Better Than School by Nancy Wallace (Larson Publications, 1983)
Child's Work: Taking Children's Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace (Holt Associates, 1990)
These stories of the education of Ishmael and Vita Wallace have been high on my list of favorite books since our own homeschooling days. Recently I re-read them both, confirming my suspicions that the Wallaces—flying by the seat of their pants in an era when homeschooling was almost unheard of, and often illegal—discovered many of the principles now refined in Project-Based Homeschooling.
The last time I read about the Wallaces' struggles with onerous regulations and imperious school boards, I noted how blessedly out of date it was, for although there are still those in the United States who would make homeschooling illegal again if they could, for the most part homeschoolers here can rest in the knowledge that the right to direct the education of our own children is recognized in all fifty states. This time, however, I read those parts of the books with renewed interest, since Switzerland, while much more advanced than the U.S. in some areas, is woefully behind us in this. Some of the Wallaces' experiences and arguments may turn out to be relevant, or at least to give inspiration.
Don't you just hate it when you read an inspiring story from the past and have no idea what happened to the characters in subsequent years? With Vita and Ishmael, at least, that question can be answered by visiting their Orpheo Duo website.
Here are a few, somewhat random, quotations. You really need to read the books to get a good sense of the story, however.
Walking into the meeting knowing that we had a majority [of the school board] on our side was a lot better than not knowing what to expect, but I guess I really wanted more than that. I wanted the whole board to admit that we were doing a terrific job with our kids and to be interested in our approach to education. After all, there was a lot the public schools could have learned from us. What disturbed me the most was that not only were two of the board members completely uninterested in what we were doing but they seemed to want the kids to go to school no matter what. When I wrote about this to John Holt, he responded with some very insightful remarks that I'll never forget. "One of the saddest things I've learned in my life," he said, "one of the things I least wanted to believe and resisted believing for as long as I could, was that people in chains don't want to get them off, but want to get them on everyone else. 'Where are your chains?' they want to know. 'How come you're not wearing chains? Do you think you are too good to wear them? What makes you think you're so special?'" (BTS, 114-115)
I need to ponder this a lot more. I think I've just been struck by lightning.
From Jen at Conversion Diary: "The Mental Neat Freak."
When Joe came home that evening, I was at my wits’ end. I was mentally fatigued to the point that I felt like I was on the brink of a breakdown, and could barely restrain myself from yelling at everyone about everything. When Joe asked what was wrong, I snapped, “I’ve been doing nothing but working ALL DAY. I JUST NEED A BREAK.”
It was kind of awkward when he reminded me, “Didn’t you spend half the afternoon at that nice salon?”
I stopped whining immediately, per that law of the universe that states that you’re not allowed to complain about anything for at least six hours after you’ve had an aromatherapy scalp massage. Yet I still felt miserable. No matter how many times I admonished myself to FEEL GRATITUDE NOW, I still walked around in that red-zone state where I desired a break like a drowning man desires oxygen.
The big moment occurred when I was trying to explain to my friend why I did not find the salon trip relaxing. “What would you have rather been doing?” she asked.
I knew the answer immediately: “Writing.”
[F]inally, after digging my way through piles and piles of words, I hit the core of the issue: “It brings order to my brain. It’s like…there are all these things that happen in my days that make my mind feel — I don’t know how else to describe it — messy. Like I’m surrounded by chaos, but on the inside. And it keeps piling up and piling up, to the point where sometimes I feel like I’m drowning.
Just like with physical space, it is possible for your mental space to get “messy.”
Again like with physical space, it is critical to your sense of peace and wellbeing to regularly clean up your mental space.
I think the biggest insight, though, was this:
Just because an activity is relaxing doesn’t mean it’s good for helping me regain a sense of internal order.
There's a lot more to the article, so if this resonates at all with you—or if you know someone who seems inexplicably stressed by a life filled with activities that you think should be relaxing—do take the time to read the whole thing. I suspect this is a major reason why programs such as Mind Organization for Moms and Getting Things Done are so popular: they recognize the debilitation caused by mental chaos. What "Mental Neat Freak" adds is recognition of the need to identify and deliberately choose activities that promote clearing of mental clutter, which may or may not be connected to organizational activities. Jen, for example, has so far discovered the following activities to be very helpful:
Jogging while listening to music (oddly, it has to be both — one or the other doesn’t do it)
Reading a well-written book
Nearly everyone could be helped by MOM and GTD, but mind-chaos-taming activities are clearly many, varied, and personal.
