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Thursday, July 27, 2006

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My seven year-old son has figured out how to access and read the onscreen schedule for our satellite tv service. As I write this, he is sitting on the sofa, remote control in hand, scrolling through the listings, telling his five year-old brother what is coming on today at two in the afternoon, at four in the morning, at noon in the middle of next week. Thank god I discovered the "Hide XXX Titles" feature in the parental locks menu last week, or I'd be hearing, "Mom, there's a show about making sandwiches coming on next, can I watch it?"

"Sure, sure...Mommy's blogging, sweetie, now run along."

This is the same carefully considered response that has my five year old eating animal crackers for breakfast this morning.

Yesterday the mother of one of my firstborn's school pals asked me if we had kept up with the huge packet of "suggested learning activities" the kids came home with on the last day of school. I confessed I threw out everything but the reading list, and we have been hitting that pretty haphazardly. Call me old-school, but I think summer break needs to be just that, a break. I don't know what it is about that notion that freaks the culture out, but well before the activity packet came home, my mailbox was getting blitzed with offers to keep my children busy 24-7 from Memorial Day through August. There is a day camp for every interest under the sun, and they all sound great, even vital, once you've read all the way through the brochure. I would find myself wondering if I was going to be hurting my kid's shot at getting into a decent college by keeping him out of chess camp or if he would be humiliated on the soccer pitch next season because his teammates did the week-long skills intensive while he was goofing off at the pool.

The pressure intensifies after grade school begins, but it gets going long before kindergarten. It starts with whether your baby is listening to the right sort of music in utero, whether he gets the right sort of "brain-building" amino acids in his breastmilk or formula, where he is developmentally and physically on the pedatricians curve, whether or not you've got him in the right mommy-and-me play class. To a lesser or greater degree, those are all legitimate concerns. But in America every block in the pyramid of human needs is subject to commercialization, and thus is born the child development-industrial complex.

As with any other large scale capitalist venture, it requires complicity on the part of our major institutions. So the educational and healthcare systems help fuel the market by reinforcing our insecurity that Junior might get left behind. Case in point: friends of ours have a wonderful and precocious child who, although advanced verbally, happened to finish kindergarten not yet reading on his own. I don't remember that being so unusual when I was going into first grade, but the private school he was going to transfer to in the fall wigged out when they discovered it. God forbid a human variable should throw their test results off-curve. They insisted that he spend basically his entire summer in private remedial instruction getting with the Ayran program. His mom told them it was their loss.

Still, the seed of doubt had been planted. So his parents had him tested, and found a minor difference in his learning style that could be rectified with part-time tutoring. No big deal. Lucky to catch it early. That's what I say to his mom, and what she says to me, and we both know it to be true. It shouldn't be a big deal. But now that they've tripped the wire, the whole referrals mechanism has swung into motion. The reading tutor recommended some occupational therapy for handwriting. Somebody somewhere along the line made a speech therapy referral. The child in question has the most adorable lisp. "So, what, now you're not allowed to talk like a kid?" I said to his Mom when she told me.

I hope I didn't put her on the defensive with my indignation. I know she worries about what the sudden assembly of all this scaffolding communicates to her son, and at the same time, doesn't want him to go without support he may genuinely need. I have three kids, and at some point, some educator or doctor is bound to prescribe something for one of them that I don't dare refuse. Tossing out the flash cards on the first day of summer is easy, but what about a medication or a therapy? I know Moms who go all week without a break because they aren't about to capitulate to a preschool's immunization requirements. I personally think the chicken pox vaccine is a crock, but I've decided it would be more detrimental for my kids to be cooped up with me all day, everday. I haven't got the fortitude to live by my principals on that one.

I wish the scales weren't tipped so heavily, that it weren't such a David and Goliath proposition to face down the "experts", to resist the pressure to compete and compare. Was there ever a time when parents could take their doctor at his word, and not wonder if their child's prescription was written by the pharmaceutical companies? When people didn't plot their babies' milestones on an X-Y axis, and a "th" where an "s" should be wasn't cause for widespread panic? Whatever happened to, "she'll grow out of it?" When did wait-and-see become an act of negligence?

I admit, halfway through the summer I did start feeling guilty about not pushing the reading list a little harder. Maybe he'll have regressed in literacy, I irrationally supposed. Maybe I better enforce a reading time. But as with the varicella vacccine, I lacked the energy to fight about it. A week or so later, I turned off the tv and told the boys to go find something quiet to do in their room while I took a nap with the baby. I woke up an hour later, to hear my seven year old reading aloud theatrically from The King, the Mice, and the Cheese one of my own favorite childhood storybooks.

"...from then on, the king shared his cheese with the mice..." I knew his younger brother was sitting at his feet, enthralled. When you are five years old, having a big brother who can read is like being fifteen and having a big brother who can buy beer.

Go figure. The same kid who hadn't cracked a book all summer not only remembered how to read, but had taken a quantam leap, reading with a level of expression and ease he didn't have before. And I didn't have a thing to with it. It was all his own doing. Or maybe, in spite of what all the experts would have me believe, it wasn't anybody's doing. Maybe it happened while he was just being.

filed under: politicsculture, kids
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Blogger Patrick said...

You know, that skills-leap often happens after a period of relative inactivity. That has certainly been my experience in many areas.

I think the body and mind needs a break sometimes to assimilate and integrate new things.

11:21 AM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said... are so wise and funny .
love you

5:59 PM  
Blogger Plain Jane Mom said...

"Maybe it happened while he was just being."

YES! So many people over-program/schedule their kids. Where I live it is almost criminal to not have your kids in mommy n me, gymboree, music together, gymnastics, french song time, spanish lessons, and so on. When I was a kid I just rode my bike around and it was great! I hope I can keep something of that life for my kids. Rock on!

9:40 PM  
Anonymous Jen said...

Hey - I followed a link to your blog from a comment on mine and I've had poking around. Your thoughts in this post on competition and the pressures from other parents lets me know we could be kindred spirits! My oldest is only three, but I'm sure I'll be getting into the is-my-child-measuring-up paranoia soon.

12:01 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I had an interesting conversation with the mother of one of my friends awhile ago. Their family emigrated here from India in the early seventies. Both kids, now adults, are doctors. I said, "how did you do it?"

She responded that she thought American parents exhausted themselves trying to get their kids to learn French by age five and then slacked off on them when they were teenagers -- just, she contended -- when they needed parental influence the most. We're very permissive with little children, she said -- but when they're thirteen, we tell them, they have a job, and that job is school, and they're expected to work hard at it.

Not such a bad idea, I think.

1:19 AM  

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