Here’s Number 4

I haven’t posted for a while. The reason for this is three weeks old, and gorgeous. She’ll wake up shortly, but before she does, a few aimless observations:

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this newborn period. Yes, there’s the sleeplessness, and a couple of days after the baby’s birth I felt some very intense freefloating anxiety such as I’ve never experienced postpartum; mostly, however, this has been a nice, relaxed time. My husband was off work and the kids off school; he took the two oldest skiing and hiking, and we had several days of family games. It helps that this one has taken to breastfeeding very easily, and on some nights sleeps a fair number of hours in a row.
  2. I’m reminded that you can’t control newborns; they’re a force of nature. A newborn who wants to eat wants to eat. A newborn who wants to sleep will not be awakened by an atomic bomb or a very loud rendition of the 1812 Overture finale. You can start to create a rhythm and routine, and sort of nudge them toward something resembling a schedule, but it’s much better to relax and go with the flow than to worry about it. Baby’s cluster feeding? Oh well; let’s settle down for some extended nursing. Baby’s not going to sleep? Guess I’ll be tired tomorrow.
  3. Newborns don’t eat or sleep consistently. With my first kid, a few days postpartum she slept nearly round-the-clock, with some feeding. I called my pediatrician, who told me this is normal. The next day she hardly slept at all, except for quick catnaps. I called my pediatrician, who told me this is normal. Some days the kid will want more milk than other days.
  4. Newborns are so cute. I remembered how boring they were, but I forgot how much they resemble warm, squishy dollies, or just how euphoric it feels to nuzzle their soft little heads. In response to my husband blowing a raspberry at her, she produced a comically horrified face–eyes crossed and bugged out, brows raised, mouth open. Classic.
  5. People are really nice. I didn’t expect any meals this time around (except for casseroles from my marvelous mother-in-law), what with the pandemic and our switching churches, but my neighbors, old church members, and new church members have volunteered to make us lots of dinners. It’s so kind of them.

Today was a return to “real life”; my husband goes back to work, our homeschooling program resumes. So far it’s going fairly well. The child is napping and sleeping well–for the moment! It’s exciting to embark on life with four children.

Parenting the Fetus

I hope that Baby #4 won’t come this Wednesday, when we are expecting a foot of snow; anytime after that is fine with me. She’s full term and I’d love to meet her.

“Meet her,” I say, and yet, in a sense I already know her. She just nudged my ribs as if to remind me that she’s always with me, and sometimes she makes me quite uncomfortable with her enthusiastic kicking, flailing, and whatever else she’s doing that makes it seem as if she’s got eight limbs rather than the usual four. At times, she likes to shove my ribs; I’m not sure if she’s stretching out or exploring the boundaries of her world, my body.

Mothering a fetus is simple. (But not always easy.) You just don’t do anything to kill or hurt the kid, you take vitamins, iron, and medicine as needed, and you get checked out to make sure that the kid is doing okay. Unless you develop a nasty health condition requiring bedrest, you then go about your ordinary routine as best you can, within the limitations of whatever discomforts you’re experiencing. I guess you could play Mozart or something, but it isn’t really necessary for the health and development of your baby.

Being a father to a fetus is simple. (But not always easy.) You just have to put up with the inconveniences caused by the mother’s symptoms. My husband likes to talk to our babies and poke at them when they’re moving around, but he, like me, doesn’t really know what our baby looks like–ultrasounds aren’t exactly portraits–or how much she’ll cry, whether she’ll be a skinny or plump newborn, whether she’ll be high maintenance or easy.

In a matter of days, we’ll both know this, and be deep in the weeds of sleeplessness, diaper changes, feeding challenges, and that general loss of equilibrium that comes with a newborn. It’s when “parent” becomes a verb, not just a noun.

And yet we do parent our fetuses. The simple acceptance of them as human beings, as our children to nourish and protect, makes a first-time expecting couple truly parents, even if their lives haven’t been transformed in the radical way that will occur after the child is born. We think about our child. We buy things, wash things, fix things in preparation for the baby’s arrival. We feel and see the child move. This, too, is parenting; I cannot swaddle or kiss or feed my baby, but that is because my body is already embracing her and keeping her fed and healthy. She has a name and a personality already, even if she can only express herself with kicks and shifts.