While I've been here for Daniel's birth, I've had the privilege of joining the family for their noontime and evening family times. They begin with a general picking up of toys, followed by the meal. Family devotions, based on those in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, come immediately after lunch, and again in the evening after bedtime preparations and some play time (if the former haven't taken too long).
Two of the most amazing parts of the procedure are individual prayers with the children—Joseph spontaneously started praying for Daniel as he is prayed for by the adults—and singing time. The latter has been a growth opportunity for me despite all my choir training, because it's done a cappella. Normally I don't find singing the alto line of hymns to be difficult, but singing without accompaniment is much more of a challenge. Nonetheless, it's been awesome. Even our three-part harmony is lovely, and it was really great when Porter was here to add the tenor part to our soprano, alto, and bass. The kids don't sing with us—yet—but are taking it all in. Joseph has memorized several of the hymns and can occasionally be heard singing parts of them as he goes about his daily activities. (We have another grandson who sings or whistles a lot, too. Recently he was overheard moving seamlessly between Funniculi, Funnicula and Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.)
With all due respect to Sunday School/Children's Church, Vacation Bible School, and the many and varied children's music programs available, I think this integrated family prayer and singing time is an unbeatable foundation for a strong spiritual and musical education.
Not to mention a whole lot of fun.
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I've been writing a lot about Joseph, and recently Daniel has taken center stage, so before I write more about either of her brothers, it's time Vivienne had a post of her own. She is 18 1/2 months old, as Joseph was when I was here for her birth, so it's interesting to observe the similarities and differences, as well of course as their interactions.
I wonder if second children, who are born with a sibling, are more predisposed to compassion and an awareness of the needs of others. I remember noting that characteristic in Noah, and Vivienne has it in spades. She's physically very affectionate, too, asking to "snuggle," and freely doling out hugs. One of the first things she and Joseph do in the morning is to give each other good morning hugs. Unless Joseph is already eating, or otherwise engaged in intense concentration, that is. The funny thing is, I remember him as being much more reserved, and less demonstrative in his affection; it seems to me as if he has learned a lot from his younger sister.
And she, of course, is learning a lot from him. She does not have the same fascination with letters and numbers that he did at 18 months, but knows more about them than most her age, if only in the same way a fish knows about water. She can already count to five in three languages (Swiss German, English, and French), because we always count the toys as they are being put away.
Vivienne, in one sense, is all girl. She's a dancer, always moving, especially if there's music or even rhythmic speech to be heard. She has a petite frame, despite having been born both longer and heavier than Joseph, and has blonde hair with soft curls. I've mentioned her tender heart; if she notices Joseph needs something, she'll often get it for him, and while she'll scream bloody murder if he takes a toy from her, frequently after getting it back she'll voluntarily hand it to him. She's adorably cute in her little dresses, and I'm convinced she knows it: she has a look that can bend adults to her will, and will probably enslave more than a few boys in her teen years. Joseph has a few favorite pieces of clothing he will wear until forced to change, even to the extent of wearing long sleeves and long pants on hot summer days; Vivienne sometimes finds the day too short to wear just one outfit. Plus, she loves shoes. There's a rack of shoes outside the door to the apartment, and a favorite activity is to sit on the steps and try out other people's footwear. Our Swiss National Day celebration included a bounce house, which Joseph could not get enough of—but Vivienne preferred to investigate the assortment of shoes left on the outside.
But this is no "girly girl." She'll be an ezer warrior for sure. She's tender—her cheek is rarely without a tear from some physical or emotional wound—but at the same time tough as nails. When she wants to get somewhere, she runs rather than walks, reminding me of her cousin Joy. (On the other hand, if an adult wants her to get somewhere, she must stroll and stop to examine every flower, bug, and pebble.) She's eager to keep up with her big brother, whether running, climbing, or flinging herself off the slide into the ball pit at the nearby shopping center. She has a real temper and a scream that would wake the dead, leading me to suspect that her Irish ancestry (on both sides, though somewhat distant) has contributed more than the slight reddish tinge to her blonde hair. But she recovers quickly and is quick to sign, "sorry." She's much like her mother at that age: her hair is fine and with all the activity won't stay combed for more than a minute, which contributes to a ragamuffin, gamine look—as do the skinned knees and an affinity for dirt and water.
