to land, with them will be a reminder not to be ruled by technology, but to be enabled by it, and not to forget to be a nation of people with a heart; people who care, who can forgive, who can embrace diversity, who are kind and authentic.
Every night, when it's reading time at our house, I ask my children to go and get their books. Some nights they scurry away, and quickly find themselves a comfy spot and get lost in the pages of their books. Ahhh ... happiness. Other nights I get a variety of responses, including, but not limited to:
'I've got nothing to read.' This is never true.
'I can't find my book.' Often true.
'Sorry, what did you say?' Always true.
And, at other times, I simply find there is no response. My child might grab the iPad, or sneak into another room (out of sight = out of mind). Sometimes, I am tired at the end of the day, and I don't take much notice, and before I know it, it's bed time, and no books have been read. Don't worry, I say to myself, 'there is always tomorrow night!'
But, other nights, I am up to their cunning wee ways, and make sure there is no dawdling. I call them back in from their iPads and hidey holes, and ask the obvious question: why aren't you reading? The answer usually becomes painfully obvious: they have a book, but not one they want to read, not one they are enjoying. The book they should hold in their hands, is simply too much hard work, and they would rather not, thank you very much.
IT'S OKAY WHEN YOUR CHILD DOES NOT LIKE A BOOK
It's perfectly natural for children, just like adults, not to like certain books, no matter the author or how much they are 'supposed' to like it. And, just because they don't like that book, it doesn't mean they won't love the next one. Knowing this means I am not discouraged. Knowing this means that I know what to do: find them another book.
If I am organised, I will have another book ready to give them, and if not, I will hand them another book that they have read before and enjoyed, while dashing like a crazy women to make myself a note to get them a new book before I forget. This usually solves the problem, and they are soon nestled into their comfy spots, their imaginations soaring.
RIGHT BOOK, RIGHT TIME
The right book for your child can make all the difference, and your child can change from a drooping flower to one that is reaching for the sky. It's simply transformational and your child, who you feared would grow up only reading speeding tickets, can be seen running to get the book from where they left it, and complain, loudly, when they have to go to bed. Or even better (okay worse, better, worse) be found reading their book by torch when they are supposed to be asleep.
WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?
It's just so important that children not just learn to read, but read more frequently. Recent research from Scholastic shows that only 37% of children aged 6 - 17 are frequent readers, meaning they read for fun 5 - 7 days per week. Frequent readers, read, on average, 45.6 books per year. Conversely, infrequent readers read only 17 books per year, and read for fun less than one day per week.
That is a staggering difference and a major problem because infrequent readers are missing out on the MANY benefits of reading.
YOU CAN HELP YOUR CHILD BECOME A FREQUENT READER
Getting your child to read more books starts by us parents embracing our role, in our child's reading journey. Then, it's a combination of helping your child improve their reading skills, and finding them books they love. And, this means, helping them find the right book at the right time - books they love, both when they are flying along with their reading and when they are struggling. And, this needs to continue for their whole childhood. Yes, all that time! Until they are all grown up.
Once these three actions occur, we will start to see the magic. There will be an increase in the number of books read, the enjoyment and therefore connection with books will increase, and this cycle will get stronger all the time, leading to your child becoming a frequent reader.
Don't forget that we ALL get stuck. We all despair. We all think at times: do I really have to keep up with this reading journey when they can read? The answer is, of course, yes. If we want our child to receive the full benefits of becoming a frequent reader, we need to keep on, keeping on -- and keep going.
Always remember that when the wheels are falling off in the reading department, and you have called 'reading time' and your child has hidden away in the house, perhaps with the dog, that you need to quickly find a book your child will love. It does makes all the difference.
Don't you find it amusing when you learn something new from people you don't expect to and when you least expect it? Well, that's exactly what happened to me recently when I spoke to some primary school students about one of my favourite topics: books! One of the little treasures told me about the priceless "5 Word Test" that can help a child and their parents figure out whether a potential book is too hard, too easy or just right for them. Think Goldilocks of books!
The idea of the "5 Word Test" is that when a child picks up a new book for the first time (before it's bought or loaned), they should open a page and count how many words they don't know the meaning of. If they find five or more words that they don't know, they should put the book down and step away.
The "5 Word Test" is an easy, common sense indicator of whether a book is age appropriate for a child. Don't get me wrong, of course it's wonderful to learn new words and expand the vocabulary, but there is a fine line here: a few new words is terrific, too many new words, not so great. And, keep in mind, that the "5 Word Test" is just an indicator of how hard or difficult the book will be to read. Trust your instincts. And, remember, it doesn't mean you can't return to those more advanced books at another time, when your child is older. Six more months with books your child loves and can read well, can make the world of difference.