I cannot wait to meet this stranger, whom I have so intimately known for months now. Nor can my husband and children, who are counting down the days until Baby Bluebird is born. She doesn’t know it, but she’s already part of a family that loves her and is waiting to welcome her to life outside the womb.

Counting the Homeschoolers

I am not the first to point out that problems with public education are being exposed with the COVID-19 situation. Many parents (including my husband and I) took a look at the disaster that was distance learning last spring and decided to homeschool; no data from this year so far make me believe that this was a mistake. Nearly overnight, homeschooling has become regarded with much less suspicion, and it has become much more accepted to criticize shortcomings in public schools. Notice that Elizabeth Bartholet is no longer being promoted in the news for alerting the world to the dangers of parents teaching their own children.

This is good. I believe that parents are responsible for their kids’ education, no matter which educational option they choose, and just as by default we trust parents to make health decisions for their kids so we should trust them to make educational decisions. It is abhorrent and illogical to assume a priori that parents are not fit educators for their children.

Unfortunately, it is also true that some parents abdicate their responsibilities and abuse or neglect their children, including neglecting them educationally. This is not limited to homeschooling, by the way–there are plenty of stories of parents who refuse to hold their public-schooled children accountable. But even in a bad public school, students have more opportunity to reach out to teachers if they are being severely abused or neglected, which is why some of the more hideous cases of abuse involve the child being “homeschooled.”

These are, of course, the minority of homeschoolers. Most of the kids I know who are homeschooled (and I know quite a few) are receiving a generally excellent education, socializing appropriately, and being poster children for why homeschooling is awesome. Many young adults I know who were homeschooled are very pleased with their education and are functional members of society. Moreover, no one who has taught in or gone through public schools can deny that even under “normal” circumstances many children are being poorly educated, perhaps in dangerous environments. Whereas in states with homeschooling regulations the parents of children failing to demonstrate some benchmark of competence will be placed on probation and eventually forced (at least in theory) to send their kids to a credentialed program, no such compulsion exists for public schools; they may lose funding, but the students are not removed from the failing school and made to enroll elsewhere.

I still worry about the homeschooled kids who are abused or neglected. Sites like Homeschoolers Anonymous do not reflect the many adults who were satisfied with their home education experience, but I don’t believe that the stories contained therein are lies, either. I’m also not confident about any community policing itself, including the homeschooling community; people tend not to want to interfere in others’ parental decisions, and this is almost always correct, since outsiders are unlikely to know the family well enough to determine whether actual neglect is occurring. But this humility provides cover for those families who are, at best, setting their children up to fail as adults–and at worst killing them.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education would like to see more uniform homeschool regulations throughout the United States. This site is much more pro-homeschooling than Homeschoolers Anonymous, but their page “The Case for Oversight” makes it clear that they believe children are harmed by lack of homeschooling regulation. Their “Policy Recommendations” include annual assessment of students by mandatory reporters, requiring the offering of the same range of subjects as those taught by public schools, good parental record-keeping, and that “student learning should show progress commensurate with their ability.” They do not believe that parents should be forced to use the same materials as public schools, nor that children should be at the same “grade level” as their counterparts in public school.

All very reasonable! The problem is that regulations become a hassle for those who weren’t going to commit neglect or abuse in the first place, and still let abuse or neglect occur. How many times has it happened that a child’s situation was reported to his state’s child protection agency, sometimes repeatedly, and still the child was left in the abusive situation until at last he was killed? Too often. The Banita Jacks case was a particularly horrifying example of numerous “protections” failing to offer any kind of protection to children who were mistreated over a period of months and then murdered. On the other hand, treating homeschooling parents likely abusers or neglecters of their children is wrong, too, especially since social workers sometimes abuse their power, and can lead to trauma for the child and whole family. Regulation is an axe where a scalpel is needed.

What is to be done, then? I am not sure, but a good first step might be to ensure that, at the very least, all homeschooled students should be counted. It is reasonable to require parents to notify the school district that they are homeschooling their children, but this is currently not required for all 50 states. I also would like to see “no stakes” standard testing in math, reading, and writing for children at various ages; this would help provide some good data on literacy and numeracy levels among children schooled in various ways. (See CRHE’s page on “Academic Achievement” for limitations to currently-available data on homeschooling achievement.)

Counting all homeschoolers would not stop abuse or neglect. It may stop speculation on how homeschooling, as a whole, matches up to other forms of schooling. It would have to be done right, correcting for confounders, which is not easy, especially since many children experience different kinds of schooling in their careers. I am confident that data from this year, especially, would muzzle people like Bartholet.

