Tuesday, November 29, 2011
"Okay, roll the dice and help me count how many dots come up!"
Never have I heard such amazing words. My husband made his own tabletop game, and since our daughter has been enthralled with learning, he asked if she would like to play while hiding the fact that they would be practicing numbers and rules.
I came out after a few minutes to watch them play. Her face was lit up like nothing I've seen, and she was so excited to be playing, she had no idea she was learning, too.
A little bit later, I talked to my husband about how what he was doing with her was schooling and learning. He had no idea. He told me that it couldn't have been school because it was too much fun.
We have had a really hard time trying to decide what to do when our daughter is old enough for Kindergarten. It is such a hard decision to make, especially when you want nothing but the best for your child.
When she sprouted a month ago by learning on her own and at her own pace, it felt like our decision was made for us.
There are still doubts, but watching my husband and her learn through play and practice just reinforces the idea that she needs to have the freedom to learn as she will and not be structured or boxed, not that I believe public school will do or does that. As I watched him unschool our daughter, I knew we needed to give it a try.
For now, we will keep teaching her how she wants to learn and not force her, and see where it goes. We are going to keep her home for Kindergarten. It wasn't an easy choice, but that one moment where I heard learning and fun convinced me that this is something we need to at least try.
She was so happy, so enthralled, that I owe her at least that much. Homeschooling might not be the future option for us, but I go in completely ready and excited, and open to evaluate as I go and change what needs to be changed.
Kids are all about flexibility, and nothing has shown that to me more than this.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
The Thanksgiving tradition in my family is that instead of saying grace before dinner, we go around the table and each person says what they are thankful for. This year, however, we spent the holiday with my husband’s family and my father-in-law said a traditional grace. It was a nice grace, but as I was falling asleep later that night, I felt a little sad that we all didn’t get to say what we’re thankful for. I said so to my husband. I missed that yearly tradition of my family’s. And, being a list maker, I can’t help but make my list of the things I’m thankful for.
In no particular order, I’m thankful for:
1. The health of my family and the things that go to sustain that health: clean water, good quality food, organic fruits and vegetables, and daily exercise.
2. Laughter and especially the laughter of my children. Is there a more beautiful sound than your children laughing? Or the sound of your children laughing because they are playing together, even if one is three and one is 4 months old?
3. Being a breastfeeding mom, I’m thankful for the breastfeeding laws that protect my right to live my life and breastfeed at the same time, whether I’m grocery shopping, taking my son to the playground or working.
4. Having a marriage where my husband and I communicate and are on the same page when it comes to parenting, education, nutrition, and other values. Whenever I get worn out I think of my friends who are single parents – and still stellar parents – and wonder how they do it, not just doing it all themselves most the time, but doing it without having someone to talk things through with, whether it’s the choices for schools or how to teach the kids conflict resolution skills. Having someone to share the wild ride of parenting with, for me, makes it far more fun and easier.
5. That my husband and I have chosen to parent in a way that reflects our values – even when it goes against the grain, is different from many friends and extended family members, and even causes concern in some (“What? You don’t punish your children? How do they know right from wrong?”). I’m also thankful for how much we’ve already seen the benefit of this, of how much our three year-old son communicates his feelings and what’s okay with him, that while he may get scared at a puppet show, he doesn’t get scared of potentially getting in trouble for expressing himself.
6. I’m thankful for Roe v. Wade, not just because it makes a relatively simple procedure safe and available for women or has the side effect of greatly lowering the number of children that are abused yearly by parents, but because it protects all reproductive rights, including my right to choose to give birth at home with a midwife.
7. My children aren’t school age yet, but whether we choose public school, private school, or home school, I’m thankful for the public school system and that we have choices when it comes to our children’s education. Waldorf? Charter? Montessori? The neighborhood public school? Private? We get to choose. And I’m thankful for all the people who commit their lives to serving children.
