Boys and Education: Sometimes the teacher must be the student

I have a confession to make. In addition to being a great mother before I had children, I was even a better fifth grade teacher. I couldn’t understand why library books didn’t come back on time, I’d shake my head at a family’s disorganization and as embarrassed as I am to admit, I would harrumph, and roll my eyes at the “excuses” for homework not being done.

That was before.

I will also admit to feeling gob smacked when I learned that I was having a boy. And another. And then another. How could I, poster child for the girly-girl, have three boys?

Living with boys hasn’t come easy to me. It has been a learning process of how to best communicate with them and Dr. Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters, has been my instructional guide.

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“Did you know that most boys and men build friendships around activities and don’t really care to share their inner most feelings with each other?” I asked my husband, somewhat incredulously.

“Um, yeah,” he muttered back to me while absently staring at the tv and flicking through the channels.

“Did you know that most boys and men prefer to communicate shoulder-to-shoulder, you know, looking at problem together, rather than making direct eye contact?” I say this like it’s some sort of a revelation.

“Ya.”

“Okay, this explains a lot. Did you know that there are structural differences in the ears’ of boys and girls, and this guy is suggesting that sometimes boys have a hard time hearing their teacher and don’t intend to be disruptive?!”

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

And there you have it. My life with boys.

I read somewhere that women speak thousands more words in a day than men. In my case it’s true. I live my life according to a script.

“Wake up! Teeth brushed, beds made, clothes on! Knees off the table. Use your spoon. Dishes to the dishwasher . . . “

And when the boys are fighting, I am more likely to get into a discussion (albeit one-sided) about feelings and anger, and controlling impulses. Down on my knees, arms wrapped around each boy, sandwiching myself in between them, I talk. And talk. And talk. I’m usually there to intercede immediately after the first fist flies.

By contrast, the boys’ father will swoop into a room after the fighting has reached a level he has deemed too violent (usually just before or after bloodshed) and clip, “Enough!”

With that simple command, the boys will scamper to their respective corners, like lion cubs retreating after they’ve caused the leader of the pride to roar.

“You engage with them too much sometimes. Just say it once and mean it.” This is my husband’s advice. In fact this is how he lives his life. He keeps his sentences brief, and speaks when it counts. Years ago he told me that when someone talks to hear their own voice others would eventually learn to shut it out.

Dr. Sax would say that I should let the boys be physical and competitive because they are just doing what comes natural. He is quick to assert that doesn’t mean letting them pound each other to a bloody pulp or allow them to use violence to solve their problems, but that I should just back-off, and not make the jump to “Oh my God! They are going to grow up to be sociopaths if I let them pretend to shoot each other!”

But it’s hard for me. As a woman, I like to talk about everything and hash-it all out. My girlfriends and I will talk all sides of a story and debate tone and inflection until exhausted, we move on to another topic. My friends with daughters often remark how their little girls come home from school and they talk for an hour, getting the play-by –play: what the teacher wore, what so-and-so said, where they sat on the carpet and what the story was about. They will know the dynamics of friendships and whose feelings were hurt and who has made-up.

My boys come home and it’s like prying teeth to get them to share the happenings of their day. I have resorted to asking very pointed questions on our walks home from school, should-to-shoulder, avoiding direct eye contact. I used to think that they weren’t sharing things with me because they were embarrassed, or possibly nervous of my reaction, but no, I was reassured with a shrug of their shoulders and an, “Oh, I dunno. I forgot.

It’s important to note that my boys and I have a very close relationship and they will tell me their inner most secrets, but I’ve had to learn what’s news to me, isn’t news to them and like their father, they use fewer words than I do.

So what does all of this mean when it comes to the classroom?

I usually breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that my son’s teacher is a mom to a boy.

She gets it. I think.

I hope.

And usually she does. She usually gets that boys think fart jokes are hilarious, and that they generally like competition, even if it’s just with them. She gets that sitting for more than one-minute necessary can have a disastrous result. She gets that even when they don’t say anything, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting, or needing help. She gets the nuances of being a boy.

And that’s what I didn’t get when I was a teacher. Make no mistake; I thought that I got it. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Can you really blame me?

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*Dr. Sax refers to gender and not “sex” differences. It’s an important distinction.

* Dr. Sax also writes about the disjointed messages our girls receive from society while growing up and how damaging they can be. Fascinating food for thought.

The Homework Window

040I’m not a big homework fan.  I’m not a big homework foe.  In my life on my own four of five weeknights with my three boys (7, 5 and 2), homework is mostly another pesky thing I haven’t been getting around to.

But it’s interesting that we’ve been talking about it on 4Mothers, because I have just recently suggested to my oldest son that he stay up just a bit later than his brothers so we can do some “homework”.  Apart from a bit of reading, he actually hasn’t been assigned any homework.  But he actually really likes practicing his writing and doing worksheets, and would probably benefit from the extra practice, and I was feeling a bit lame about not following an expressed interest.

So we’ve been implementing this new homework window.  It’s not ideal learning time, being at the end of the day, and it’s early days.  But it’s been going really well anyway.