More About Faith: Confession Porn

The friend who introduced me to Christianity used to lament that she had no marvelous “conversion story.” Her parents were Christians, she was raised as a Christian, she is a Christian today, the end. God had no need to save her from alcoholism or prostitution or a life of crime.

In time, my friend came to realize that her story is indeed as marvelous and miraculous as those dramatic conversions, even if it doesn’t make for very good stage fodder. God worked through her parents and her own heart to make sure that she didn’t have to suffer the consequences of living outside His will; this is a good thing!

But during our junior high and high school years, lurid confessions were very much in vogue. I was alarmed to discover during a short-term missions trip that at least one quarter of the girls attending struggled with eating disorders, and both regular youth pastors and special guests often shared with us how God had saved them from lives of hopelessness and depravity.

I do not want to make light of these experiences. It is indeed great to see the healing of the broken, the finding of the lost, the resurrection of the dead. Jesus himself celebrates the repentant tax collector, the lost sheep returned to the fold, the prodigal son come back to his father’s house. And those who are raised in a household of faith, while experiencing many blessings, are at risk for joining the ranks of those proud Pharisees who thanked God that they weren’t sinners, which is quite as effective a path to damnation as is immersing oneself in orgies.

No, the issue that concerns me now is that for us foolish teenagers, the focus became sin rather than Savior. I mean, we rejoiced greatly to hear of the wayward being rescued, but this rejoicing was so intense because we’d been hearing tales of depravity leading to dire life circumstances.

For the past several years, I have not attended a church that puts up guest speakers giving their testimonies. I hope, however, for those churches that do–and such testimonies can be very inspiring–there will be the occasional “quiet” story. “God saved me from gossiping about others.” “God saved me from being lazy.” “God saved me from being unloving.” These confessions would not be titillating, not flashy, but they reflect the experience of a substantial portion of sinners.

“Credible Profession of Faith”

I have a problem with my own children that didn’t arise when I was a child: When can I be confident that their belief in Christianity is their own and not merely parroting back what their dad and I have taught them?

For me, it was easy. My parents weren’t Christians. When I was 6, my friend told me that I needed to say sorry to God for the bad things I’ve done and ask Jesus into my heart, and that I would then be a Christian. I believed what she’d said, prayed “the sinner’s prayer,” and tried to figure out from there on how I was supposed to live now that I was a Christian. I was pitifully ignorant about how to do this, and asked my dad to read me the Bible; we gave up in Genesis, but eventually I took up Bible reading on my own and attended church with my friend’s family. With age and (I hope) a bit more wisdom and maturity, I tried analyzing the tenets of Christianity with a truly open mind and positing that I was wrong, that atheism or another faith is correct, but I wasn’t able to rid myself of my faith and still have it today.

Most people would not consider a 6-year-old’s profession of faith “credible.” My friend’s (and then my) church was credo-baptist, meaning that you weren’t baptized until you were old enough to convince your pastor that you truly believed and understood Christianity; my friend and I were baptized when we were 11 and her younger brother was 8. Churches that baptize infants generally have some other ceremony that recognizes a child’s full induction into the Christian community, such as Confirmation or the public recital of membership vows, and this usually occurs some time between the ages of 8 and 12.

I understand the skepticism about a very young child’s declaration that she now believes in Jesus and His saving work on the cross. My husband and I have of course prayed with and for our children since their infancy, taught them Bible stories and songs and prayers as soon as they could verbalize, had regular family worship, and tried our very best to indoctrinate them into the Christian worldview. The 5- and 7-year-old certainly consider themselves to be Christians, and the almost-4-year-old believes in God and Jesus although his knowledge isn’t terribly complete. We have explained some other beliefs as well, always from the standpoint that they are incorrect, and we try to model a life pleasing to God as far as we can–which includes, of course, modeling asking forgiveness when we mess up.

But there is no clear, easy delineation between “child mimicking belief” and “believer.” Mind, there is no clear, easy delineation between “professed believer of any age” and “true believer”–but this issue is more prominent, I think, for children who have not yet been seriously confronted with doubt and trouble and an atmosphere of hostility toward Christianity. My 7-year-old would like to take Communion. She can explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper; she reads her Bible; she asks us questions and seems satisfied with the answers we give her. Is she really ready to take vows/be confirmed/make a credible profession of faith?