Ah, water. Called "mo-mo," for no reason discernable in either English or German, it's a Vivienne magnet. Water is her beverage of choice at all meals, and many times in between. She'll drink from a cup, directly from the faucet, and from any vessel that passes through her hands while she helps me wash dishes, which is one of her favorite activities. In a book, in a video, through the bus window—if Waldo were water, Vivienne would spot him before anyone else. If there's a puddle, she's in it. Larger bodies of water are even better, especially if there are stones around; as far as Vivienne is concerned, the purpose of pebbles is to be thrown into any available water.
But water is not her only love. She's crazy about airplanes of any sort, especially the jets that fly overhead multiple times a day, to and from the nearby military airfield. When they were considering this apartment, Joseph was eight months old, and Janet saw the airfield as a plus, thinking it would be great fun for a little boy to grow up watching the jets. And he does enjoy them, but not nearly as much as Vivienne does: she must run to the window whenever she hears their (extremely loud) sound. She's also the more enthusiastic about watching the new construction going on next door: the diggers, the bulldozer, the front loader all doing their (very loud) work all day, every day but Sundays and holidays. (Did I mention enough times that it is loud here, and do you remember that we have a newborn in the house? Oddly enough, none of it seems to bother Daniel, though he was intelligent enough to be born on Mariä Himmelfahrt, so his first day was uncharacteristically quiet for him in this Catholic canton.)
Here is another difference between Joseph and Vivienne: At this age, his wooden number puzzle was one of the great joys of Joseph's life. Vivienne also likes the puzzle, and can easily put the pieces in the right places, but the + and x pieces, which to Joseph were "addition" and "multiplication," are both airplanes to Vivienne.
Vivienne adores going out, whether to help in the garden, or to run errands, or simply to play on the swingset. Oh, how she loves to swing! She has been able to hold on well to regular swings from a young age, and has a much longer attention span for swinging than most adults, who often alleviate their boredom by counting the pushes. (Joseph makes that a challenge by requesting the count be in French, or by 5's, or as he did recently for me, by 51's. He's patient with my struggles, but if he asks for 51's in French, I'm giving up.)
She also loves balls, can throw pretty decently, and kick really well for her age. Not to mention carry them around in her mouth like a mama cat with her kittens.
The biggest change in Vivienne in the four weeks I've been here is an absolute explosion in language. Both English and German, but more noticeable (at least to me) in English, probably because it's been the dominant tongue in use since I came (though not exclusive by any means). The meaning is clear enough for those in the know, though there's not a lot yet that would be understandable to outsiders—except for "Nei! Nei! Nei!" which with a shake of the head and a stamp of the foot may be the most universally recognizable utterance. "Nei" has been around for a long time, but recently she has added "no" for my sake; even at her age she is sensitive to who speaks what language. It is an exciting privilege to be present at this point in her development.
As it is to watch all of our grandchildren blossom, each in his or her own, individual, marvellous way.
Vivienne's post is overdue, but it's long, and getting written in bits and snatches. So today I'll record a Joseph story before I forget it.
Early this morning, Joseph awoke and went into the bathroom to get dressed. He seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in there, so I peeked in (the door was open) to discover him sitting naked, counting the holes in the laundry hamper. In French. I backed out and left him alone, though I made a point of listening. He counted 115 with no trouble, which was impressive, given how squirrelly French counting gets past 69.
But this hamper might have been designed just for Joseph, because the air vents are not just holes, but shaped into circles, triangles, and rectangles. After the first enumeration, Joseph began again, this time counting the triangles....
There's never a dull moment around here; it's time to write them up that's scarce.
The Evolution of Diaper Laundering
(both sides of the Atlantic)
- Washed separately
- Special baby detergent
- Hot water
- Special cycle
- Extra rinse
- Washed separately
- Regular detergent
- Hot water
- Regular cycle
- Thrown in with the rest of the laundry
We are now at Due Date Plus Five. The intense activity aimed at fitting as much as we could in while Dad-o was still with us has passed, and life has setting into—well, not normal, since there's always the "labor could start at any moment" anticipation. Perhaps I should say "mundane," though that, too, is a poor word to use with grandchildren around.
For example, who would have thought I'd ever leave my laptop computer alone with a three-year-old? I don't, for long—but I do. The apartment is small, and it's easy to make a quick check and to keep an ear out for trouble. Still, Joseph sometimes surprises me.