8. Parks and playgrounds. I was grateful for the national and city parks before I had children, simply because of how much they improve the air quality and our quality of life, but after children, I am especially thankful for city parks and playgrounds. With an active preschooler, I think my sanity and his happiness depends on our daily walks to the park and time spent at the parks and playgrounds. He gets his exercise and to play with other kids. I get to play with him or meet other parents. The park is one of the first places children get to experience community, and it’s a benefit that’s available to all children.
9. Museums, public libraries and the arts. I’m an addict. And I’m raising my children to be addicts too. Yesterday my son begged to be taken to the Children’s museum, and while we didn’t have time (he instead spent his afternoon rolling down a hill in a park with his dad), it made my heart sing every time he asked.
10. The Internet. As a parent who’s still relatively new to the city I live in, I am thankful for the wealth of resources available every time I open my computer. Within minutes, I can find kid friendly events happening in the city, where to take kids apple picking, or directions to a new friend’s house. I can also instantly research tips for flying with children, order groceries, put library books on hold, or contact my favorite mom friends who are spread out across the globe. I feel slightly shallow saying it, but I think the Internet makes parenting easier for my generation than it was for my parents.
And you? What are the things you're thankful for as a parent?
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
When my siblings, cousins and I go out to eat with my Grandmother, she takes us out to a nice restaurant. When the restaurant host puts the menus on the table, she always says, “Go ahead and get whatever you want. It’s okay. Don’t worry about the price.” She’s done this my entire life. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense for her to say considering that she was raised during the Depression and started her own family during World War II. Meeting the needs of everyone in the family depended on staying within the budget. Eating out was a luxury, and even when one could afford it, one still ordered modestly to keep the cost of the entire meal reasonable. Though when my grandmother took us out as we grew up, she had attained a certain amount of financial comfort, which is why she wanted us to feel comfortable ordering whatever we wanted on the menu.
Except that her telling me not to worry about the cost had the opposite effect. In the millisecond before she said anything, I’d quickly glance over everything, look for the things that sounded the best, and see if they weren’t things I didn’t usually get to have at home. After she said I could have whatever I wanted, I would immediately get self-conscious; that I shouldn’t order whatever I wanted because my grandmother was already thinking about the bill. Before she said anything, I had no reason to be concerned about the cost, but after she said something, I knew she was concerned about the cost. I felt if I ordered what I really wanted, she would think I was greedy or trying to take advantage of her. And I had to wonder to myself, “Well, why wouldn’t I look at a menu and just order what I wanted? Isn’t that what eating out is for?”
I was thinking about this awkward pas de deux with my grandmother that I faced growing up after what seemed to be the last warm Fall day at the playground, when a girl my son’s age tripped and fell. Her father ran over to her, picked her up and held her as she cried. He rubbed her back, and told her, “You can cry. It’s okay to cry. So if it makes you feel better, go ahead.”
In the grand scheme of things, what he said was the well-intentioned thing to say. It certainly beats the “You’re okay” response which – while trying to reassure the child that they didn’t seriously injure themselves – infers that s/he has no reason to cry or the “it’s okay” response which may in fact be the abbreviated form of “it’s okay to cry” but still suggests to the child that they don’t have any reason to be crying. As we know, if a child is crying, s/he has a reason to be crying, even if it’s a reason we don’t know or understand. For many children (and even adults who get hurt), crying is often the most natural response. It’s not much different than a knee jerk reflex after a doctor hits your knee with a rubber mallet.
Which is why I started wondering, if what the dad was saying to his daughter on the playground had the opposite effect of what he intended. I couldn’t help but wonder, if he was in fact projecting his concerns about crying onto his daughter the way my grandmother had projected her concerns about money onto me. When we say these kinds of things to our children, are they actually then saying to themselves, “Well why wouldn’t it be okay for me to cry after a fall?” the same way I wondered, “Well, why wouldn’t I go ahead and just get what I want?” Is the best form of validating their emotional expression to not say anything at all and instead just be with them and hold them?