I don’t know. She’s still so young, and very much influenced by her father and me. (Which is a good thing.)

On the other hand, I was even younger when God gave me the gift of faith, and it was real faith–it has persisted through hardship, experience, study, and even passing through a liberal Jesuit university. Mind you, I had several misconceptions about the nature of God, Jesus, and Christianity, but then again I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I’ve got everything right even now; I trust in God’s holiness and wisdom, not my own.

So, Christian parents: I ask you. If you do not have a formalized process by which a child is considered a full member of the faith community (i.e. going through catechism, etc), what made you believe that your child’s faith was true and genuine?

Happy Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day

Columbus’s four voyages to the Caribbean and American continents changed the world, opened contact between millions of people, and were major antecedents to the creation of the United States. They also led to the deaths of millions of people, the extinction or severe restriction of many cultures, and the enslavement or peonage of others. In more and more localities, celebrations of Columbus’s achievements–and his voyages were achievements, requiring persistence, courage, leadership, and skill–are being replaced by celebrations of the suffering of those who had come to the Americas several thousand years before. Such a celebration of victimization, by the way, negates the achievements of these same peoples, since it very pointedly focuses on the end of their cultural dominance.

I’m giving my kids Columbus Day off, not Indigenous Peoples Day off. This is not to whitewash Columbus’s rather appalling record as a governor or agent responsible for enslaving native Americans. It is also not to deny that European-American contact wiped out a great many people and civilizations, either by deliberate European action or by disease. Today we are celebrating a great explorer who changed history in a manner equaled by few; the history of the Americas marks 1492 as the end of the “pre-Columbian” era.

Columbus was not one of the fathers of the American republic. Nevertheless, for anyone who loves the United States–as I do–it is necessary to remember why a bunch of religious dissidents, fortune-seekers, and Enlightenment idealists had the opportunity to create a society based on freedom and equality. Yes, I hear the sneers from here; “What about slavery?” “What about genocide?” As far back as the American Revolution Samuel Johnson called out the American colonists for hypocrisy, saying “How is it that we hear the loudest¬†yelps¬†for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Taxation no Tyranny) But cruelty, bloodshed, and oppression are common to humanity. The Bill of Rights is not. The separation of powers is not. The sentiments espoused by the Declaration of Independence are not. Columbus could not have known the consequences of his discoveries, but he made these things possible, nonetheless.

Happy Columbus Day.

SEL

In the “before time” last year, my daughter came home with some worksheets on “Social-Emotional Learning” (SEL). She got Dojo points for every sheet she completed.

“Make an angry face,” I read. “Go ahead, baby.” My daughter rolled her eyes, thus demonstrating her mastery of “contemptuous,” then gave a half-hearted frown. “Uh huh. Okay, now I’m supposed to make an angry face–whoops, sorry, I was supposed to do that earlier. Now you need to think of situations that make you angry.”

“Doing this stupid worksheet?” offered my daughter.

“Yeah, but we’d probably better not write that down. Um, how about when your brothers annoy you?”

We half-assed our way through the worksheets and got the Dojo points (the person and group with the most points at the end of the week got a “Dojo of the week” certificate). I am not sure that my daughter learned anything new about identifying and dealing with anger, however.

The situation did not improve when classes started meeting remotely, in spite of the obvious emphasis the teacher put on this subject; much of the hourly semi-weekly video conferences focused on feelings, best ways to handle the social situations kids were no longer facing, and practicing “belly breathing” to calm down. My daughter loathed these activities and discussions. Telling her to “belly breathe” when she’s upset has about the same effect as telling an overwrought woman to “calm down.”

We work on social-emotional learning a lot at home, sans worksheets and kumbaya-circle groups. Recognizing and naming feelings, being able to separate emotion from action, having healthy strategies to deal with negative emotions, becoming resilient, not being oversensitive, delaying gratification, knowing how to interact with others in a kind, wise, and healthy manner, being able to apologize and make amends when necessary, and accepting disappointment as a part of life are all important skills. They are absolutely skills that every parent should be inculcating in their spawn. And school should be a place where children practice and develop these skills, as well; the interactions with non-family peers and authority figures allow children to navigate a wider world, provided the school isn’t totally toxic.

I therefore have no objection to teaching SEL as such. Yes, parents should be doing the heavy lifting of cultivating good social-emotional skills in their children, but it does not seem harmful to have these lessons reinforced by teachers. I do, however, have some concerns with how SEL is being taught and, I think, fetishized in schools.

