“Don’t kick the chair in the dark.”
“Go ‘long, you aint more than a paragraph.”
“What is taters, precious?”
“The lake of shining waters!”
All of these lines, or something like them (they might not be verbatim), are from works of literature or their film adaptations. Can you source them all? At least one of them is pretty obscure and I’m pretty sure I know what curriculum you’ve used if you get it. The others are a bit (a bit) more popular.
But this isn’t a quiz to test your literary knowledge or savvy. Despite what some might think, your intelligence isn’t measured by whether or not you’ve read certain books. And this isn’t about intelligence anyway. This is about culture. Not the culture of espressos and salad forks, of opera and fine art, but rather the connecting sinews of identity and place.
You might not know what books those are from and you might not see much significance beyond their context in the work if you do recognize them. But I know three to nine people who do know what they’re from and share a history with those lines and me. My parents and my siblings share a family bond that is more than blood– it is wrought by time and shared experience. Individuals in a family unit are bound to have different interests and goals, which is why it makes it so important to find shared activities to create those bonds.
Home should be a place of safety, where the shared experience is more than negative emotion or haste or just the meals you eat. It is, ideally, a place of safety and refuge, physically and emotionally. This can lead to family wounds packing more of a punch, because you anticipated being safe in the environment, but it is worth the risk. And a big part of the bond of daily life is understanding.
A family rich in the experience of shared read alouds and books (and even movies, if discussed) gives kids and grown-ups a common experience and a family language. It provides a way to communicate or clear up misunderstandings or address behavior without feeling alone. You have the company of both the characters it calls to mind and the family unit itself, the sense of belonging that comes from being with those who understand their jokes and their observations and their feelings. It doesn’t even have to be really complex or deep literature– some of our conversations and family jokes have started from board books!
When certain lines or phrases become the way that you explain concepts or talk about ideas or morals, then that foundation gives you a family context for reference later. If I was out on a walk with a sister and we passed a pond and she exclaimed, “The lake of shining waters!” I would understand what she is saying: “This is beautiful, I feel hopeful today, it makes me think of stories we’ve read,” and we might end up having a conversation about either the water itself or the treatment of orphans in literature. If my mom said, “We passed a ‘lake of shining waters’ in the car today,” I would know something about how she felt when they were driving. We use this line, in my family, in a certain context that is understood without a lot of explanation every time.
The line “Don’t kick the chair in the dark” was and is a way my mom can quickly say to me, “stop acting superior” or “be patient with those who need more time to understand something.” It is a way she can reprimand or challenge me in my behavior without a long lecture. We both know the context and share the experience of having conversations about it.
I’m not advocating that you use these same lines or find the same books and have identical experiences. What I am advocating is that you read, watch films, and discuss them and develop family culture. Show your kids how to apply situations or observations from books as a lens for their own lives. Use them as examples in conversation. When your kids interrupt a movie or book twelve times in eight minutes (true story) to ask questions about details, don’t view them as interruptions– train yourself to view them as kinda the point. This is the process of learning and gathering information or building up understanding. Make note of the things they were asking about and bring them up later. Be intentional about providing a context and family culture for your kids– it will open lines of communication with them and it will bolster the sense of family as a place where they belong.
And isn’t that something we all want to provide?