Learning to read, and other things.

Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”

It seems like good ol’ Winnie and my boys have something in common.

My oldest son is in his final months of kindergarten and even as I type that my eyes get a little misty.  Somehow five years have managed to blink by.

I remember the day that I found out I was pregnant with him.  I remember the day that I first felt the little flutter of life inside of me.  I remember his pink, newborn body lying on my chest for hours as he slept and I just breathed in the scent of him.

He steadfastly took to his role as “eldest” at fifteen months old and assumed an “I do it!” attitude.  His perseverance and tenacity continue to amaze me.

I have had to train myself to step back and let him make his mistakes, so that he can learn.  As my son struggles to fold over and tighten the loops of his laces, I struggle to keep my hands in my pockets and encourage him with my words.

We’re both learning.  He is learning to be independent and I am learning to let him.

With grade one on the horizon, my son’s new goal is to read a book to his kindergarten classmates on his next Special Helper Day.

To help boost his confidence and improve his ability, together we created a weekly Word Wall.

Each week we pick a different “word family” and print the words onto cue cards.  He then pins the cards to a bulletin board and we read them over a few times each day.

Over the past month I have been amazed by, not only his progress but, his diligence.

Last night, as we lay together on his bed, he read his first book to me.

He stumbled on some words but I was there to help him sound them out.  He linked the syllables together and formed words and I was there to see his toothy smile spread across his face.  When we finished the book, he looked over at me and I was there to receive his high-five.

While my son is learning to link letters and decipher words, I am learning that teaching him to read is really a metaphor for parenting.

Be there to help him when he stumbles.

Be there to help him sound it out.

Be there to support him when it’s unfamiliar.

Be his biggest cheerleader, always ready for a high-five.


Am I the Mother of a Hitter?

A couple of times a week, we have a teenaged babysitter pick up Sam from afternoon kindergarten and play with the kids until I come home from work.  Two days ago, she was asked to convey a message from Sam’s kindergarten teacher:  Sam had been hitting in class.  We are scheduled for our first ever (10 minute) parent-teacher interview, and Sam’s teacher wants to discuss this issue at the meeting.

I had no inkling Sam was being rough at school, and this information bothered me.  I was very tired that night anyway, and it didn’t help that my youngest threw water at an oily pan while I was preparing dinner and that I burned my hand on a tray of kale chips taking them out of the oven and dropped them on the floor.   But I was also plain off-kilter at the news from school.  My son?  A hitter?  Advance notice of this agenda item for the parent-teacher meeting?

It’s always strange when you love someone intimately but then learn something about them you don’t know.  While Sam has some (fun and not-so-fun) agressive moments with his younger brother, I would easily characterize him as gentle.  In fact, with one of his rowdier playmates, he was allowing himself to be such a punching bag that my husband and I were coaching him on how to ask for help and to protect himself from being hit himself.

I’ve also been consciously revelling in what seems like a pretty idyllic time with Sam at home.  He loves being around me, is cooperative, enthusiastic and participates in most things we do, can be reasoned with, and is a very affectionate child.

And thus begins my initiation into the universal education of parents as we discover that our children aren’t perfect, not even in those special areas we hold dear.  I don’t care about being the mother of the unkempt child or the dusty home.  But I do not want to be the mother of the Hitter.

It helped to talk to a lovely new friend and more seasoned mother.  She happened to have a son who was aggressive when he was five and six and who has since morphed into an engaging, easy-going nine year old.  It also helped to watch my friend’s own kindergartner who, frustrated at having to share her toys, scream with such fury that she made the tantrums of my own boys look rather tame.  My friend has enviable mothering abilities, and I’d love for our kids to be friends.  I felt no judgment at all witnessing the meltdown, but actually appreciation.  Appreciation that kids can get violently mad.  Their emotional toolbox is still small.  They aren’t perfect.

While it seemed strange to me at the time, now I think Sam’s kindergartner teacher knew precisely what she was doing when she gave me advanced warning that we needed to talk about Sam hitting in class.  Maybe she was giving me a chance to acclimatize, so that the honest but unproductive sinking feeling I had in the kitchen upon first hearing the news that night could give way to a more useful impulse.  I’ve had some time to talk to Sam, to observe him, and to know that regardless of whatever he’s experimenting with now, he’s not a latent thug.

The meeting’s today.  Wish us luck.