I couldn’t help but wonder if we say these things to our children more for our sake than theirs. We want to be good parents. We want our children to feel safe expressing themselves – because honestly, children will express themselves anyway when they have something to express- better it be safely and straightforward in a conversation with us than passive aggressive and potentially dangerous in the world at large.
But the truth is while scientific study after scientific study proves that crying does indeed relieve stress and is better for one’s health in the long run, it’s still not socially acceptable to cry in public. We tell our children it’s okay on the playground, but by kindergarten they’ve already realized it’s not okay really. Most adults cry - when they do cry - in private, and when they do cry in public, they receive predictions about their professional demise. So are we sending our children mixed messages? Or do they get it’s okay when you’re little to cry because a kid kicked you in the head when you didn’t get off the slide fast enough, but it’s not okay when you’re big? I do cry in front of my son. I even tell him why I’m crying and if I’m sad or upset or frustrated. But I too cry at home, not on the playground.
In the meantime, my son told me today that he lost his favorite car to the subway track. I asked if he was sad and if he cried. He said yes. I said I could get it. I’d cry too. He said he wanted a new car to replace the one he lost, and then he went one to play with something else, completely forgetting about the lost car. I realized this is indeed the point of crying in the first place, to release an emotion so we can move to other things. It’s funny, the things you learn from a three year-old. He cries and moves on. He doesn’t make his crying at the subway station mean anything about him and he certainly didn’t wonder what other people thought as he cried about his lost car on the subway track. I hope he keeps this freedom of expression as he grows up.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Saturday, November 12, 2011
This week my husband and I took our three year-old son up to 42nd Street for his first play. The play, White, was put on by the New Victory Theater, a theater company with programming aimed at children and their families. The play, forty minutes long, featured a simple whimsically designed set full of birdhouses, all white. The two characters, Cotton and Wrinkle, care for their birdhouses and go through the rituals of their day keeping everything orderly and white, until one day, color emerges. The play ends with a burst of colorful confetti into the audience and the cast members talking with all the children about their favorite colors.
When I take my son to the movies (a series at a local Brooklyn theater, Big Movies for Little Kids) I joke that his attention span is the length of the movie minus ten minutes. I don’t know why this is, but it is generally the formula for his interest. The Muppet Movie minus ten minutes. Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus minus ten minutes. Even with this, at the movies, he gets distracted; he wants to walk around, he wants more popcorn or water or to play with the car that is hidden deep within his backpack. But at the play, he sat on my husband’s lap, totally absorbed and spell bound. He didn’t move. He didn’t fidget.
Whenever state and school budgets come up short, the arts curriculum is generally one of the first things on the chopping block even as studies show that having learning experiences in the arts contributes to academic skills, social and emotional development as well as increases motivational skills. It is through the arts that children learn their cultural heritage and have the ability to experience other cultures. The arts teach creativity, empathy, respect, diversity, and the ability to try new things, self-expression, resourcefulness, and self-direction in addition to a myriad of other things. An education that negates the arts negates humanity and the growth of the individual. An education without the arts fails to teach children the potential of the skills they are learning in school.
On the surface, the play White taught children their colors, and the contrast of an entirely white world with a world full of a spectrum of colors. But within this, children also were given a subtle message of diversity appreciation, an understanding of daily rituals, how people work together and take care of their environment. They also learned rules, how rules work and when those rules don’t represent the greater good, it’s okay to change them.
