On the playground you take in the news that 5-year-old Johnny is “already reading chapter books,” and if your child isn’t yet reading, you have some choices. You can refer Johnny’s mom or dad to that article in the New York Times about math skills and preschooler’s brains, or not. You can quote the head of a progressive school I visited last year and say reading is like walking. Walk “early,” walk “late,” kids will all grow up to be walkers. Ditto with reading. Or, if you’re like Jane Roper, or me, you can grin and bear the compulsive maternal competitiveness (is it evolutionary?) and go home and worry about glaciers melting. After all, do any of us know what the world will look like when it’s time for our kids to get into competitive colleges? Didn’t everyone see Wall-E?
Roper writes about the early onset of anxiety about academic performance. On the one hand, there are the pressures of our uncertain meritocracy with which we’re intimately engaged. On the other, what our kids’ future will be like is anyone’s guess. As Roper points out in Babble’s Baby Squared blog, “we don’t know what the world of the future will look like, so we don’t quite know how to prepare them for success in it.”
Every generation of parents has had to face some version of this. As my husband pointed out to me the other day, in the 1950s people lived with the very real fear of imminent nuclear disaster. Before anti-biotics, scarlet fever could change the landscape of a family in a flash. Still, at this particular moment the political, economic and environmental uncertainties are all way up on the oil-slicked surface. From the vagaries of the stock market to the latest reports on salmon, the news never seems very far from dire.
Given the bad news, Roper reasonably asks: “How, exactly do I prepare my children for happiness and success in an uncertain world? I’m not exactly sure. But my gut tells me it’s not putting chapter books in their hands when they’re in kindergarten and signing them up for ten thousand extracurricular activities.”
A while back, I was interviewing an OB for a project we were working on and he told the story of a pregnant woman he cared for who had crushing headaches. She couldn’t take Tylenol. What could she do? “Ask the pain what it’s about,” he told her. After weeks of disbelieving him, she asked the pain the question. The next week she came in and told him, “I need everything to be perfect — the crib, the rug, the changing table — because then I know everything will be all right.”
We all do what we need to to keep chaos at bay while stoking some kind of hope. For some that means making sure their kids are the first on the block to read. For others it means opting for a slower route. For me, it means never buying juice boxes and being honest with my kids that “garbage makes me tense.” Hopefully, my kids will turn out to be very forgiving adults. Hopefully, the world will turn out to be fairly forgiving, too.