The first concern is effectiveness. Perhaps my daughter’s teacher was using unusually bad curriculum or methods, but given that she was pretty competent at teaching my kid other skills I am doubtful that this is the case. Whatever the situation, for my daughter at least the whole thing was a complete waste of time. The way my daughter learns social-emotional skills is by adult modeling, sympathetic listening when she wants to share something, discussions of actual situations that went well or didn’t, judicious handling of various kinds of distress that may sometimes include ignoring the distress, and consistent reinforcement of reasonable behavior expectations. (Example: It’s okay to be upset at your brother for breaking your toy. It is NOT okay to hit him.) It also makes a difference that our teaching is rooted in a Christian worldview, which emphasizes change from the inside out.

This brings me to another point: Which traits are universally desirable in children? Surely such traits as honesty, diligence, courage, wisdom, discretion, strength, curiosity, love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–but all of these traits are expressed in very different ways in different people, and SEL seems to privilege only certain modes of expression–and definitely feminine versus masculine modes of expression. In my (admittedly tiny) experience of SEL, I saw no room for dealing with an issue by ignoring it; bonding over an activity with little verbal communication; or allowing rough play. In my slightly larger experience of life, these can all be effective strategies for dealing with an issue. Think about it: Is it really healthy, really, truly a good idea, to brood over every slight and “discuss” it until it’s resolved?

“John, I feel upset when you leave your cereal bowl on the counter.”

“What makes you upset, Mary?”

“I’ve asked you to put your dishes in the sink and run water on them so that food doesn’t harden on them, but you keep on leaving them out to dry.”

“I’m sorry, Mary. I just forget to do this.”

“It makes me feel like my wishes aren’t important to you, and I feel disrespected.”

“I will try to remember to put dishes in the sink, but it is hard for me to break old habits. I feel upset when it seems like you don’t make sufficient allowance for this.”

“I am sorry for upsetting you, John. I will try not to take something personally when I know you are working to improve.”

“I’m sorry too, Mary, for not making this more of a priority.”

“Thank you for listening to me, John.”

I retched a little writing this wretched little dialogue. My ideal handling of the situation would be: Mary puts the damned bowls into the sink and runs a bit of water on them, and never speaks of the matter again to John or lets it fester into resentment. The end. And I don’t think I, personally, want to be married to someone who wants to talk through every. Single. Thing. Ever. I like being married to an engineer-type, who thinks in terms of problem-solving rather than endless navel-gazing. This is a stereotypically male trait, although it is far from universal among men, and we somehow believe that men need to be trained out of it, which is ridiculous. “Social-emotional intelligence” is not the same thing as “exalting feelings over all.”

Even aside from this misguided focus, some techniques are touted as universally effective when they are not so. As aforementioned, belly-breathing does not make my daughter calm down. Depending on how highly-strung she is at the moment, the best techniques we have for her are a good, hard hug; asking her to please vent her emotions elsewhere; ignoring an outburst; and distracting her. My middle child calms down when we use a firm, steady tone of voice or offer a distraction. My youngest child responds best to a hug or some other kind of physical touch.

I’m also disturbed that schools think they can replace actual social interaction, playtime, and hands-on learning with SEL. “Kids have been through a tough time! They’re more stressed than ever! Their home life may be more difficult! They may even be traumatized! And this is why social-emotional learning skills are SO IMPORTANT!” But worksheets, naming emotions, and belly breathing are no replacement for offering children the opportunity to run around, have fun, and play with each other, which are all ways they practice SEL. No worksheet is going to fix trauma. Kids have been given a raw deal in this time, and the kind of support they’re being offered simply doesn’t seem effective to me.

Finally, I think that even well-done SEL is overhyped. It is not the One True Thing that will magically make our kids mentally healthy, send test scores way up, and turn out well-adjusted, productive adults. In truth, no school is equipped to do this for most children, although good teachers can make a world of difference to children stuck in a bad family situation. Families ought to be developing character in their children, and a family that through word and deed teaches virtue to its kids is much better-positioned to encourage healthy social-emotional growth than are our schools.

Restoring Independence

“Right, kids, here’s what I’d like you to get done while I’m gone: Writing, times table practice, and copy-work for you, journal and read to your older sister for you. You may each make yourselves a Hot Pocket. If you have time left over, you may watch Woody Woodpecker, but I expect the work you do to be done well or you’ll have to redo it.”