Yet what I really loved about the play was that it was intelligent. It respected children and valued the culture of children. It began with the premise that children are intelligent and discerning audience members. It assumed they are perceptive and emotionally intelligent and compassionate creatures. My son left the play wanting to see it again. I left with a renewed love of the theater. I also left with a profound appreciation for the theater company’s view that children’s theater is just as important and valid as the theater for their parents. It’s rare in our culture for people to view the experience and intelligence of children as just as valid and important as adults’, but it is. And one way to show our children that we think their experience is just as valid as ours is to value the arts that represent that experience.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
I can't tell you how many times I was told that when my son was a tiny baby. What I found most irritating about the comment was the assumption that, somehow, I had found a way to have a baby who didn't cry or that if I didn't let him cry enough, he was somehow going to forget how to cry. The truth was that he cried all the time. I just held him while he cried or once I figured out what he was communicating, I would do what he needed me to do and he would stop crying. Just because he didn't cry much during that person's visit, didn't mean that I was somehow magically stopping my child from crying all of the time. (In fact, before we figured out exactly how much I needed to eliminate from my diet for my son's reflux, we went weeks where the nightly routine involved my husband holding my son for one or two hour increments in which he cried the whole time just so I could lie down for an hour or two.) I always viewed his crying as his way of communicating with me and whether I "let" him cry or not, the tears always came because he always needed to communicate. He would just stop crying when it was clear that his message had been communicated.
However, there are times when I was and am "okay" with my son's tears. There were times when, as bad as I feel about how upset he is, I knew that his discomfort is necessary and only temporary and I communicate that to him by "letting him cry." For example, he always cried when I changed his diaper for the first three months, when I bathed him for about the first six months, when I showered, when he was in his car seat, (a few desperate times) when I put him down because I needed to get some emotional space away from his tears, and, recently, he has been crying when I brush his teeth, occasionally when its bath time, and, on rare occasions, when he wants treats instead of his regular food at mealtimes. What has made those times more acceptable to me is that even though I feel bad for his discomfort, I am not ignoring what he is communicating or irnoring the discomfort he feels. Instead, I am communicating to him that there are some things (like safety, hygiene, or nutrition) are more important than temporary discomfort. I really have no guilt about "letting" him cry when I feel I need to communicate those kinds of messages to him. I also don't leave him alone to cry during those times and I don't do things to intentionally push him. I don't force him to bathe every day just to "make him get over it," when he is having a tough time giving up the control needed to let me bathe him, I only do it two or three times during the week. I didn't take extra long showers while he cried in the other room "to show him who was boss" (as was suggested by some people I knew), I took a quick shower, usually with him in the bathroom with me while I talked him through it. If "letting him cry" tore me up inside or made me feel guilty or awful, I always knew that I should be doing what it is I needed to do to ease his tears. My own guilt is my litmus test about when it was important for him to cry.
The strongest message I can send him about what is important is to show how responsive I can be to his cries when there is something he is communicating that I can and should do something about it. If he is hurt, I respond to his cries (even if he isn't very hurt and mainly needs my attention because I've let myself be too distracted with other things like cleaning the house or talking to other people). If it is something I can feel good compromising about, then I feel fine compromising. (For example, when he wants mango at lunch instead of oranges.) By showing him that I will be there with him and will listen to him even when he is communicating discomfort and displeasure, I hope that I setting the stage for him to continue to communicate with me when he does use words as his primary form of communication. Sometimes, I do think its okay to cry, but only when there is a genuine, good reason why the cry is necessary. I think that is a very important lesson. How could I communicate THAT to him, if I didn't first respond to his first forms of communication?
Thanks for reading,
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
She didn't smile until she was four months old. Didn't laugh until she was a year. She didn't talk with more than one or two words until she was two and a half, and then she exploded with sentences. Until three weeks ago, she couldn't count past four without skipping numbers. She still has trouble with colors.
We have been told many times to get her checked and make sure she doesn't have any major issues. I watch her play, I watch her learn, and it reaffirms our choice to let her learn as she goes.
We've seen her play with kids a year or two younger than her and they know more colors and numbers and the other parents look at us like we are doing something wrong or there is something wrong with her.
Talking to other parents, I've come to realize that most parents have become so dependent on milestones, delays, and markers that we have tried to force our children to grow up before they are ready.