Volunteering at Kindergarten Class

Last fall, I volunteered twice in my older son Sam’s kindergarten classroom.  Because I’m able to drop off and pick Sam up from school sometimes, I had a sense of his teacher and his school surroundings, but still felt like it might be nice to be more involved.

The first time I volunteered was on a class trip (to the lovely musical A Year with Frog and Toad ) – this required taking a day off work. There were 17 parent volunteers for the 40 kindergarteners!  As a newbie parent, I noticed that I was assigned just to Sam and no other kids, while the more seasoned parents got up to four kids to watch.  So it was just Sam and me, which turned out to be helpful in the play, because when Sam was frightened by the ghost story scene, he could just turn in my lap and bury himself in my neck.

The second time was just a regular day in the class, although I noticed Sam’s teacher kind of self-consciously told me that in fact it wasn’t a regular day as the kids were kind of celebrating the holidays.  I served even less of a purpose this time, as the kids were either engaged in either free play or in activities directed by the teacher which required no assistance.  However, I did sharpen all the stubby pencil crayons at the art centre.  Oh, and when Sam didn’t want to watch the Grinch video, he didn’t have to, and we played (with gusto) in the sand table (filled with cornmeal) instead.

What did I learn from these volunteer activities?  Well, not a whole lot, in some ways.  Certainly I gained no Insight into Sam’s overall learning process.  And sharpening those pencil crayons, I could think of a few other things I’d rather have been doing.

Still, I’m not sorry I went.  I got to know his teacher even better.  I have a greater sense of who Sam’s schoolmates are and how they play together.  On the school trip, I met a number of the children’s parents, many of whom have older children at the school, and I learned more about the school community.  I felt a little more a part of things.

Amongst the best reasons for being there was Sam’s obvious pleasure and comfort that I had come.  He doesn’t assign a value to my presence based on my ability to make some tangible contribution: he just likes having me in his world.  It’s kind of refreshing.

Just last week, Sam asked me if I could volunteer in his classroom again.  Pencil crayon stubs floated before my eyes, and I hesitated.  But I know I will.  Of course I will.

A Modest Proposal, or: Should You Hold Your Son Back?

Back in 2002, when I was pregnant with my first and due in October, my then-boss and I got to talking about boys’ education. He didn’t have any children, but his sister did, and he mentioned how she’d put her boys into a special pre-kindergarten preparatory program – kind of like remedial pre-school, with tutors – because they were boys born at the end of the school year, and she was worried they wouldn’t be ready to join their class with their peers. In Ontario, any child who turns four by December 31st of any given year is eligible to start junior kindergarten that year, which means that her children would start kindergarten at age three.

At the time I thought this was something wealthy parents did to ensure their offspring’s eventual place in an Ivy-league university. But, now that I have two boys with fall birthdays I think I understand what she was worried about: besides her obvious desire that her boys do well in school, there’s also the potential double-whammy of emotional immaturity relative to their older peers and the fact that her children were boys (conventional wisdom being that boys tend to be less mature than their female peers anyway) to consider. Add ’em up, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. And it’s called ADHD.

Don’t understand that fear? Using longitudinal data about 12000 U.S. students, two recent studies published this year suggest that the youngest kindergarteners in any given year were nearly 60% more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in kindergarten, and that by grade five, the youngest were nearly twice as likely to have been prescribed stimulants such as Ritalin. By taking the incidence of ADHD in the population as a whole, the studies authors estimate that nearly 1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD simply because they are the youngest in the class.

Youngest, and least mature. Most likely to need extra attention from a teacher. Most likely to be disruptive. But, also, just as likely as an older child to act in a way that is age appropriate. It’s just that the age appropriate behaviour of a just-turned four year old is hardly the same thing as the age appropriate behaviour of a nearly six year old, and it’s the behavour of the six-year old that is expected in a kindergarten classroom.

So what would happen if schools were more flexible in allowing parents to determine when and at what level their child should start school? In those jurisdictions where the age of enrollment is determined strictly by the year a child is born, a child won’t necessarily get to start when and where they’re most ready (Of course, the fact that few low-cost pre-kindergarten programs exist is a major issue for most families, who may not have any option financially but kindergarten once a child reaches school age, but that’s another blog post altogether). For boys who need a couple of extra months to mature before they start school, a flexible approach may make all the difference.

