“Unplugging the Machine”
As we move into the holiday season, a lot of us start to think about two things: spending time with family and, ironically, how to “unplug the Christmas machine.” It’s the enduring struggle: we want to make a nice holiday for our families, but there is the work and the money. And then sometimes we wonder what, exactly, is the point?
One of the most simple ways to unplug during the holidays and throughout the year is to sit down and read with family. There’s nothing wrong with toys, games, music, Netflix, and even video games, but when you sit down with a book, all you need are two very simple forms of technology: a book and a reading light. A comfortable place to pile up is nice too, but you probably already have that!
When done right, reading together is one of the most important things you can do to establish the love of reading in your family, and it is one that shouldn’t stop when the kids learn to read for themselves.
I first read Unplug the Christmas Machine nearly 30 years ago. When I checked Amazon, I found out that it is still in print as has been revised…obviously it’s still a hot topic!
Memory Making Mom extends some of the ideas from the above book into the entire year. Also check out Jessica Smart’s blog, “Smartter” Each Day.
Nowadays, it seems as though people think of reading out loud as something that they do with little kids, but actually for long time, reading was a family activity for everyone to enjoy together.
When we started to have widespread literacy and access to books for the middle class in the 19th century, there weren’t really special books for children and adults. It’s kind of like pre-cable television: books, like early television shows, were meant to be enjoyed by the entire family. Reading together, while one person read and the rest of the family engaged in quiet chores, was roughly the equivalent of watching Netflix together now. The only difference is that you can do different things when you don’t have to watch too!
With today’s technology, it’s easy to include family members from anywhere. Send Grandma and Grandpa copies of your family reads for them to read at home, read along with your family online, or read TO your kids, either in person or online.
Kids love to talk to their granparents on the phone, but it’s hard for both parties to find things to talk about.
Family reading is featured in both of these classic children’s novels that are favorites of mine.
Picking your books
Do what works for your group. Go for the middle ground, and let family members take turns choosing the book. It’s common for mixed groups to tend to skew towards books by and about boys because of the misperception that girls will enjoy “boy” books more than girls will enjoy “girl” books. This is a form of gender bias; don’t fall for it. Anyway, it isn’t true.
A case in point: I recently had a very surprising conversation with my father-in-law about our mutual love of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as children. He said he identified with the some of the struggles of the Ingalls family as they were similar to his own. I remember identifying with Laura’s struggle to be “good” while still maintaining her own sense of self.
Around the holidays, if you are going to have overnight visitors, I would find an episodic novel or a collection of stories so guests can easily join the family custom. Routines are important for children to maintain as much as possible, especially when there is a lot going on.
Also encourage far-flung relatives who are close to your family to “read along” remotely.
Reading as a Holiday Tradition
This time of year, I often see posts about the Finnish custom of getting a book on Christmas Eve to read in bed while eating chocolate. I’m not Finnish, but I certainly thing this custom is a lovely one, if it is accurate. I also think it’s probably a good way to get the kids in bed and quiet so that Santa can go to work. I’m sure it can also be nice if you are staying up late to go to a midnight church service.
Another custom I see often, where the children receive a book each night, I’m actually conflicted about. No, I’m not conflicted. I think giving anyone 24 books in a month, on top of all the other Christmas presents kids get, is shockingly consumerist. I’m probably one of the biggest advocates of reading there is, and I know that ownership of books is part of the reading experience, but 24 books in one month is ridiculous, even if there are several children in the family. If you want to start this custom, I would suggest using library books with only a few purchased books mixed in, maybe one a week. You can even wrap up the library books if you want, and have the kids choose. Just make sure they understand that it’s a game and they are still library books.
I think I would wrap up a selection of new books, new to the kids books (library books), and also the traditional favorites that you bring out only at Christmas. You could check out the library books of family favorites if you think the kids would notice them missing from the family bookshelves.
You can make reading part of your holiday tradition in other ways. There are several “advent calendar books” available that helps you make a quiet moment of reading each day part of the excitement of Christmas (and blessedly, a peaceful one).
My mom bought my daughter this calendar when she was little, and we still keep the tradition of it even though she is in her 20’s now! The calendar consists of 24 tiny board books, with a bit of the Story of the Nativity and some illustrations. The books are designed to be hung on the tree after reading, but I bought a tiny tree at the Dollar Tree to use just for the books.
Enjoy this hour long presentation from Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook (above) on the importance of reading with your children at home. It’s a video, but you really only need to listen, so it will work in the car.
Selections from The Read Aloud Handbook Seventh Edition (old edition).
Two Traditions to Start Today
Check The Lois Level on Facebook to find updates on my niece’s reading of this book with her kids during this December.
I just found this book, and the story and organization is lovely. The story is about a little bear who opens a door on his advent calendar each night. There is a story that goes with what he finds, one story on each page. The stories end with a nice little moral that is not annoying…. The story ends with the bear and all of the new friends he makes along the way arriving at the Nativity.
I also like that there are no numbers on the pages, so it’s ok if you get a little off here and there!
The Sweet Smell of Christmas is my all-time favorite Christmas book. We owned it as children, and I bought a copy (that we still own) for my daughter who is now 25.
5 things to remember when you think about reading time with your family
1. Everyone doesn’t have to understand every word. The really little ones will just enjoy being included and listening to the sound of your voice. If they get restless, let them sit with the family and give them a quiet toy to play with while they listen. If you are doing reading time in the evening, it can be a way for them to power down, and it’s probably closer to their bedtime anyway, so give them their “lovey”, and brush teeth first!