Still, I’ll confess to a secret:  I’m not carving this time out just for the homework, maybe not even primarily for the homework.  When I noticed that my oldest didn’t seem to need quite as much sleep as his brothers (and I would prioritize sleep over homework for sure), I saw an opportunity.  A window of time, brief but available, for my son and me to have some time alone.  A period for him to have my attention, undivided, to help him read a book, practice writing, or add some numbers together.

Or to put together a little Lego.  Last night, after labouring through a book that would normally not be a challenge, my son asked if we could “just chill”.  I had used this expression earlier as a possibility along with homework for our time together – he heard it and he wanted it.  And I did too.  He requested that I sit next to him while he built a Lego plane, even though he can do it alone.  It was late and we didn’t finish it, and cooperative first child that he is, he didn’t complain.  It was really too brief a period, but at least we had it.

The more I move along in my life, the more I want the things I do to have overlapping functions and benefits.  Our new homework routine hits the mark.  It helps me support my son’s reading and skills development, but it also creates pleasant associations with formal learning, acknowledges the fact that he is older and distinct from his brothers, and opens up a little pocket of one-on-one time that both of us truly crave.  We are both eager for this time.

If it wasn’t a multi-faceted win, I’m not sure I would do it.  My kids are still quite young, and I’d rather they dream than drill.  But our little homework window is working well so far, and I’ve been thinking of ways to improve upon it.  Maybe make a little tea?  Maybe a candle at the table?  But I think my best idea is to just sit down and do my own work alongside my son.  Maybe talk a little.  I love his company, and it would be such a nice way to let the curtain down on the day’s activities.

Oh, and the homework might get done too.

So, What Did I Learn?

There is no denying that raising children is hard work.  Parents often find themselves walking a thin, wire line and toppling too far over on either side is the equivalent of sentencing your child to a lifetime on a therapist’s couch.

My problem is that I have a hard time walking a straight line.

For many of us, how we parent is influenced, for better or worse, by how we were parented.  Certain mantras from my childhood still ring loud and clear for me.

“If it doesn’t fit in your carry-on it’s not coming.”

“If you brought it, you carry it.”

“Always have cash with you.”

“There will always be someone smarter, prettier, richer than you.  Someone will always do it better.”

It may sound as though my parents weren’t willing to cue the brass section and trumpet my accomplishments but nothing could be further from the truth.  Less interested in how I compared with others my parents held me accountable to the highest level – one not dictated by the Board of Education or what the Joneses were doing.  The standard they set was simple: Do your best and nothing less.

In actuality there could be no higher standard to hold myself to.  There was no statute that could measure up against the self-imposed gold standard that I set for myself.

And so it was after a grueling few weeks of studying, tutoring and seeking extra help that I came home from high school with a test paper clutched in my hands, depressed and defeated.  My tower of hard-earned straight A’s came tumbling down with that red-letter F.

I was inconsolable.  It was the first time that my tenacity did not pay off.  It was the first time that I wasn’t “perfect”.

After a night of hosting my own pity party, I came downstairs to see my test posted with a magnet on the fridge door.  My failure was there for me to see.  There was no escaping it.

My dad had put it there long after I had retreated to my bedroom.  In the morning he told me that failure was nothing to be afraid of and that it was a genuine part of learning.

So what did I learn?

There are few lessons from my childhood that are etched in my mind with such clarity and that have shaped how I parent my boys.

Everyday whether it is through example or discussion I aim to teach my boys that while striving for mediocrity is not okay being average is, because perfection takes all forms.

I do a few things well, maybe one really well, many things horribly and most things just okay.

Don’t ask me to parallel park or make a soufflé.  I can’t carry a tune and taking lessons from now until my dying day won’t make me a threat to Celine Dion.  Just because I tried doesn’t mean that I deserve a gold star.  Trying means that you tried, not that you are number one.

There is great humility in recognizing greatness in others and to celebrate such greatness devoid of jealousy is an act of selflessness that brings a surprising feeling of . . . greatness.

Parenting is not convenient.  Teaching lessons of morality do not fit nicely into hour-long session blocks.   It may be easier to jump from the helicopter and save our child from failure and heartbreak but if Aesop’s fables have taught us anything, it is that the quicker path is not always the best course.

I still don’t know a neutron from a proton from an ion and I don’t pretend to.  The words of my parents echo in my head.

“There will always be someone smarter, prettier, richer than you.  Someone will always do it better.”

There is no sense in pretense.  I am what I am complete with failures and successes. It is those failures that connect me and ground me. I am a mother now and once again the bar has risen.

If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think what else you do well matters very much.” – Jackie Kennedy

image source: Science Daily.com

For the Love of Learning

On Monday of this week, my husband Ben and I visited our son’s school to meet with the principal about some concerns we have.  Along the glass wall of the office ran a long backless wooden bench.  When we sat down to wait for our meeting, Ben’s body stiffened.  I turned to him.  “I spent a lot of time on benches like these when I was in school,” he said, “and I thought my time on them was over.”