He and Vivienne have two interests in my computer: writing e-mails, and watching the PowerPoint shows I have created for our grandkids. Though Vivienne would like to control the mouse, I have put Joseph in charge of running the ppt shows, and they can both watch for quite a long time. When they are done, Joseph exits out of the show (via a button that is part of the show), then out of the show menu (another special button), then X's out of PowerPoint itself. (I've been running them from within PowerPoint, but am thinking of setting them up differently so he can be even more independent.) Next, he "puts the computer to sleep" by holding the Fn key and typing F4, waiting till the disk and network lights go off, then carefully (from the middle) closes the lid. Then he puts the mouse to sleep (turns it off) and lays it gently on its "bed" on top of the computer. Today he added another step: the computer was in my bedroom instead of out in the living room, and he noticed that the power cord was plugged into the wall but not into the computer—so he proceded to rectify the situation. I was torn between reminding him that he was not to do anything to the computer without asking me first, and wanting to see what he would do. The latter won, and indeed, he plugged the computer in as quickly and as smoothly as I do.
When Vivienne sees me at the computer, she runs over and says, "e-mail Dad-o." ("E-mail" isn't so clear, but she's consistent with it, so I know what she means.) I open up a composition window and she sits on my lap and types. "E" she says as she types, and I respond, "L." "L" she says, then types another letter, again saying "E." I respond with the correct character, and so we continue until one of us decides she's done. Then I hover the mouse pointer over the "Send" button, and she clicks the mouse button.
Both Vivienne and Joseph had written to Dad-o early this morning, but wanted to do it again. I explained that it wasn't even time to get up yet where Dad-o is, and so he hadn't received their first e-mails yet. Vivienne accepted this, but Joseph immediately replied, "E-mail Aunt Heather!" So he did. He usually types out the recipient's name, then "touch types" apparently random strings of letters: he places his fingers in approximately the correct typing position, then rapidly wiggles his fingers, all with an intense look of concentration. When he goes over the end of a line, he backspaces enough so that his letters fit into the window, then types Enter, and begins another line. When done, he will sometimes type his name, though not always. Until today, I would then send the mail in much the same way I do for Vivienne. But today I had left him typing to go into the kitchen for something, telling him to call me when he was ready to send the e-mail. When I checked back a few minutes later, the composition window was gone. I thought perhaps it was hidden behind another window, but it wasn't. Then I checked the Sent folder....
I believe the main secret to Joseph's surprising activities is keen observation and a great memory. He had seen me plug and unplug the computer; he had seen me click on the Send button. I find myself trying not to be too obvious when I type in my password.
As you can see, Vivienne woke up from her nap and wanted to type, and now Joseph is waiting for his turn. So I'll save my Vivienne notes for another post, and get on with life!
The question of the day is, why have I been writing mundane book reviews when I could be telling more grandchild stories?
This one is again about Joseph. I wish I could have recorded the moment, but there's no more certain way to break a mood than to bring out a camera.
While Vivienne naps, Joseph takes a rest in which he doesn't need to sleep, but must play quietly by himself for two hours. This is a lovely, creative period for him and he has no trouble filling the time with activity. When quiet time is over, especially if Vivienne is still asleep, Janet usually goes in and they enjoy some one-on-one time together. Joseph particularly enjoys working on the blackboard that was his "gift from Vivienne" when she was born, and that's what they were doing when I walked in on them yesterday.
The room was (no surprise) a mess, and Janet was helping Joseph pick up. She would write on the blackboard, "Please bring me the sheep"; Joseph would read the sentence, go get the sheep and put it where it belonged, then wait for Janet to change the sentence: "...the other sheep" or "...the boy and the dog" or "...two hens." Not a very efficient way of picking up toys, but totally delightful to Joseph—and to Grandma, who never tires of watching this barely-three-year-old blow her socks off.
(All our grandchildren blow my socks off. This is why I am usually barefoot.)
The next time I came into the room they were writing numbers. Janet would write, say, 3,725,304 and Joseph would read the number. (He crowed with delight at 111,111.) Then it would be Joseph's turn to write. After a while, the game morphed into Roman numerals. At one point, Joseph wrote vii, and I explained that that was the lower case version, whereas VII was uppercase. But when Janet wrote VII, she drew the top and bottom lines all the way across, as I was taught in school. The game then transitioned into Greek letters, and Joseph wrote an alpha, added lines above and below, and announced it was an upper case alpha.
