The Playground Is A Classroom

On the third day of school I picked up my newly minted SKer from the dismissal line.  While I was waiting for him to run into my arms, a mother of one of his classmates turned to me and said the kids had been to the playground and with a roll of her eyes said, “I can take her to the slide.  What about learning some letters?”

Crap.  I didn’t know that our 4 and 5 year olds were applying to Ivy League schools tomorrow.  Why am I always the last to know?

My SKer inverts his letters, skips numbers when he counts to thirty and thinks that Terry Fox lives in the forest behind his grandparents’ house.  My pre-schooler would rather pick his nose than pick up a pencil and I am fairly certain I will have a struggle on my hands getting him to read a book, unless of course, he’s on a toilet.

But what my kids do excel at is, being kids.  They have wild imaginations that leave me eavesdropping from behind a wall, wishing that I had the video camera recording every sound that they make.

Sometimes the baby bathtub is a speedboat, and an old belt is the water ski rope.  Other times it is a racecar whizzing around the perimeter of the playroom.  One time it was a bobsled shooting down the stairs (I put a stop to that one).  Their new favourite game is playing dogcatcher.  The toddling baby* is the stray dog and the older two are “dog nappers” who surprise the unwitting mongrel and toss a net (blanket) over their capture.

The comment from the schoolyard mother made me bristle.  Sure anyone can take their own kid to the playground but would any sane person take them with 19 of their peers?  It’s on the playground where kids learn social skills.  They learn how to take turns, wait in line, and show compassion for others.

They create a bond outside of the classroom that can’t be replicated within the confines of four walls.  The way I see it, it’s like a company retreat.  Except the company is school and the employees are students.

What’s the point of good grades if a student lacks the social skills to apply them?  Furthermore, creativity and imagination need to be nurtured as they are born organically from childhood and simply cannot be taught by an instructor.

In terms of homework, I balance on the fence.  In the younger grades homework can actually be a communication tool between parent-teacher and parent-child.  Parents can reinforce what was learned in the classroom by engaging in discussions and enhance what is being taught by expanding the classroom walls to include the greater community.

We spent many hours this summer in the garden watching the tomatoes and cucumbers grow.  My son explained to me how root systems work and how tomatoes get their red colour.  We looked up answers to his questions on the Internet about what vegetables grow in Ontario during the summer months.  The seed, pardon the pun, for this learning was a school unit on plants.

I am sure that there will come a time when homework becomes a laborious chore for both of us, but for now and I hope for the future, I continue to look at it as an opportunity to enrich what he is learning.

And here is where I slide to the other side of that fence.  Homework that is rote and has no real application is dull.  Dull for everyone – student, parent and teacher.  Not only is it uninspiring but also it serves no real purpose.  In our face-paced society where parents are struggling to get dinner on the table, fighting with kids to complete tedious assignments does not sound like quality time spent – for anyone.

From my perch on the middle of the fence, I say that homework has it’s place but not at the expense of being a kid and bonding as a family.  There is so much more to life than grades and academics.  And I would say that I am not alone in my thinking.

Click here to read a great article from Science Daily and here for another from The Globe and Mail.

*(My guess is that boy #3 might make through school on a wrestling scholarship.  Just saying).

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In Defense of Manners

I read Alyson Schafer’s chapter on “Social Skills – the Democratic Approach to Socializing Your Little Barbarian” from Ain’t Misbehavin’ with interest (although I chafed at the title – if we’re trying to be respectful and democratic parent, it’s probably helpful not to conceive of our partners as ‘barbarians’).  While chunks of the chapter pertain to troubles I haven’t had yet, largely because my children are still quite young (almost 5 and almost 3), it was still an illuminating read.

I like some of Shafer’s basic premises, which include being a good model to your children.  I also liked that she is respectful of a child’s natural boundaries.  For example, when your child doesn’t want to say hello to a stranger, Shafer identifies that that’s an extroverted act, and maybe you’re child’s not feeling extroverted.  I can relate to introversion:  once when I was pregnant and miserable, I pretended I didn’t see my sister-in-law on the streetcar because I didn’t want to talk to anyone.  These skills can be difficult to master as adults; I think kids need to be given some room to learn them.

