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Bad Parent: The Overachiever

My son is two years old. He knows his alphabet in English and American Sign Language. He counts, relatively accurately, to eighteen. He can identify more than fifty words that I have been flashing at him from my homemade 4×6 cards for the past several months. He regularly wows strangers with his ability to count with the elevator as we go up and down the floors. “Smart kid,” they’ll say. “How old is he?” And I beam, of course. I thought I was being a good parent by encouraging such intellectual pursuits and helping him identify and interpret the world around him. But then I read Peggy Orenstein’s “Kindergarten Cram” article in The New York Times Magazine and began to rethink my priorities.

Kids don’t get to be kids for long enough, Ms. Orenstein wrote. Play is an essential part of any child’s childhood, an indispensable tool to forming relationships and becoming socially and emotionally stable and there isn’t enough of it in today’s kindergartens. Drilling kids with flash cards pushes them to grow up before they are ready, robbing them of opportunities to learn necessary skills that will help them compete in our global society. Oops. I was robbing my child of his childhood. He probably wasn’t “playing” nearly enough. As I read I imagined the track my bright little boy was on. He’d be the socially awkward, uncoordinated kid who never got invited to parties, acted out in strange ways and drew pitying looks from his classmates. He’d probably smell bad, too.

What had I been thinking? Let the kid grow up when he was ready. Sigh. I hadn’t planned for things to be this way. I thought he’d be the rough-and-tumble little boy who roared at everything and bit the furniture as he stalked the house defending his territory. But when he showed interest in the letter “S” at twenty months on a cross-country flight, I snagged the opportunity to keep him quiet and contained. We looked for S’s in the in-flight magazines calmly and intently for the rest of the flight. After that, his appetite for letters, numbers and words could not be satiated.

I had assumed I was doing a good thing, feeding his interests, giving him hugs and kisses when he learned new things and generally making learning fun and exciting. I even skimmed through a book, How to Teach Your Baby to Read by Glenn Doman and Janet Doman. The Domans assured me that starting young would make it easier for the child to pick up on new words and learn to read. The older he was, even kindergarten age, the more difficult it would be. As I watched my child, still shy of his second birthday, learn to recognize nine words in one afternoon – with less than ten minutes of effort on my part – I became a believer. The few minutes I spent each day showing him new words and then testing him on them later in the week were going to save us from a world of frustration once he was actually “old enough” to learn to read.

But when I was reminded of the power of play I decided to step back and watch for a while. Did my child even know how to play? I got out the wooden train set he had received for Christmas and spread the tracks on the floor. He spent a few minutes puttering around with them before coming to me and insisting I do it for him. Same story with the playdough. Hmm. At play groups I noticed him standing on the sidelines, unsure of what to do while other kids his age tackled each other, wrestled over balls and pulled things out of the toy fridge. Then he found a book and brought it to me to read to him. Hmm again. And finally, while playing at the park with some friends, he watched, puzzled, as two boys his age battled with sticks the size of staves. His own wand-sized stick, held loosely in his hand, remained unused. Certainly this was the lack of play that would prevent my child from forming lasting relationships, from figuring out how to build bridges, from becoming a contributing member of society. I hung my head in shame.

Still, I don’t intend to stop my encouragement of his intellectual pursuits. Not only does it make him happy, it makes me really, really happy. Why? Because playing with him is, um, boring. And frustrating. He doesn’t understand the rules of the games. He pushes me around indecisively whenever I let him take charge. He gets distracted. He makes messes that I have to clean up. Standing at the bottom of the slide waiting for him to come down and hovering beside him while he climbs up the tricky ladders at the playground lest he lose his teeth may be fun for him, but a mother can only take so much. We both need our alone time and, of course, we get it. But when we’re together, I’d rather spend it doing something that has measurable results, something that I can look back on and say, “I taught him that.” Watching him learn letters and words allows me to look back on the day and count it as a success.

And so, at my house, we blur the line between learning and play. We can spend a half-hour sitting on the couch bending chenille stems into Os or spelling out words on flash cards and be utterly delighted. To heck with building towers with oversize legos. Making Ts with them is so much more fun. Who cares about drawing, unless a W magically appears in the random scribbles? Now that is cool stuff. And so what if it’s too cold to play outside? We’ve only read Corduroy four times. There’s still plenty of fun to be had.

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