Tuesday, February 19, 2013

OK, now I'm confused.

I was talking to a friend yesterday about something I read in a parenting book. Mayim Bialik, the actress best known for the titular role in the 80's sitcom Blossom, an also for her current role in The Big Bang Theory, has written a funny, interesting and engaging (if at times a tad preachy) book about attachment parenting. It's called "Beyond the Sling", and there were a couple of paragraphs in it that really resonated with me. And there were a few more towards the end that were just too sanctimonious. But all in all, I liked it and enjoyed reading it.

Anyway, the friend and I were discussing the fact that Mayim and her husband don't teach their kids (who I believe are both under the age of 6) anything that even resembles reading, writing or arithmetic, preferring exclusively play-based learning. They don't even sing the Alphabet Song! No books about letters, no teaching the kids to count, nothing. My friend mentioned that the Waldorf schools are structured the same way.

Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have all these companies producing DVDs, games and toys devoted to teaching your child how to read, write, count, add, etc. I don't have an exact figure, but I think it's safe to say that these products represent a HUGE industry. Think of the LeapFrogs, the Baby Einsteins, and even the Fisher-Price toys that are emblazoned with letters and numbers, even though they're for ages 0-6 months. There are aisles and aisles of that stuff at Toys R Us!

The Waldorf camp, as far as I can tell, seems to think that it's best to focus on the spoken word, rather than reading and writing, for the first 6-7 years. They have lots of stories and poems that are read to the kids, as well as fairy tales and children's literature. The teachers do not read "dumbed down" versions of classic stories, they read the stories verbatim (which sounds to me like a great way to build vocabulary.) Then, in due time, they move on to reading and writing, when the children's brains are neurologically equipped to handle it.

This all sounds great, but Ack! I've been singing the alphabet song to Katie ever since she heard it for the first time on Pandora's toddler station. For a while I was even doing ASL finger spelling along with it. We've taught her to count to ten in English and Spanish (which is pretty much all the Spanish I know, incidentally.) True, it's quite obvious that the counting is just rote memorization, but that's why I think it's so cute. She always skips over 3-5 in English, and just 5 in Spanish (One, two, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN! and Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, DIEZ!)

And the worst part is, I don't have the heart to stop teaching her, at least the counting words. She loves to make a game of counting things, even though she clearly has no idea that the words actually correspond to the number of things. She just likes to point at stuff and count, in her cute little voice. Plus, counting is often a great distraction. If I'm trying to direct her attention away from something she shouldn't be doing, I'll often ask, "How many crackers do you have? or "How many crayons are there?" It works great, I can't give that up! Ditto colors - should I not be teaching her colors? I feel like we're always talking about colors, because she loves crayons and paint and Play-doh. Furthermore, if I don't teach her colors, how will I interact with her when it comes to artwork? Perhaps I should explain that a little more.

Thank goodness for our "pre-preschool", which is also a parenting class. On alternating weeks, I get to participate in a 45 minute group discussion with Katie's teacher, and we talk about all kinds of important developmental issues. We recently discussed children's art experience - whether we think it's important, what are the risks, etc. Turns out that my exclamations of delight over Katie's art projects were exactly the wrong thing to do! Seems that focusing on the end result ("It's so pretty!" or "What is it?") takes away the child's enjoyment of the process and makes them worry unnecessarily about the product. After all, if a piece of art can be "pretty", then it can also be "ugly", right? Why place judgments on a 2 year old's painting? She made it because it felt good to smear the paint on the paper, and to hold the brush in her hand, and to see how the colors blended together.

So now, I'm limiting myself to talking with Katie about how she made her art projects (Wow, it looks like you used a sponge to paint this one!" or "The blue paint goes way up high!") And yes, I feel like a bit of a moron talking like this, but it is hugely important to me to stay out of Katie's art experience, and just let her blossom and create, unfettered by my opinions about it. (Clearly I have some unresolved issues about my own stifled creativity, lol!)

But again, I digress. My point is, am I teaching Katie too much? I myself learned to read pretty early, but I think it was just from sheer enjoyment of all the books my parents read to me. They certainly never forced me to learn or made me watch videos about reading (those didn't exist yet anyway.) They just read me lots and lots of good books, mostly from a vast list that my mom found in a book on child-rearing. And that's how I plan to teach Katie to read - by reading to her. A lot. A LOT a lot. I already do read to her a lot, and it's probably my #1 favorite way to bond with her. We love to laugh at the pictures or recite the ones that rhyme. One of her favorites is "Make a Noise with Chimp and Zee," and we've read it so many times that we've both committed it to memory. Now we recite it in the car on the way to the grocery store or the park. Actually, I think the Waldorf people would approve of this as a building block to reading.

I can't see refusing to sing the Alphabet Song. Katie loves to sing! I can't see putting away her abacus until she's 7. Neither of us knows how to use the thing anyway, she just likes the feeling and sound of the wooden beads. I can't see getting rid of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, because, well, his illustrations make me sublimely happy, and Katie really enjoys pointing at pictures of things. I can't see stopping naming all of her body parts as I wash them in the bath, it's become a ritual! Which, by the way, totally embarrassed Anthony one day when he was on the phone, hearing Katie and Mama shout "Vagina, vagina, tushie, tushie, and BUTT BUTT BUTT"! (Yeah, we're not sure if those are really the appropriate words either, but it's far too late to change now.)

So am I messing up Katie's ability to learn with my well-meaning mommy meddling? I sure hope not. After all, I'm not quizzing her on this stuff. I'm just trying to interact with her as much as possible, narrate as much of our lives as possible, and name as many objects as possible. She seems to be absorbing it all quite well. If she learns to read early, well, I hope the studies about early readers doing poorly in school are overblown. Or that they only apply to kids whose parents were drill sergeants who insisted that they sit and learn to read and write instead of playing outside. (I'm looking at you, next-door-Piano-Nazi-neighbors! Man, we never EVER see those kids outside.)

What can I say? Always something new to fret about in the world of parenting. But I seriously wouldn't trade it for anything. :)


  1. I always admire your thoughtful parenting. My fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach is ok but I find that I am constantly back-tracking and fixing things rather then heading them off or making thoughtful choices as you are doing. I think, as with any parenting method, you have to tailor it to your child. As dr. Spock says (you know, the non-Vulcan one), you know more about your child then anyone else. You know more then even you think you know. I see nothing wrong with a play-based approach and an occasional alphabet song.

    You are a wonderful mother and Katie is so lucky to have you and yes, your art comments totally sound funny, but the love and respect behind them is wonderful!

    1. Thank you! I think "thoughtful parenting" is a nice way of putting it...I call it "worrying and fretting unnecessarily." LOL.

      Oh, the lame art comments. I am such a novice at this kind of thing. The other parents at school come up with such gems!