When I meet other parents in the playground or at meetings, most ask if she is in pre-school or if she is going to kindergarten next year. They don't ask about her, they only ask about how developed she is or will be. We are so focused on schooling our children and teaching them as soon as we can that we forget they are children.
For the last four years, I've let my daughter learn as she went. I haven't pushed her, and I have sat back as other parents look at her as if she's broken or that she should know more. I've loved her and been there for every need she could have.
Three weeks ago, she sprouted. She changed. She became fascinated with learning the things she didn't care about before. In three weeks, she is now able to count to 25, she can write every number and letter, she can spell her name and write the numbers 1-10 from memory. She now knows different songs and sings them to me. She tells stories. It's like a light came on and now she can't get enough of learning.
If I had pushed her, if I had tried to get her learn all of this before she was ready, I know she would have shut down. She's just like me. I've worried and I've wondered, and now seeing what can happen when you let children learn as they want to learn is just fascinating.
I've always thought that most parents cannot wait for their children to grow up. From birth, we are worried about when they are sleeping through the night, when they are eating enough solids, when we can wean them, when they're supposed to walk and talk. We worry so much about them lagging behind that we forget that all children are different.
My daughter's best friend is thirteen months younger than her. She knows some things better than my daughter and some worse. Watching the two of them has reaffirmed to me that all children are different. My child won't learn the same as my best friend's child. Her child won't learn the same as a sibling.
In a way, it is reassuring that she is able to learn and that she wants to learn. As a parent, you do worry. That's what being a parent is. However, your worry about development, unless there is an issue, should not hamper when they are ready to learn and when you think they are ready to learn.
Children learn better when it is their idea. Children learn better when their teacher, whether it be a parent or friend or a teacher from school, work with them to see what their focus is on. Where they are in their learning. There is no cookie cutter method for teaching a child. There is no set time when a baby or child should be doing something.
We are letting our daughter learn at her own pace. And just from the last three weeks, I know that this was the right thing to do.
Know your child. Know their needs. Know their signals. Don't push them to things they aren't ready for. Just as how you wouldn't enjoy that, they don't either. Children don't all grow at the same pace or stride, and sometimes, we all need a reminder that there is nothing wrong with them because they are a little "delayed".
Saturday, November 5, 2011
I spend a lot of time reading and researching preschool education. Even after my husband and I decided we wouldn’t participate in the rat race that preschool education entails in New York, I still spend a lot of time reading about how preschoolers learn, or why they need play, arts, crafts, exercise, and to self-direct their play and interests. I even read up on the preschool methodologies, the Waldorf, the Reggio Emilia, the Montessori, the unschooling, the basic play based and so on. Aspects of each school of thought resonate with me, but what I eventually realized was that I want my children to play and have good experiences as children. I know the schools will stress reading, writing, math, and social studies. I don’t know that they will teach him creativity, or how to explore and experiment in the world on his terms.
When I watch my three year-old son play, I watch him assimilate the world around him. Generally, his favorite toys are not toys at all. He has an old office phone that he uses to pretend to call for a taxi to take him to the Fort Greene playground. One day last week, our corkscrew also served as a pretend phone that he could use to order himself a vehicle and take-out sushi. Earlier this week, he carried around a ladle and serving spoon in his backpack. In the bath, he makes pretend ice cream and tea with the few remaining cups of his infant stacking cups. The lid from the orange juice bottle becomes a muffin he serves me with my “tea.” I gave him foam letters to play with in his bath only to watch him sort them by color, count them, and then put them away. The next night he took his Hot Wheels Carrying Case into the bath and put his letters in the spaces where the cars go. This morning he held up a piece of leftover ribbon and asked, “Can I play with this?”
While he has letters and numbers in his bath and had letters and numbers on the fridge as magnets (before they got lost to the Toss and Scatter game), we don’t quiz him on what they are or what sound they make or what have you. It’s purely about surrounding him with them and letting him explore them on his terms.
