The other day, I was reflecting on what it took to get all the disparate members of my family to stop what they were doing and sit down to listen to a story. As kids get older, with a variety of interests and more complex schedules, it gets harder. And in our modern age, with more and more to distract and attract us, it gets harder still. In my own family, I know it’s still possible because each and every one of us is willing, eager even, to fall under the sway of a story. It’s not the first thing each of us thinks of. But every one of us knows the pleasures, pleasures rich enough to induce each of to say, “OK, I’ll do such and such later. Right now – it’s story time.”
I’d like to say the story speaks for itself. And it does. But that is not always enough. The willingness to fall under the sway of the story – to sit still that long, to put off the need for constant visual stimulation, to maintain the patience it may require to give the story a page – or a chapter – or two to become captivating – is also a cultivated habit.
So how do you cultivate that habit? You must honor the story. You must create an ethos, an ethic, a culture in which all are slaves to the narrative, in which everything else stops while that chapter is being read. It requires respect for everyone else listening. It requires the suppression of individual desires (to go the bathroom, to get a snack, to crack a joke, to answer the phone). But most of all, it requires respect for the story itself.
This is a habit which can be cultivated when your children are young. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a small child on your lap, reading a picture book, someone comes in the room, and you pick your head up and say, “We’ll be with you as soon as we finish this story.” We have the confidence to do this because whoever comes in the room knows a picture book can only last another few minutes. We have the desire to do this because we don’t want to break the brief, fragile, special spell the story has cast on our little lap sitter. We have a vicarious stake in the world of their imagination. We are honoring the story.
This is no different when reading a chapter book, but this truth is harder to recognize because when we are older – as students or parents – the things that distract us – the call from a friend, the incoming text message, the e-mail update – all seem more important. Those things can be important, but you have to ask yourself if the brief twenty minutes shared together, under the spell of a common cultural medium – a story – is in fact not worth more. In most cases, the irritation with having to check those messages later is insignificant in comparison with the magic of family time gained. It is really more an exercise in self-control.
In truth, this habit can also be cultivated – or re-enforced – by examining one’s viewing habits. In fact, viewing habits can inhibit or retard the principles of honoring the story. I’ll bet everyone knows the phenomenon of young children at a birthday party; someone puts on a movie thinking it will entertain the children for an hour or so; and twenty minutes in half the kids are wandering around. This isn’t just because some kids have shorter attention spans or some kids have already seen the movie. It’s because some children don’t grow up honoring the narrative. For many, putting on a film is just like putting on the television. It’s constant background noise, something to be tuned in or tuned out at will, as the impulse strikes. It is lamentable, but it is also preventable.
A movie is a story, too. A finite tale with a beginning, middle, and end. Its narrative, too, can be honored – should be honored – because doing so will pay dividends elsewhere. I often speak about the value of the “pause button” when reading a book out loud, how a book affords the opportunity to pause at will, to discuss a point, to ask a brief question, to reset the attention span. The metaphor is of course imported from the television. But in my experience, many families don’t avail themselves of the pause button when watching a movie. When a child needs to go to the bathroom, or get a snack, they miss five minutes. Yes, it’s not the end of the world, but it disrespects the story. Everything from not using the pause button to having the television on as constant background teaches disrespect for the story. It suggests that choosing a story on film is just an ephemeral distraction, of no lasting importance.
If you want your family to mutually cherish the twenty minutes it takes to suspend everything – everyone putting off or suspending or restraining something – to respect the story, then look at your own family viewing habits. Ask yourself if the pause button isn’t in fact the key to honoring the story the next time you want to brave a chapter book as a family. Ask yourself if that isn’t the first way to recognize and value and then preserve the quiet and silence and commitment it takes to read a chapter book out loud. The restraint may seem momentous, but is a small thing really (saying “not now” to a text message?). But the dividends for your family, and for your children’s literary understanding, are enormous. If you teach respect for the story – for the sanctity of the narrative – then the next time you want to read aloud it will be a little bit easier. Every one will think first of the thing they are putting off. But if they remember the special value of that shared twenty minutes – the laughs and thrills and shared expectation and choice prose bits – then they will choose the story over another ephemeral twenty minutes at the computer.