Ben was labelled a “problem” child, a “bad” child.  And often his behaviour was, well, bad.  He smashed a wooden block on the head of a mean child, bit his kindergarten teacher on the hand when she was dragging him somewhere, and threw a snowball across a field where it struck his principal in the face.

The behaviour needed to be addressed, obviously.  But rather than consider why he acted so outrageously and use that information to inform a response, the assumption was that he was just “bad”, and the response simply to control him.  No one questioned the requirement that he be still for extended periods of time when his body ached to run, that he sit cross-legged on the carpet when it hurt his legs and for periods during which he couldn’t focus anyway.  No one cared about an irrelevant curriculum.

Like many boys, and some girls, Ben needed to move.  But he was restrained from moving, and that energy got pushed out sideways.

Oh, and yes, he was plied with Ritalin.  Which had all manner of predictable and long-term adverse consequences and about which it would be better if I did not get started.

I have an appreciation of the many wonderful teachers working for and with children against some very difficult odds.  I loved school, and remember clearly a few teachers who had a really meaningful impact on me.  But even the best teachers have an easier time if their class is fairly cohesive as a group, because there is such limited time for individual students.  And, of course, there exists the other kind of teacher too, the one who doesn’t like to teach and doesn’t even really like kids.  During a recent shop for art supplies for the children, my heart sank as I overheard two teachers loudly laughing about the artwork of their Grade 8 students and the teachers’ feigned interest and encouragement at the children’s efforts.

I agree with Beth-Anne’s comments yesterday that our public education system would benefit by allowing active boys to be active boys.  There are a host of ways to release and express those physical energies so that they can be better harnessed later on.  There is more to a boy or girl child than the academic mind, just as there is more to being smart than knowing how to memorize, write sentences, and do sums.  There are other intelligences to discover and build upon, including the intelligence of the body, of emotion, of the spirit.  I did well at school, and it served me well in securing a higher education and employment.  But it didn’t prepare me especially well for life generally, and both our schools and our society will be better served when our definition of intelligence is broadened, and our appreciation of divergent student strengths honoured.

When I became the mother of a son, and then the mother of two sons, I made a commitment to ensure that their education would be a better experience than what my husband had endured.  How do I plan to do that given the limits of some aspects of current public education?  By keeping close watch and participating in what’s going on at school.  And if it’s not satisfactory, being prepared to take them out and learn with them ourselves.

I was so pleased to recently see that homeschooling options had moved sufficiently away the educational fringe to be respectfully portrayed in the mainstream parenting magazine Today’s Parent. There is something compelling and undeniable about the unschooling movement when it asserts that “the world is your classroom”.  Math can be learned from taking the measurements to build a birdhouse, follow a recipe, or plant a garden.  Biology can be learned through sports, drawing, and playing with animals.  Reading and writing can be learned by reading and writing with the people who love you the most.  And unless you live in remote lands, there are opportunities to make new friends and be a team player everywhere.

Homeschooling may seem radical to some, but to me it’s more radical to allow someone or some system dumb down the strengths of children.  Learning comes so naturally to them (did you “teach” your children to walk? run? talk?) that there really is something wrong when that natural impulse is quelled by the very institution that purports to foster it.  Is there anything sadder than an 8 year old so jaded with school and learning that he (or she) doesn’t want much to do with either anymore?

For me, the highest goal of education is to instill a love of learning itself, for life.  It might just be that the people best placed to do that for my children are the people, nestled comfortably within a supportive learning community, who love them the most.

As for my husband, he became a squash professional when he grew up.  Although he has shifted from full-time to part-time work in order to spend more time with our boys, he loves being on the court, where he easily connects with people, especially little people, as a squash coach.  He continues to live largely in his body; he can no more sit for hours on end now than he could when he was a child, nor does he have any desire to try.  The difference is that now no one is punishing him for being who he is.

We’ve also noticed that his body has stayed pretty much the same for the last 20 years, which can’t be said for many men inching their way to 40.  There’s a health and vitality that surrounds Ben when he comes back from moving his body, doing work that he is designed to do, and that can’t be said for most of us either.  What exactly did he lose and what did he gain by not being able to conform to the mould of school?

Ben is with our kids most days, and I notice he makes a point of taking them outside everyday, running them around for hours, biking, gardening, going to the swimming pool in the summer and the dead of winter too.  By two, both kids knew how to hold a racquet.  I notice that familiar health and vitality that surrounds the kids when they come home, where I do most (but not all) of the reading, writing, drawing, crafting, and cooking with them.

Ben’s school history stays alive with me as I watch my boys grow.  We’re hoping for the best with public school, and will strive to make a positive contribution of time and energy there.  We would love the assistance of a school that is supportive of our values and our children’s needs to help us educate them.  But if there’s an impasse, I’m not afraid to try something else.  Deep down, there’s a part of me that believes that taking the education road less travelled might not just make all the difference, but be a truly enriching route for all four of us.

Whatever happens, no one is going to tell me or my boys that they are “problems” or “bad” or “can’t learn”.  It’s just not an option.