Whether it’s in play or education, my husband and I believe in him self-directing his experience. I don’t know exactly what he learns by sitting in a cardboard box and steering while holding a corkscrew to his ear (other than very bad driving habits undoubtedly learned from New York City cab drivers), but I know it’s important to him – otherwise, he wouldn’t do it. Given that he’s three, I trust that he can learn something from everything he does.
Everything I’ve read about how three year old children learn, from David Elkind’s Miseducation: Preschoolers At Risk to Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby, says it’s completely inappropriate to push early reading or math skills on your children, that in the first years what is most important is their social and emotional development, that kids can learn curriculum anytime, but social and emotional experiences to a large extent get hard wired at this stage, and you only get one shot at hard wiring. However, the more I read up on the schools around me in my neighborhood and city, after I read the catch phrases that we’re all familiar with (play based, encouraging creativity, diverse experiences, nurturing environment, etc.) I found that many of the preschools still mention their program will prepare children for school. Even if on the outside it looks like the kids are just playing, they really are gaining reading readiness skills or learning simple addition and subtraction or what have you.
I assume I find this information on preschool websites, school tours, and brochures, because more than one parent voiced their concern that if they allowed their kid to play all the time, how could they possibly be ready for school. Or will their child be behind the other kids who didn’t play all day? Yet I felt confused; if all the research (I’m finding) says young children need to play and pushing curriculum too young can backfire in their social and emotional development as well as their interest in school and learning, then why are the preschools in my area reassuring parents that their child will probably be phonetically reading by age four?
This month’s Scientific American Magazine has an article, “The Death of Preschool” by Paul Tullis focusing on specifically this question. Academics vs. free play in preschool has been a debate among early educators for decades (Silly me. When I started researching all this preschool stuff, I thought it was a recently new concern in early education), and now, as Tullis maintains, there’s research to prove that play is the absolute best way to nourish young children’s educational lives, yet the trend in schools continues to push academics.
I can understand the urge to push academics on young children. I can understand that parents want the best for their children and to have all kinds of opportunities available to them, and one way to get those opportunities is to do well in school. I can understand that no parent wants their child to struggle to learn or experience the feeling of being behind one's peers (or god forbid label themselves as "dumb"). Yet I have to admit, I am left wondering why is it parents don’t trust that interacting with their children is enough to prepare their child for school? Many states now do test children to make sure they’re ready for kindergarten, but isn’t this “being prepared for kindergarten” thing getting a little out of hand? Even those of us who say we don’t push academics on our children still defend our play-focused households with anecdotes about how our kids learned their letters from the subway or that when they break their crayons, they say now they have two crayons, so clearly they are learning math and basic addition. If we were truly play based, we wouldn’t need some result of playtime to reassure ourselves that our children are learning.
The truth is, what impresses me about my son is not that he knows the alphabet or how to count or that when you break a piece of chalk, you then have two. What impresses me is that he can walk into a Starbucks and intuitively know that the bathroom is in the back and walks in that direction when he has to pee. It impresses me when he tells another child on the playground, “That’s not playing nice” or that he doesn’t want to play rough. I’m constantly impressed with his creativity, like how he takes a bunch of pennies and throws them on the floor as he yells, “Money thunder!” and I think, yes, that’s what I want you to do in school, to take two separate ideas and find a way to link them. Today, my son was ill, and my husband and I were impressed that instead of whining or throwing a tantrum, he just went and put himself to bed. The truth is what impresses me about what my son learns and has learned are the things that can’t be measured on any test. While they all contribute to him developing as a human being, I don't know that they are necessarily "preparing" him for kindergarten. But these are all skills he learned from interacting with my husband and me and from playing. So if our children are already learning how to engage with the world from us as parents, playing, and just experiencing life, why can’t we trust that they’ll also learn whatever they need to learn to be ready to start school?