Unlocking Connection: Magic Words

My first baby had barely taken a breath before my worst nightmare was unfolding. Literally, she wasn’t breathing, and that was why I was missing out on the immediate skin-to-skin bonding touted by many as the golden standard motherhood rite of passage for attachment. Instead, I watched the NICU team whisk her away for monitoring, feeling panic take deeper and deeper root inside my heart with every passing second.

Fortunately, our daughter’s health (and our bond) ended up being just fine.

I am also grateful that my desperation to overcome my own detachment disorder had given me the insight to have a backup plan for just such an occasion.

I sometimes wonder what the hospital staff must have thought of my insistent instructions to my husband, “Go, read to her!”, and his devoted willingness to pull out Girl of Mine and go along with my plan.

And so it was that our oldest daughter came into the world hearing the exact same story her father had read to her over and over again throughout pregnancy.

Some of my favorite memories of my pregnancy were making our bed in the morning and stepping around the stacks of books Kelvin read to our girls after I had fallen asleep the night before. From the beginning, our family chased after connection, and reading has proven to be the most consistent, effective, and magical practice in that quest.

If there was ever a time for magic in parenting, it would be while raising young children.

There is nothing quite like the sleep deprived, never-ending-laundry, scheduling around feedings/naps/toddler tantrums kind of life. It’s messy, exhausting, emotionally taxing, and yet undeniably sweet. Reading together during this time gave us a reliable rhythm for connection, as well as practical language skills that brought a bit of peace into our non-reading time.

Reading together gives younger kids an opportunity for extra physical and emotional connection.

One of the most challenging things of motherhood, at least for me, was relinquishing my personal space. It’s possible that my children were more clingy than most, but having kids on me all day often felt draining. Somehow, though, snuggling up with my babies and a book never seemed to bother me, and it quickly became my favorite form of physical connection, and the ritual ultimately led to consistent opportunities for emotional bonding.

Story time became quality bonding time, and the magic words came right up off of the pages and into the girls’ minds.

They were exposed an onslaught of extra words every day, giving them a strong foundation to learn language. Their language skills made it easier for them to express themselves, and thus reduced the frustration that comes from not being able to communicate wants, needs, and inquiries. Of course, with an increased vocabulary and an early awareness that they had a voice, it wasn’t long before their emotions outgrew their expressive language skills.

When threenager problems surfaced in the form of epic meltdowns, magic words from picture books were sometimes the only way to pull my girls out of emotional chaos and back into their thinking brains.

I stumbled upon this realization by accident, as I held a shrieking child in my lap, and, in total desperation to keep myself calm, intuitively reached for my personal favorite coping mechanism—a book. Feeling a little guilty that all my attempts to connect with and calm my daughter had failed, I chose to read as if she weren’t wailing in protest over whatever it was that she wanted and couldn’t have. To my amazement (and relief), after I read a couple of pages she got quiet, and I could feel her breathing slow and tension release from her little body.

This magic trick worked with all three of them, and so far the older two have even been able to internalize it and use it independently to regulate themselves when needed!

Magic words grew right alongside our girls, simultaneously expanding their understandings of both the real and imaginative worlds where they played together.

The summer before we sent our oldest off to kindergarten, I read the girls one of my childhood favorites, The Boxcar Children. I was giddy when I went out back to call them inside for bedtime and found them running back and forth from front yard strawberry patch to their swing set pretending to be children taking charge of their own survival. Not wanting to interrupt this literary milestone, we decided to let them stay up late that night, feasting on strawberries and narrating their adventure aloud to one another.

That summer was a pivotal moment for our older girls, who made the connection that magic words could take them on adventures, and that they were no longer dependent on their parents to access such fun.

It was a time of transition, and since we’ve never wanted to force family reading time, we set them free to read through copious amounts of books without us. We maintained the rhythm of reading picture books together at bedtime, but instead of snuggling up on our laps, our quality time shifted to become more of a side by side practice. Admittedly, this would have been more heartbreaking if we didn’t have our youngest girl who still, to this day, prefers to be held when we read to her.