I did not overtly correct him, but exclaimed over his logical thought processes. Janet, however, noticed that he was quite aware from my reaction that he had done something "wrong." He didn't fuss about it (though sometimes he does when corrected), but grew quiet and tentative for a while as they continued writing the Greek alphabet. No wonder she and Stephan prefer not to correct him, but to let him adjust his own model of the world over time.
After the journey from reading to large numbers to Roman numerals to Greek letters, it was back to cleaning up, then playing with/fighting over the Brio train set with his sister. Which event is "normal"? Around here, both of them.
Oh, one more quiet time story. Joseph had been disobedient and surly over some issue, so Janet told him I would not be able to help him pick up after quiet time. When cleanup time came, he was distressed, and kept begging, "Count in French!" (When I'm helping, I count each piece of the train set, or the Legos, or puzzle, as he and Vivienne put them away. Depending on his mood and mine, I count in English, French, or High German. We all miss Dad-o, who would count in Dutch for them.) Finally, I took pity on him, and told him, "Joseph, I can't count in French for you today, because you disobeyed and had a bad attitude. But, you know, you can count in French." At which revelation he picked up all the toys, cheerfully counting past 50 in that language.
For all those anxiously awaiting news of the next grandchild: not yet. But my prediction in the Baby Pool is for tomorrow, so I'm hopeful. Not that I've ever gotten the date right....
I'm not sure, now, whether Hooker and Company... is a favorite picture of Joseph's or just a favorite name. He seems to have a preference for long phrases, or at least he practices them more. During today's naptime I overheard him repeatedly reciting (while playing with trains) the Albert Anker title, Heinrich Pestalozzi and the Orphans in Stans.
One thing I forgot to mention in my previous post is how absolutely clear and distinct is Joseph's diction, which I find usual for someone just a month past his third birthday. It makes me feel guilty for my own sloppy speech!
I also catch myself using unnecessary "child speech"—not baby talk, but the simple way adults usually talk to beginning speakers, such as, "say 'please.'" Like any three-year-old, Joseph needs to be reminded to ask politely, but it appears to be just as easy for him to say, "Please, Grandma, may I have some more milk?" as simply, "please." And now that he has caught on to that, the reminder, "what do you say"—or a pause, or similar actions that parents use to get their children to say please—will often evoke the whole sentence, with "milk" swapped out for the appropriate word.
When did "different" come to require a diagnosis?
The child who once was an energetic boy now has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The shy kid who likes math and science more than his classmates do is "on the autism spectrum." We have conflated normal-defined-as-average with normal-defined-as-free-from-disease, and view with suspicion anyone who strays too far—in any direction—from the common herd. It's a very contemporary diagnosis, too: today's hyperactive child would likely have been an admired leader in Viking society.
We are learning, possibly too late, of the dangers of narrowing the once-vast diversity of life on our planet, especially in agriculture, where nearly every Thanksgiving dinner is dependent on a single breed of turkey—turkeys so stupid as to be unable to reproduce without human intervention—and where one variety-specific disease could wipe out nearly every existing banana plant. I believe we have a similar problem in the human population, where for all we talk about the importance of diversity, we are identifying more and more people as abnormal—people who would in an earlier day have been considered merely quirky, or even honored for their differences. We then attempt to "cure" them by squashing them into standardized boxes, the most common of which is school.
I officially gave up on the psychiatric profession's labels when I discovered hyperlexia: "the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read typically before the age of five." If children aren't reading by the end of first grade, schools and parents begin to worry, and yet reading before kindergarten is a problem? What's with that?
The proximate inspiration for this post was observing grandson Joseph, age three, as he is learning to speak. His speech is much more echolalic than I am accustomed to, and because that is yet another psychiatric diagnosis, I was wondering if I should be concerned—though it's difficult even to think of a child who speaks two languages as being "behind" in speech.
Now that I'm where I can observe Joseph directly and interact with him I can laugh at any concerns, though I doubt that would stop the psychiatrists from labelling him. His speech is definitely different from that of the average child his age, and so is the way he is figuring out language patterns. But it's not bad; it's just different. And fascinating.
Instead of repeating words and short phrases that he hears from other people, then gradually putting them together into longer and longer verbalizations, Joseph remembers, and repeats, entire sentences and long passages, such as the name of one of one of his favorite Frederic Church paintings: Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636. Really. With such things as these as his basic language building blocks, it's not surprising that his approach to speech is unusual. Instead of creating phrases of increasing complexity by a more additive method, he starts with a long sentence, takes it apart, and puts it back together.