So, why is finding age-appropriate books for your child is so important? Because if your child reads books that are too hard, they lose interest and feel discouraged. On the flip side, if they read books that are too easy, they also lose interest and feel discouraged. In both cases, their connection with books are diminished, and when they lose their connection with books, reading enjoyment drops, less books are read, and children miss out on the many wonderful benefits of reading. A tragedy!
As a parent, I am faced with the same issues as every other parent: how to get my children hooked on books. I am constantly challenged about getting the right book for my children, all with varying interests and reading levels.
As a family, we choose books to buy or loan that we think are great: their covers are awesome, the author brilliant and the blurb enticing. We might look a new book up on Goodreads, talk to the Librarian or Bookseller and check that it was written for their age group, and in a genre they generally like. We buy or loan the book and take it home, excited. Sometimes it works - bingo - and I do my silent 'oh yeah' chant. And, sadly, sometimes it doesn't.
There are many reasons why it doesn't quite work, but I think one of the key reasons we can easily overlook, is simply because the book didn't quite match their reading level, which is different for each child, even if they are the same age. Usually, for us, we have been too ambitious and the book is a bit too hard. My child not quite ready. And, when my children don't connect with their books, they lose interest in reading. Picture my hand on head, while wilting a little.
One of my children was recently reading a book that we thought would be terrific. But, let me tell you, it was s-l-o-w going! We kept at it, determined to finish it, no matter what, but we couldn't just get there. Eventually it was cast aside and another book picked up and read in two days. I kid you not. Two days! A novel!
Why did the second novel get read so quickly? Because it was not too hard, not too easy, but just right!
And, to think that all of this mumbo jumbo might have been avoided by using the '5 Word Test.'
I know there are a lot of ways to find the right book for your child, and sometimes there is no amount of research that can guarantee success, but I do believe that, as a parent, it is handy to have a few tricks, like the "5 Word Test" up your sleeve, taught to us by someone's clever child.
As parents, it is critical that we strive to keep our child's connection with books alive. Anything that takes that away from this, or dampens the glow, should be avoided. There is always a way forward, and the best thing to do, when you take the wrong road (as we all do), is to find your child the right book for their reading level, a book they enjoy reading. This will immediately increase their love and connection with books, leading to an increase in the number of books your child will read.
I am convinced getting children to read more, and become a frequent reader (who reads, on average, 45 books a year), rather than an infrequent readers (who reads, on average, 17 books per year) is easier than we all think. But, all starts with parents knowing and embracing the critical role they play in their child's reading journey.
To help parents, I have created the "3 Step Milne Frequ3ncy model" that is simple to understand and follow. Please forward or share this post with your friends and family who you think might be interested. We are all in this parenting business together at the end of the day, and we can always learn, even from those we least expect it.
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Wishing you the best of luck in your families reading journey!
Today is my birthday. I am turning 43. As my eldest daughter said to me in her birthday card: "43 is not too old, yet." I think that sums it perfectly, don’t you? Like old age is coming, Mum, so enjoy it while you can. This makes me picture a freight train that I can hear, but not see.
This morning I met with a very dear friend, a fellow Libran, also turning 43 in a few days time. We got chatting, as good friends do. And, after a gentle movement through the terrain of life, we hit on a beauty: contentment.
You think after 43 years I should have learnt how to be content, don’t you? Well, sometimes, yes, but not always the case and not in all areas of my life. The ‘what if’ question strikes me on a regular basis. After moving numerous times growing up - about 20 houses and 5 schools - I know a thing or two about change. And, you would think that should cure me for life. I should want to stay put, dig in my roots in and nest over my house. But, no, sadly that hasn’t been the case.
Since my husband (who barely moved before we met) and I got together 19 years ago, we have moved numerous - too many - times. Eventually, sadly perhaps, he cottoned on to my pattern of moving and made sure we bought a house that was set up to house our family for a very long time. Of course, I didn’t see it (the trap) coming, and just happily, albeit stressfully moved into our current house.
Six years later (my record in any house), I am itching to move again. Not because there is something wrong with our house, the area we live, our neighbours – it's all great. It’s just my pattern, wanting to play out. But, no one else in my family has my pattern, thank goodness (thanks to my sensible husband), and no one else wants to move, unless it's to a house by the sea or to a farm with horses. I’ve suggested everything: downsizing, side sizing, building, but no takers. I know I could put my foot down, but that wouldn't be fair to the majority, now would it?! I am stuck. And, I know it’s for the best. But, still.
So, as my friend and I chatted today about contentment, it struck a cord. I want to be content. I imagine most people do. To be content sounds like a wonderful thing. To be at peace and happy with what you are doing, where you like, who you are, at all times. Brilliant. Sign me up!