Then I kissed my kids goodbye and hopped in the car to visit the obgyn’s office, which does not permit anyone but the patient to attend appointments. My husband was, of course, in the home with the children, but since he was working he was there to make sure that they didn’t drink Drano or burn down the house, not to feed, entertain, or educate the children in my absence. That was up to the kids themselves. And they did it. My second grader produced a page-long letter, copied a couple of verses of the Bible, and practiced her 7-times table; my kindergartner read Daniel Gets Scared to the second grader and wrote a couple of words about his swim lesson yesterday, illustrated with a spiky pen drawing of him in the pool. The three-year-old pretended to be a firebird attacking bad guys and didn’t pee his pants, and they all microwaved Hot Pockets and got to watch a couple of Woody Woodpecker episodes.

I theorize that COVID-19 has made parents less helicopter-like throughout industrialized nations. Mind, in some ways, they may “hover” even more, such as during distance learning or homeschooling time; I have spent more hours engaging intensely with my older two children since starting to homeschool them, and I do not traipse gaily about abandoning the kids to meet my coffee klatch. Nevertheless, the reality of having to juggle kids and employment or keep kids out of public buildings means that we have somewhat reverted to an earlier time when parents were not expected to manage every second of their children’s day. Necessity makes parents and onlookers less judgmental about leaving kids to their own devices, to a certain extent.

In this sense, we have stepped back from a “best practice” approach to a “good enough” approach when it comes to childrearing. I think this is generally a good thing, as long as the parents can provide a safe environment. Kids are capable of meeting higher expectations than we set for them in many cases. I hope this development will outlast the lockdowns and reset American parenting norms.

Yelling at Children

What does it mean to “yell” at your child? Does volume or content matter most, and how much loudness and communicated anger is appropriate? I just yelled from my chair in the family room “You can come down!” to the kids in their bedrooms; is this inappropriate, especially since I don’t particularly want my kids to be yelling down to me? (Answer: Yeah, probably; I’m not modeling what I want to see; but how would I type this deathless masterpiece if I had to go allll the way upstairs to tell each kid that quiet time is over?)

Most parents agree that screaming insults at the kid or otherwise denigrating him is a terrible idea. Most also agree that a child who’s about to run into traffic or otherwise endanger himself or another should be stopped by whatever means necessary, including yelling. A few believe that raising your voice is abusive, no matter the circumstances, and a very few intimate that a parent who ever even FEELS angry at a child is doing a poor job.

We can ignore those last few parents, who are clearly either liars or who don’t spend more than approximately 10 minutes per day with their children. We can also ignore those parents who think it’s acceptable to scream that their children’s existence has ruined their existence; these are not models of good parenting, to put it mildly.

But there is a wide range of “acceptable” between those two extremes. Some of it appears to be cultural; the stereotypes of the loud Italian family and the quiet WASP family have some truth to them.

I wonder if the debate about “yelling” should be reframed in terms of function and dysfunction. If a parent is getting angry at her kids several times a day, something is not working right; it is up to the parent to identify the problem and make progress toward resolving it, relying upon outside help as needed. If a child’s behavior is getting worse over time (barring “phases” or puberty), the child seems frightened, perpetually angry, or depressed, ditto.

There are also methods of childrearing that are much more damaging, in my opinion, than using a raised voice to a child. Excessive permissiveness harms the child far more than barking “Kid! YOU DO NOT HIT YOUR BROTHER! No dessert tonight.” Making a child responsible for your emotions or otherwise manipulating the child is much worse than yelling “ARRRRGH! HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU TO PUT AWAY YOUR TOYS AFTER YOU PLAY WITH THEM?” And I would argue that it is okay, nay, desirable, to sometimes make a child feel bad about their behavior; we hope that our children will grow up to try to behave right, and to be sad or ashamed when they have done wrong. This is perfectly compatible with reinforcing positive behaviors and validating children’s feelings and all those awesome parenting techniques that we’re supposed to use. There is a time for saying “I see you’re working through some big feelings,” and a time to say “Knock off the whining and GO TO YOUR ROOM! I’ve had it UP TO HERE with your nonsense.”

What about when we parents are undoubtedly in the wrong? When, perhaps, we’ve had a lousy day and respond to a series of infractions by screaming at our children, perhaps frightening them or making them cry?