Recently he and I were watching the people walk up and down a main street in Zermatt; more precisely, we were observing their dogs. "Here comes a dog," I said, and Joseph repeated, "Here comes a dog." Then he expanded with, "Here comes a white dog." Later, he proclaimed, "Here comes another dog," and still later, "Here comes a little, white dog." Same pattern, expanded from the inside out.
It is my totally unverifiable theory that Joseph started out thinking in large chunks of language. For example, "put your shoes on" is associated, as an entire sentence, with the act of putting on his shoes. Thus, whether describing his actions or asking for help, "put your shoes on" has been the phrase of choice (sometimes modified to "no put your shoes on"). Gradually, however, he is dissecting these chunks and discovering the recombinant possibilities.
It's fascinating to observe. It's different. It's not normal-defined-as-average. But it's certainly not a disease.
This quotation from an interview with Anne Fine set me to thinking. (H/T Stephan)
[I] hate the way that we have weeded out the things that I remember made my heart lift in primary school, and were transforming in my secondary education. I mean, we did so much singing when I was at school – folk songs, hymns, we sang everything. But now that seems to have gone, along with the language of the Book of Common Prayer and so much classic poetry. And school days are horrifically long if pretty well everything you are doing lacks colour and style, just for the sake of 'relevance' and 'accessibility'".
Music was a big part of my own elementary school, though not being British we missed out on the BCP. Music lessons started in grade four (of six) for strings and in fifth for band instruments. Chorus started at about the same time, and in two of the three schools I experienced, we were singing three-part harmony. (Occasionally four, as in one school we had a set of older boy twins whose voices had mostly changed.) These musical activities were optional, but what stands out most in my mind in contrast to today is that nearly every classroom had a piano, and many of the teachers could play it. (So could some of the students, and we were allowed to use it some ourselves outside of class.) We sang patriotic songs, folk songs, hymns, Negro spirituals, and children's songs. And most of these we read out of music books. Not that we were specifically taught much in the way of reading music, but we were expected to absorb basic skills simply by observing the relationship between the printed notes and what we sang.
I should note that these were not "music magnet schools" but ordinary public elementary schools in a small village/rural school district in the late 1950's and early 60's.
Our own children had a fantastic music teacher in elementary school, there's no doubt about that, and their musical education outside of school was far greater than mine, with the availability of private music lessons, youth orchestras, and excellent church choirs. And being in the South, their high school chorus still sang the great Western choral music, which had already been all but banned in the schools we'd left behind in the North because it is largely church music. So I'm not complaining about that.
But something great has been lost in general education if there's no longer daily singing in the classroom, children graduate knowing nothing of the music of the past and without the most basic music-reading skills, and adults would rather attend a concert or plug into an iPod than raise their own voices in song.
I don't think, based on the interview, that I would like Anne Fine's books. But she's spot on in the quote. "Relevance" and "accessibility" are two of the dirtiest words in the educationist's vocabulary.
What were your musical experiences in the early school years? How have they affected your adult life?
Priscilla Dunstan is a super-hearer with a photographic memory for sounds. What this did for her when she became a mother could be a breakthrough for all newborns and the parents they are trying to train. (Many thanks, Jon, for the link.)
For the sake of all else I have to do, I took the Front Porch Republic off my feed reader, but I still get, and read, their weekly updates. Which means that sometimes ... often ... I get caught. This time it was a piece by Anthony Esolen, who turns out to be the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, a book highly recommended to me but which I still haven't read, though I have requested that our library order it. I hope they acquiesce, because reading just one of Esolen's essays made me long for more. Hence less was accomplished this day than intended....
What I read in this week's FPR update was Play and No Play, which is but the latest in a series entitled Life Under Compulsion. Of course I then had to read the whole series:
2012-10-08 Life Under Compulsion
2012-10-22 From Schoolhouse to School Bus
2012-11-06 The Billows Teaching Machine
2012-11-19 If Teachers Were Plumbers
2012-12-17 Curricular Mire
2012-12-31 Bad Universality
2013-01-21 The Dehumanities
2013-02-11 The Itch
2013-03-11 Music and the Itch
2013-06-10 Play and No Play
It's not as if I want to suck up all your time, too—but it wouldn't be time wasted. You can always quit after the first one....