What started as a small, strategic step connect a mother and her babies has magicked itself into a foundational piece of our family’s identity.

It hasn’t been a linear process— our middle girl thought that books were for eating until she was 18 months old, leading me to jokingly confide in my mom that, “This one might be a dud.” (She wasn’t, she actually learned how to read earlier than our oldest!) But we managed to balance consistency, flexibility, and patience through the labyrinth of young family life and at this point, it’s just a collectively accepted fact: We read in this family.

Our identities as readers influences our family culture.

Whether it’s trying a new food because Cilla’s family eats it in Cilla Lee Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire, or the growing interest in history to fully understand Before She Was Harriet, we share an enthusiastic curiosity.

We’ve borrowed memorable phrases and integrated them into our daily language, wisdom such as “It’s always a good idea to take more than one book on a trip.”, from Julieta and the Diamond Enigma.

And, because reading and storytelling are closely connected, we value sharing our voices with the world; our girls are prolific writers and have started their own library of books they have authored.

The beautiful thing about connecting to your kids with reading is that you can start anytime and enjoy the benefits.

Reading from the beginning has given our family the magic words we’ve needed to survive thus far—for the record, at the time of publishing this we have an almost three year old (send good vibes), a five year old and a seven year old. But it is never too late to pick up a book and begin enriching your family life with reading together.

It really is that simple!

In case you’re thinking that you don’t know the right book titles, or that my teaching experience is the source of the magic described in this post (I promise it’s not!), or that your child just “doesn’t like to read”, I want to share this quote from one of my favorite author’s on the subject, the fabulous Mem Fox.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

Mem Fox, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever

Did you catch that? It’s the relationship formed between the child, the grown up, and the book…it’s the connection.

This brings me to my best teacher advice for parents who ask me about all the reading things:

It’s all about miles on the page. There is nothing more powerful, no fancy teaching methodology more influential than simply picking up a book and beginning. Read and repeat, that’s it! Start small and let the “fire of literacy” grow organically.

You don’t need an arsenal of literacy strategies, a massive home library, or a teaching background to give your family the benefits of reading magic words.

I’ve already given you my best teaching advice, which truly is enough. But, for my fellow over-achievers, I wouldn’t dream of ending this post without connecting you to some of my favorite resources, so grab a pen and write this down:

(some) Favorite Reading Material:

  • Sandra Boynton—this beloved author writes brilliant, rhyming board books. We have several memorized, and if you ever get a chance to hear Kelvin read Pajama Time, your bedtime parenting game will never be the same! Bonus: Her facebook page is always a bright spot in my newsfeed.
  • Mo Willems —I’m pretty sure his award winning Elephant & Piggie series is what made my girls realize they could write stores. too. These stories have text that is approachable for young readers, but the plots and dialogue are good fun for grown ups too!
  • Cricket Media—In addition to books, we are huge fans of these literary magazines. The illustrations are beautiful and they offer a refreshing mix of short stories, non-fiction, folktales, poetry and art unified around a specific theme that changes each month. They have a magazine for every age group—a subscription would be an amazing gift idea!
  • Caldecott Picture Book Awards—Last week I provided a short list of resources for finding award winning literature. The Caldecott Awards are given to books with amazing illustrations. Pro-tip: Never underestimate the value of the pictures of picture books. When combined with the words, the illustrations themselves are educators.

Books for Parents (I’ve read and loved both!):

  • Reading Magic—This book was required reading in my Master’s program and I’m so glad it was, it changed how I read books aloud.
  • The Enchanted Hour—This book presents current research on the why of reading aloud.

Words are magical.

Here’s my plan for you, if you are willing to go along with it: Open a book, any book, and watch the practice of reading with your kids breathe life into your connection with them. And then, connect with me on social media and let me know how it’s going!

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