If only it were that easy. But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be too hard either. Maybe it’s just about saying, you know what, I am going to fully inhabit the life that I have right now. I am going to accept that it may not be perfect, but, it’s my life and I need to live it, every day, the best that I can. To be grateful.
Being content doesn’t mean there won’t change in the future. It doesn’t mean we will become stagnant. It doesn’t mean we will never move again (hopefully). But, it does mean that I need to accept and be happy in this life that I am lucky enough to have. To enjoy this day. This moment.
I know, I am sounding rather zen, but it’s my birthday, so humour me.
I wish you much contentment, as I strive, more ardently, than ever before, for mine.
Are you worried that your child, tween or teen isn't reading enough? Have they lost their love of reading, or never gained it in the first place? Do you despair, not sure what to do, where to start?
Be assured, you are not alone and that there are many, many things that you can do to help your child not just like, but love to read.
We Have a BIG Problem
Ring the alarm bells. Recent research from Scholastic shows that only 37% of children aged 6 - 17 are frequent readers, meaning they read for fun 5 - 7 days per week. Frequent readers, read, on average, 45.6 books per year. Infrequent readers read only 17 books per year, and read for fun less than one day per week.
That is a staggering difference and a major problem because infrequent readers are missing out on the MANY benefits of reading. It's this knowledge that keeps me focused on my own children's reading journey through the highs, lows, rocky roads, and occasional flat tyre.
The Incredible Benefits of Reading
There is no question that reading makes people smarter and more confident learners, thereby helping students perform better in school. When I ask students what are the benefits of reading, they tell me that reading helps them survive, and gives them increased: mental stimulation, knowledge, vocabulary, memory, concentration, writing skills, and imagination. My jaw drops open when they tell me it helps them to see the world in new ways and increases their capacity to empathise.
Why the Heck is this Happening?
Research from Scholastic shows that there is a decline in reading frequency once a child turns eight; interestingly, the same age when reading enjoyment declines. And, sadly this means that for those children who don't reconnect with books, they are likely to become an infrequent and not a frequent reader.
I believe there are a combination of reasons that reading frequency declines at age eight, but the two biggies are: there is more competition for their time (screens, homework, activities, busy households) and parents of eight years olds can make the understandable mistake of assuming that because their child can read, they no longer need their help.
There is a lot of information and support for parents of younger children to help them learn to read, but it pretty much dries up after that. Parents tick that box, feeling proud, as they should. But, what parents perhaps don't realise is that their job doesn't stop there. It's simply time to tack and change the direction of the parenting boat, and set their sights on helping their children LOVE books for their whole childhood.
There is a Solution
Helping your child get hooked on books sounds easy, right? No, it doesn't. It sounds overwhelming, but I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be.
There are three simple steps that parents can follow to help their child love to read. And, I won't lie to you: it will require some work, but in the words of Art Williams, "it will be worth it."
1. Recognise our Role as Parent
The most important and foundation first step is for parents to fully recognise their role in helping their child. Parents need to understand that once their child can read, their job is not over. It has simply changed, and will not finish until their child is an adult.
2. Improve Reading Skills
There are direct relationships between reading skills, reading enjoyment and the number of books a child reads. Every child will benefit from improving their reading skills. Our job as parents is to put the time aside and read with them, and create the time for them to read - most days, every week, every year until they are grown up. 86% of children, across all ages, love reading books aloud with their parents at home because they see it as a special time to spend with their parents.
3. Reading for Enjoyment
It is critical that parents find their child books that they love and that are appropriate to their reading level. 58% of children (aged 6 - 17) say reading books for fun is extremely important, and 91% of frequent readers are currently reading at least one book for fun. It doesn't matter what books your child enjoys, as long as both parent and child understand what types of books they enjoy and what their child's reading level is.
And, whilst parents need to supply the books, children like the power to choose. 90% of children say their favourite books are the ones they have chosen for themselves. Oh, and another predictor of frequent readers is having parents who read frequently. I don't know about you, but I don't have to be asked twice.
** Your child may only be having an issue in one, and not all, of these areas, so modify your plan to suit your child.
The Results: Frequent Readers
When parents embrace their role in their child's reading journey, and work on improving their child's reading skills and providing continuous access to books that their child loves, the number of books their child reads will increase. And, of course, this will lead to more enjoyment and connection with books.
It is time for us parents to stop looking back, wondering what went wrong. There is no place for that now. So, pull up those sails, look to a new horizon and get sailing. And, lastly, never forget that children love reading with their parents. As parents we will never get this time back again, so let's treasure the snuggles on the couch as much as they do, and read with our children.
About Upside Down Chocolate Cake
I'm a passionate about helping children to read frequently - forging a life-long connection with books. In this blog, you will also find helpful, practical advice for parents to help support them in their families reading journey.