You have to crawl before you can walk.
Except that you don't. Some babies roll, some scoot on their bottoms, some never develop a nice, clean, cross-pattern crawl (or "creep" to use the technical term), and most of them still learn to walk. Do they suffer later in life for the lack of crawling? Officially, doctors no longer think so, and have removed crawling from the list of important childhood milestones. Based on my own observations over a long life, and on much reading on the subject, I think they're wrong. It is no less than hubris to decide that a normal part of human development is not important, and most systems we used to think vestigial—tonsils, for example—turn out to have a distinct purpose and function. We can live without tonsils; many do, and for some their presence does more harm than good, but that doesn't mean we should excise them from healthy children, as was common half a century or so ago. The burden of proof for crawling's importance should be on those who insist it isn't, not the other way around, and "we see no evidence that crawling matters" isn't good enough for me, especially since there are plenty of therapists who disagree.
But I'm no doctor, and I'm not going to take on the American Academy of Pediatrics here, not now. What I view as blatantly irresponsible, both on the part of doctors and on that of writers like Nicholas Day, whose article deriding the importance of crawling hit our local paper recently, is the reason and the timing behind this change.
Since the implementation of the Back-to-Sleep campaign, in which parents are intensely pressured not to let their children sleep on their stomachs for fear they might die of SIDS, the age at which babies are meeting the customary developmental milestones has increased, and more and more children are skipping the crawling stage. It's not that doctors don't notice: as one said, after the mother fearfully confessed that her child had always slept on his tummy, "I knew that. Look at his head shape! Look at how advanced he is! This is no back-sleeping baby." But few dare not to push Back-to-Sleep.
Nor am I recommending tummy-sleeping here. If I did, I'd hear immediately from my brother in the insurance business. It's a personal, parental decision, best reached by careful research and deliberate decision, although I have known of babies who have made the decision themselves, by flatly refusing to sleep in any position other than prone. Parents are only human.
Besides, I no longer think Back-to-Sleep is the chief culprit here, except insofar as it makes parents afraid to put their babies on their stomachs at any time. This is not the first time doctors have insisted that there is a right way for babies to sleep: When my eldest brother and I were born, it was important for us to be on our backs "so the baby won't smother." By the time my next two siblings came around, tummy-sleeping was pushed, "so the baby won't spit up and choke." None of us had any trouble learning to crawl.
Here's what I think the critical difference is: although there were a few baby-entertainment devices back then—I had a bouncy seat and my brother an early Johnny-Jump-Up—we didn't spend a lot of time in them. A baby on his tummy learning to crawl is a baby learning to entertain himself, and a self-entertaining baby is critical to a parent's sanity. It takes a lot of work to learn to propel oneself forward to a toy one has accidentally pushed out of reach, but babies are hard workers when motivated. Today, the goal seems to be to sell more baby equipment to make the job easier by keeping both the kid and the toys corralled, so they don't have to work (i.e. become frustrated and cry) to reach them. That's easier for the parents, too, but in the same pernicious way that plunking children down in front of the television for entertainment also makes a parent's life easier—in the moment.
I won't even get into the amount of time children these days spend strapped into car seats, where they can barely move. And we used to think the Native American habit of confining their babies to cradle boards was cruel. Car seats, entertainment devices, strollers—sometimes all three wrapped into one so the baby doesn't even get freedom of motion in transfer—the proliferation of these is keeping our babies off the floor, and not crawling.
Bottom line: American babies are not meeting the traditional developmental milestones because of lack of opportunity. So what do we do about it? We change the milestones.
New York State students are failing the math Regents exam? We make the questions easier.
SAT scores have fallen? We "re-center" them, to reflect the lowered average.
Florida schools can't meet the new standards? We lower the standards.
High school students can't handle your tests? Give them easy extra-credit work to pull up their grades.
America's children can't seem to leave the nest and support themselves, even after college? Force their parents to pay for grad school, and to keep them on their own insurance policies until they're 26.
From birth through extended adolescence, we keep lowering the bar for our children. Some day they may forgive us, but I wouldn't blame them if they don't. It is good to recognize that "normal" is a range, and relax about minor variations in timetable and achievement. It is appalling, however, to respond to a general decline by redefining normal as average, and lowering the bar. Again.
Our children deserve a better future than we are preparing them for.