Of course, it’s not only boys who may be immature or not ready for school, and it’s not only boys who are diagnosed with ADHD, but if boys are diagnosed with ADHD nearly twice as frequently as girls (so say the statistics coming out of the US), and, apparently, so many children are misdiagnosed simply because they’re immature, then maybe, just maybe, by allowing parents to hold late-born boys back a year, we may provide those boys with the growing room they need to be better prepared for school.  And for all kids, isn’t there some logic in allowing for an approach to starting school in which the child’s readiness, and not their birthdate determines at what level they begin?

(photo credit: Woodley Wonderworks http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2908834853/)

Great Reads: The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn

The sound of a school bell clanging in the morning means many things to different people.  For a teacher, it is the start of the teaching day.  For a child, it is the start of a learning day.  For a parent it is the start of a chaotic workday – whether that work be inside or outside of the home.

This September the shrill of the school bell symbolized a new beginning for my son.  Together we stood, hand in hand, outside the kindergarten entrance.  His brand new bright red backpack hung from his shoulders.  His blue eyes were wide as he anxiously took in the schoolyard scene: older boys tossing balls against the wall, girls with pigtails and tights twirling colourful skipping ropes.  His little hand gripped mine, ever so tightly.  To be truthful, maybe it was me who was doing the gripping.

I knew that in an instant, when he walked single-file through those heavy double doors, a chapter in our lives had come to an end.  No longer was I the new mother, unsure and without confidence.  No longer was he the little boy who needed to be rocked to sleep in my arms.

My son released his grip on my hand and I leaned down to kiss him goodbye.  I squeezed him and choked back my tears.  I whispered in his ear how much I loved him.  We clung to each other for a moment, each of us gathering the strength to pull away.  Just as he was about to join his new classmates, he held out his small hand, palm facing up.  I knew what he wanted.

Weeks before the start of kindergarten we read The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn.  The story is about a little raccoon was nervous to start the first day of school.  His mother kisses the palm of his hand so whenever he is feeling lonely or scared, he can place the palm on his cheek and feel the love of his mother.

I took my son’s hand and kissed it and then extended my palm towards him.  He walked towards the line-up with his hand firmly pressed against his cheek and held it there until he disappeared into the hallways of the school.

I turned and walked away, my hand against my cheek.

This has become our morning ritual and I am very thankful to have come across this book that helped to make the transition to kindergarten a bit easier for both of us.  Is there a book or story that you used with your children to get through a tough time or to teach an insightful lesson?


Happy Welcome Home, Martin Frobisher Day!

I have a confession to make.  After reading it your opinion of me may drastically change.  Most likely you will shake your head, tsk tsk and wonder how a person can make it through to adulthood and not have an understanding of such elementary cultural celebrations.

My kindergartener son came home from school last week and was bubbling with excitement as he produce from his monogrammed red back pack various crafts and colourings featuring turkeys, cornucopias, and harmonious nuclear families sitting down to feast.  As we sifted through the artwork (destined for the “artwork bin”) he babbled on about Thanksgiving with the same excitement most people have for Christmas (I realize that this is coming).  When his younger brother came home from pre-school he was sporting a construction paper crown that vaguely resembled a turkey – if turkeys had googley eyes and neon yellow and purple feathers.   Naturally this caused a ruckus.  While my oldest was smitten with his own handiwork minutes earlier he desperately coveted the Turkey Crown that his brother was parading around.  His brother was having no part in sharing and made this abundantly clear while announcing to us “My schurckey hat is just for yooking!  No touching!”

Once order was restored with the help of bribery a good heart-to-heart discussion, my boys asked me if I knew what Thanksgiving was.  I chuckled.  Patted their innocent little heads.

“Of course I do, sweeties.”

Okay dear readers, if you know your Canadian history and you are still with me, this is when the headshaking and eyeball rolling will commence.

Obviously it is impossible to celebrate 30 Thanksgiving feasts and not know what it is all about.  It’s when the pilgrims and the natives buried the hatchet and sat down for some turkey, cranberry sauce and corn.  The natives shared their crop so that the land-stealers (err, I mean pilgrims) wouldn’t starve to death.  It is the classic example of putting aside grudges and sharing with others.

Before I shared my cornucopia of knowledge (pun intended), I decided to do a quick cross-reference of my facts.  I figure that the many hours I spent watching American television as a child may not constitute historical accuracy.

Well it is a good thing that I did! Apparently the Seavers and the Huxtables had led me astray.  Blasted American sit-coms!