Children aren’t rare orchids who will wither at the slightest mistake in nurture. If their family is usually loving, warm, responsive, and appropriate in correcting them, kids will not be scarred forever by Mommy or Daddy losing it on them very occasionally, especially if we apologize later. (Not a non-apology, either–we need to confess when we’ve done wrong to our kids, express sorrow, ask for forgiveness, and do better next time.) Fits of anger cannot, CANNOT be our default mode of parenting; we are not creating a healthy environment by forcing our children to walk on eggshells around us, and these vulnerable human beings deserve better at our hands.

But neither, I think, are we failing at parenting if we react with more emotion than Marvin the Martian would find it appropriate to show. As with most other aspects of parenting, there is room for many different “ways” of speaking to our kids when they have behaved badly, and within the context of a loving relationship most will be good enough.

Meditations on Teaching Kids to Read

My second child is beginning to read. It’s thrilling, just as it was with his older sister, to watch him decode and recognize words. Aside from occasionally confusing lower-case bs and ds (which I believe at this stage is not a red flag), he seems to do a pretty decent job navigating the crazy patchwork that is the English written word. He has a good memory and comprehension but is apt to try to guess at words from their context, so I deliberately focus on phonics, phonics, phonics, since that is the skill that I think he needs to cultivate the most rather than worrying about sight words.

As I did when helping his older sister learn to read, I wonder just how much expertise is needed to teach reading. On the one hand, personal experience intimates that the answer is
“not much”; my mother was no educator* and taught us all to read at early ages, and there have been plenty of cases where an older sibling has taught his younger sibling how to read. For many children, reading to them early, modeling interest in books, providing a wide variety of books to read, and sitting patiently with them will allow them, sooner or later, to figure out the mysteries of literacy. In such cases, no specialized degrees are needed. On the other, I would not discount the evidence that indicates that there are right and wrong ways to teach reading, and I absolutely believe that professional educators are needed to identify and help out those kids who have dyslexia or other developmental issues that may make it more difficult to learn to read.

One skill that I believe is crucial for professional educators and parents alike is to be a student of the student. Even when I was not homeschooling my oldest child, I knew what came easily to her, what required more work, what she found enjoyable or boring. My second child has roughly similar abilities, but differs from her in some important ways; he will have an easier time connecting with the characters, plot, and concepts of a text, but he doesn’t have as much stamina and, as aforementioned, is more inclined to guess at a word based on context rather than do the difficult work of sounding it out.

What about reading material? Past generations of children learned their ABCs from hornbooks and progressed to MacGuffey readers or the Bible. A survey of the rich, complicated writing of the past suggests that even children were expected to read more complicated texts than they are today; Treasure Island has a Lexile level of 1070, corresponding to about an 8th-grade reading level, but was most probably intended for children younger than that, while George Orwell fondly recounts enjoying Gulliver’s Travels (Lexile level 1150) at the age of 9. That said, history (and literature) indicate that there were an awful lot of illiterate adults in the good old days, so I think the lesson I take is not that the methods of past centuries were superior so much as that, given opportunity and lack of obstacles, most people can eventually acquire literacy. (I imagine dyslexic folks were bang out of luck.)

Our house has Dick and Jane, Dr. Seuss, Children’s Bibles, fairytales, actual Bibles, Richard Scarry books, and a wide variety of other children’s books for me to read to the kids and for the kids to pick up and read when they are able to do so. We also visit the library. I read “good” stuff to my kids, especially while they’re still too young and ignorant to know that something is supposed to be above their developmental level, but I also allow considerable freedom in permitting them to choose their books. This is an approach that I take from my parents, who read all kinds and levels of books to us and allowed us to freely select from what was available to us, and whatever the flaws in my upbringing they were outstanding at instilling in us a love of reading and the ability to read many different kinds of books.

Finally, whatever my flaws as a reading teacher–and I am sure that they are many, and that I am ignorant of most of them–I do have one quality in my favor as a teacher: I love reading, and love teaching my kids to read. I truly do not mind sitting with a child and puzzling over a particularly knotty word, and I enjoy rereading books and hearing them reread. (Except for Green Eggs and Ham. I hid that book.) It’s a joy to see them connect letters and sounds and put them together, and help them take their first steps toward being able to swim in the wide ocean of literacy for themselves.

*My mother’s attempt to teach me how to knit and drive were disastrous.