I also totally agree with Shafer in her “Won’t Kiss Grandparents” section that a child shouldn’t be forced to engage in acts of intimacy (hugs, kisses) with someone unless they want to.  I’m guilty of nudging in the direction of a hug when the hopeful recipient is grandma or grandpa, but I need to cut it out.  I don’t think Shafer’s offered zingy one-line responses will help assuage the hurt feelings all that much, but that’s the way the cookie needs to crumble on this critical issue of our children having control and autonomy over their bodies.  

In general though, I think I take a harder line on requiring social skills than Shafer does.  I like people – kids included – who exhibit good manners.  I heard an interview on the CBC about the decline of civility (can’t find the details, sorry) and the interviewee noted that when teaching our children not to chew with their mouths open at the table, we are actually doing much more than prohibited that action:  we are teaching them that their behaviour impacts the people around them and they should care about that. 

I deeply value this basic consideration to others.  I was dismayed to go trick-or-treating with friends whose children were permitted to collect candy without saying ‘thank you’.  One child even demanded that he get more candy and tried to direct which kind.  At a drop-in centre, a girl (maybe 5 or 6 years old) who I had not met before tried to command me with a rude “I want juice!”.  Call me hard core, but I don’t mind telling you that when she did not modify her request, she did not get any juice. 

I believe that I’m cognizant (or at least clambering up that steep upward slope of learning) of children’s developmental needs, but I’m not that flexible on manners.  Basically I think there ought to be firm rules of social engagement.  I don’t require slavish adherence to the terms ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at home, so if someone asks nicely, “Can I have that?”, I don’t require anything more.  But if I hear, “I want that!”, I will prompt my younger son for a ‘please’ or reply to my older son with “That’s nice”, after which they’ll remember their manners.  I won’t assist until I’m addressed courteously.   

Harder to address is when your child “Gives Attitude and Tone”, and I heartily agree with Shafer’s first solution on this section which is to “watch your tone” and also to find out if anything’s bothering your child.  But I resist the others solutions offered, which include “ignore the child’s tone” and “address the content of the child’s speech rather than the delivery.  If she announces she finds the meatload disgusting, you can reply chirpily, ‘Sorry you don’t like what’s for supper tonight.  That’s a bummer.  I hope there is enough other stuff to fill you up’. 

By contrast, I’m quite prepared to address rude tone, followed by consequences, and they don’t have to be all that natural.   If my child says “yuck” to dinner, I’m very likely to stop what I’m doing, look him squarely in the eye, and let him know that I’ve worked hard to make dinner, that he’s lucky to have food and a mommy who will make him dinner, that what he’s saying is hurting my feelings, and that if he can’t show his manners and eat with us, he can miss his dinner.”  And while I won’t be yelling, I won’t be chirpy either.

I haven’t read much about Shafer’s philosophy,  and I wonder if this might be where I fall off the wagon of democratic parenting .  I respect and deeply love my children and view them as equal participants in our family, but I don’t view them as equal to me.  I do view myself in a hierarchical relationship to them, where my responsibilities include active guidance to the best of my ability, and through which I sometimes will secure compliance before full understanding.  For example, I imposed upon my children a restriction against hitting long before they understood its utility.  Similarly, I am trying to infuse them with certain requirements of courtesy before they would feel a natural impulse to those habits.  I also believe that children generally live up to what’s expected of them, so I’m careful to keep my expectations high.

My guess is that underlying Shafer’s approach is a healthy endorsement of the individual and autonomy.  I espouse these values, but I also really believe in the importance of the collective.  Probably this is the result of being raised in the West, but within an Asian family, where the good of the whole is an unspoken and accepted tenet.  For me, the good of the whole requires certain modes of conduct, and while my children’s upbringing is radically different (and infinitely more permissive) than my own, there are some baselines of respect and courtesy that I’m not prepared to give up on. 

At least, not without a fight.

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