According to the people at Wikipedia, Canadian Thanksgiving was long celebrated by the First Nations people as a way to give thanks for the bountiful harvest well before any Erikkson, Johnson or Champlain erected a four-bedroom, two-car garage suburban home.  However, when the European settlers did celebrate their first Thanksgiving it was to give thanks that explorer Martin Frobisher had successfully returned home after searching for the Northwest Passage.

It is important to note that the first European Thanksgiving on Canadian soil was to celebrate that Frobisher had returned home.  He had not found the Northwest Passage but he didn’t die a lonely, icy death like Henry Hudson and John Franklin.

So you see Canadian readers, our first Thanksgiving wasn’t about thanking the First Nations people for sharing their bountiful crops with the settlers (and therefore staving off scurvy) or about celebrating a significant geographical find.  In true Canadian form, in was about good manners: hosting an appropriate homecoming for a long-lost traveler.

As we sit down for our harvest feast and give thanks for bountiful crops we have access to, what are you particularly grateful for this year?

I have to admit that I am thankful that the “when in Rome” adage prevailed in Canada because “Happy Thanksgiving” has a much better ring to it than “Happy Welcome Home Martin Frobisher Day”.  Besides which, teachers would have been stymied trying to come up with creative art projects.

P.S.  Don’t feel too badly for Mr. Frobisher.  He has an inlet named for him in the Arctic Ocean and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I.  Not too shabby for failing to find the Northwest Passage.

photo credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Frobisher

The eve of kindergarten

We were together, just Sam (who’s 4) and I, in the living room of the cottage, during our week’s holiday up there.  Sam was at the coffee table, perhaps drawing with the crayons and paper I’d left there.  I was on the couch, perhaps reading.  I say “perhaps” because I don’t really remember.  What I do remember is that we were quietly and companionably in the same room doing different things.

Then, out of nowhere, Sam said:  “Friend X said I was a bad boy”.

I put down what I was doing to give him my attention, but still tried to be casual.  “Oh. How did that make you feel?”


I tried my best to talk about it with Sam.  We talked about how we both know he isn’t a bad boy, and so Friend X had a mistake.  We talked about how Friend X is a good friend, but still learning, and sometimes making mistakes.  Then we talked about how Sam has sometimes called his younger brother Natty a bad boy (less perplexing now) and how Natty isn’t a bad boy and so we all make mistakes.  We agreed it wasn’t a nice thing to say.  I repeated to Sam that he is not a bad boy.

It was a brief conversation.  Three minutes, maybe?  Led by me, of course, doing my best to help my son navigate the complexities of his social world.  He looked at the table throughout most of the conversation, except at the end when I asked him to look at me so I could tell him he was a great boy and that I loved him very much while looking into his eyes.  I think he was reassured by our talk, but I’m not sure how much so.

I’ve heard parents say over and over again that just being around for your kids is really important, to make time and space for children to express what’s on their mind.  Even as I worry about not being with my kids more, I am grateful to be around as much as I am, so glad Sam felt he could talk to me and that I was there when he found his voice.

Sam enters public school kindergarten in a week.  We didn’t get a spot at the alternative school we wanted and I’m kind of anxious about this new phase.  Not about accelerated learning or anything like that – I don’t care if he can cut in a circle or write an “F”.  But I do want it to be a place where he feels safe, secure, has some freedom to explore, and where kids aren’t too hard on each other.  I don’t really share the “life is tough so let the 4 years olds cope” mentality.  I want Sam to feel good about himself, both in and out of school.

A parent whose child finished kindergarten came to speak to the parents of new entrants, and described in some detail how her child wept at school for six months and the “heartbreak” of the children’s exclusionist tendencies (the “you can’t play with us” and “you’re not invited to my party” variety).  She also mentioned we should buy a backpack (which I’ve done).  I can only assume when the teachers picked this spokeswoman they did not know what she would say.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling worried, I think of her.

I’m fortified by a few things, though.  Firstly, that Sam genuinely enjoyed preschool and that his transition there was easy (and I heard the children said exclusionist things there too).  Second, Ben is confident that Sam will do well there emotionally and I tend to think Sam’s fairly grounded too.  Third, we can take him out if it’s not working.

And lastly, I’m encouraged by that little talk up at the cottage, where Sam was able to tell me about something that was weighing on him.  I feel like if he can trust us to share the load, then he’ll know he won’t really be going into that classroom alone.

Did you worry about kindergarten? Do you have any advice for the rest of us?

This post also appears at http://thekingsandi.wordpress.com.