Reading together is a nice way to open up interesting conversation for everyone, either during reading or later.
2. You are not your children’s teacher. Don’t turn family reading time into homework time. If kids want to take turns reading, let them. If they don’t want to, then let them listen to you. Ask for their preference each time, but don’t bug them about their answers.
Don’t make them “sound out” words they don’t know. If the word is mangled to the point that the sentence doesn’t make sense, just say the correct word, and move on as seamlessly as possible. The point is to minimize disruption so that everyone can concentrate on the meaning of the story.
As a high school teacher, my rule was always that only the teacher makes corrections, and I would tell the kids “I’m not going to correct anyone if we can still understand the sentence, so DO NOT JUMP IN.”
Don’t undermine comprehension by focusing on perfect decoding. Comprehension, or understanding, is the most important part of reading.
3. I like to do voices when I read, but there is also something to be said for doing very simple readings and letting the way the author puts the words together come through. Do what comes naturally, or mix it up.
Having family members do different characters is also fun (remind them about quotation marks). The really little ones like to do repeated words or, most especially, sounds, such as animal noises. Switch it up and let the group have a voice in how the reading is happening that day.
4. If older ones want to have their own copy of the book to follow along, I would let them. Some people have problems just listening. It certainly isn’t going to do any harm.
5. Try including distant family members, especially grandparents, by having “read alongs” with them. They can read their own copy of the book wherever they may be, and possibly you can use the internet to have them join in sometimes. One of the hardest things about distant relatives and little kids is keeping them connected when the children are too young to talk.
For more on sharing reading from The Lois Level, check out Reading Poetry: Why and How
How to pick books for Family Reading
1. Start with books that you read as a child and loved. It’s also nice to ask the grandparents or other close family members. I wish I had known that my father-in-law liked the Little House books when my daughter was little!
2. If a book isn’t working, don’t be afraid to set it aside and come back to it later.
3. Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook is the absolute Bible when it comes to choosing books to read as a family. About half the book has background information about reading aloud, and about half of it is a treasury of books that work well as read alouds from ALL GENRES (not just stories and novels). You don’t need to read this book straight through. The first half is arranged in topical articles so you can find what you need, and the second half is also designed to be searchable.
This book is in its 8th edition, and getting the newest one can be a little tricky online. The original author Jim Trelease is not retired, so the 8th edition is “edited and revised by Cyndi Giorgis.” The newest edition is good to have because newly published books are included and the articles address up to date issues such as digital readers and reading graphic novels out loud. The older editions still have a lot of great suggestions, but you might have problems finding some of the recommended books.
Be sure the cover of your book looks like the one below. The cover of the 7th edition is blue, and it is considerably different inside.
Check out The Lois Level’s Pinterest board with multi-generational nonfiction picks for family reading here.
Jim Trelease has free, reproducible brochures available for you to print and share with your school or group.
Please use the link on the page to request permission.
Available in English and Spanish.
Reading and Service
I also would do is incorporate service into this activity by letting each child choose a certain number of stories/books that the family will purchase new and give to charity for children who don’t normally get new books to keep to enjoy; for example, a homeless shelter. I would have them include a friendly note saying why the like the book and wanted to share it.
The Gift of Reading
I have already started a custom with the children in my life that I give them books as gifts, and I have alerted my daughter that Meemaw Lois (I have chosen Meemaw as my grandma name in honor of my own Meemaw) will be the grandma who gives books and deposits money in the children’s mutual fund. No junk.
5 Reasons to Give Children Books as Gifts
1. They are easy for parents to exchange if there is an issue, and then the kids gets the fun of picking out a book, which is also a good educational activity.
2. Books are unlikely to end up in a landfill before they have gotten their full use. There is really no recyclable market for toys because most people have more than they can use. Also pieces go missing, and then they are basically unusable. Books have a clear easy lifecycle: they will sell at yard sales, they can be donated to any charity or library (libraries typically raise money by selling donated books they can’t use at very low prices), or they can be donated to a class, school, or any organization that involves children.
3. Books do not make noise (unless you want to be passive-aggressive to the parents and buy that kind), they are easy to store so they don’t create clutter, and they don’t hurt your feet when you step on them.
4. Books are easy to wrap, pack, and ship: the cheapest post office rate is for mailing books. The weight can be a problem when flying, but with Amazon Prime, you can usually just ship the book to your destination free of charge. If you must fly with books, my recommendation is that you slip it in your smallest bag and pretend like the bag isn’t heavy when you check in. Some airlines have even taken to weighing carry ons; your “hand item” is least likely to be included.
5. If you want to add a little “pizzazz” to your book gift, pair it with something, but make sure that the “extra” gift is clearly the add on. If you are spending more than a dollar or two on the add on, you might as well add another book. The idea is to keep the junk down. Also don’t give a toy. The recipient is supposed to be excited about the BOOK.
Five Great Add-ons for Book Gifts
A small package of candy. Candy rings are nice for the kids to suck on while reading.
A fleece blanky with a theme goes with the book (I’ve seen them as cheap as $2.50). I like to have random “cheap” fleece blankets around the house and in the car; I don’t find extra ones to be “junky” around the house. You always have protection for and from dirty kids and pets, you can always use them to get warm, and they are easy to store.
A book mark…I like the magnetic kind the best, but any object that is flat and small enough works…some book lovers “invent” bookmarks that go with the book. Or bring them back from vacations during the year.
A small add on to any collection of the child’s that goes with the book.
Photo credit: Public domain, Currier & Ives’ “The Lincoln Family,”downloaded from the Library of Congress, the national library of the United States of America.