As an army spouse for more than thirty years and a mum-of-four, Dr Alison Baverstock knows all about the impact that military life has on a family. In 2010, she started an initiative to keep families connected through books, and this became Reading Force, now celebrating its tenth anniversary.
Alison is also professor of publishing at Kingston University and the co-author (with Gill Hines) of ‘Whatever! A down to earth guide to parenting teenagers’, so to accompany our autumn Army&You theme on military teens and young people, our reporter Jill Misson tapped into her expertise…
What did you find challenging about parenting four children during their teenage years?
From the moment our third child arrived, we were outnumbered – and even more so when my husband was deployed. But I loved their company and the chaos that goes with a big family.
I did find that living in so many places has created a really strong bond between us all. We now look back on the experiences we had and share what we each thought at the time – interestingly we often remember different things.
What advice can you give parents to help them understand what their teenagers are going through and how best to support and communicate?
I think the best thing is to try to remember how you felt to be a teenager; to leave them with a sense of their options, and not to take over or try to manage too much for them.
Teenagers need space to think and work things out and telling someone how to manage a difficult situation is no replacement for the effort they need to put in themselves.
I always tried to make time to do things with them individually, away from home – so maybe a drink in a café every now and then, or even a walk to the post office.
Conversations often work better when everyone is out of their usual comfort zone – and side by side in the car can be a particularly good time for tricky conversations. You can both pretend you are fascinated by the journey!
Two top tips would be: When you’re really cross, have a conversation once everyone has calmed down – not in the heat of the moment. And secondly, routinely encourage them to think through potentially difficult situations in advance. For example, what would you do if you felt uncomfortable in the street or on a bus? What should you have with you before going out in the evening? Which adult could you ring if you felt totally stuck and we were not available?
What does Reading Force offer older children at secondary school?
Reading Force can be used by families of all shapes and sizes whether or not they are living in the same place. The Reading Force scrapbook can provide a valuable holding place for everyone’s thoughts, feelings and physical contributions – words, photographs and illustrations.
Older siblings can be a real encouragement to their younger brothers and sisters in helping them make progress with their reading, and we know family involvement helps generate enthusiasm for books, as does having copies that you know are just yours.
We’ve now developed some special Reading Force resources for teenagers, working with young people on what kind of materials they wanted, and with a young designer to manage their format.
They are smaller and more discrete than the current materials – and the designs are really eye-catching.
Parents often read with younger children who need to practise and still enjoy bedtime stories but how can books help parents to bond with their teenagers?
Shared reading is always a good thing to do – it enables conversations about characters and situations that can stand in for what we are experiencing ourselves. So, talking about how a character might feel can be a non-invasive way of talking about how you might be feeling.
From personal experience, however, I think it’s always best to let young people have their own reading experience, so to let them lead the conversation rather than risk their reading turning into a routine comprehension exercise with you.
I remember spotting that my son seemed to like Ben Elton, and so I bought the most recent one and commented on what I thought about it before giving it to him. The immediate result (of course) was that he stopped reading Ben Elton!
To find out more about the resources available for all age groups at Reading Force, go to readingforce.org.uk
Read more about Reading Force in this related article: armyandyou.co.uk/life-of-a-page-turner