Early Childhood Education

Delphine was the first baby I ever knew. I was the baby of my family – I had no younger siblings or cousins, so I didn’t have any exposure to babies when I was a child. In adulthood, I was only the second of my social circle to have a baby. All I knew about babies was that I wanted one.

Fortunately, for me and for Delphine, I had amazing role models: my in-laws. They showed me, by example, how to hold her, how to carry her, talk to her, read to her, and play with her. They showed me how to make every object in the house an interesting artifact to be shown to and discussed with the baby; every object including the ones with text on them. Through my in-laws I learned to show Delphine letters and words, to sound them out, to talk about the shapes of letters and the sounds they represent. She and Cordelia and their baby cousin Charlie were saturated in text ever since they could focus on it.

So I was surprised when I asked a four-year-old of my acquaintance whether her name started with A or H (Anna or Hannah) and she couldn’t tell me. I was more surprised when a friend reported with pride that her son had come home from kindergarten and spelled his name for the first time. How, I thought, do you send a kid off to kindergarten without being able to spell his own name?

It turns out most people don’t have in-laws like mine, or any other role models to teach them how to introduce their children to the world of reading. That’s why I couldn’t agree more with this call to extend schooling to younger children. I don’t mean sitting-in-desks, worksheets-and-homework school, I mean the kind of excellent research-based, play-centred early childhood education that is offered in Ontario’s registered daycares. (At least all the daycares my kids were in.) And I’m not suggesting that kids be taken away from their parents for hours every day; I like the idea of a combined drop-in centre/childcare/kindergarten which is available at low or no cost to whoever chooses to use it, and allows children to participate at the pace that works for them and their family.  And I really like the idea of putting such centres into Toronto’s underused schools, instead of closing schools and forcing kids to bus or travel further.


On Children and Commitment

A couple of years ago I took Delphine to audition for the Toronto Children’s Chorus. It’s an excellent choir – or rather, family of choirs, because there are various choirs for different ages and skill levels. They do multiple concerts a year, make recordings, and the more senior choirs even go on international tours. They demand a high level of discipline on the part of the children and commitment on the part of the parents: they are expected to be at every performance and almost every rehearsal. In return they get to sing some amazing, challenging repertoire in a very accomplished choir.

The audition was successful, and Delphine was invited to join the TCC, but when I asked her whether she was interested she said she wasn’t. I was, honestly, a little relieved; I was conflicted as to whether the TCC was a good choice for us, and it was nice to have the decision taken out of my hands. Tonight I talked to someone who had been in the TCC from ages 11 to 16, and what she said confirmed our decision.

I asked her whether she had enjoyed being in the TCC, and she said, “Yeeeess…” while her body language said kinda. “…at the time.”

“So you enjoyed it when you were a kid but in retrospect it kind of sucked?” I asked, half-joking.

“Well, now I know what other activities were available.”

She wished she had done more different activities, rather than focusing all her time on choir. And indeed, if Delphine had joined the TCC I we wouldn’t have had the time or money to put her in any activities other than piano. And I’m just not ready to commit her to one interest at this stage in her life.

(Okay, let’s be honest, I’m not ready to commit me to one interest at this stage in my life, which is why I’m medium-good at a lot of things but expert at none. I’ve yet to decide if this is useful or not, but it’s certainly more fun. But the point is, if I can’t commit myself there’s no way I’m going to have whatever it takes to commit my kid.)

A while ago I read “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, by Amy Chua. There was a lot of food for thought in that book, but one thing that struck me was that she took two perfectly ordinary kids with no particular talent or affinity for music and made them both into prodigies – one on piano, one on violin – by sheer determination and hard work. That means that pretty much every kid out there could be brilliant at something – music, hockey, math, golf, ballet, … – if their parents decided to sink sufficient time and money into making them so. (Or, and this does happen occasionally, if the kid decided to commit to something and the parents supported them.)

But I just can’t do it. Obviously my laissez-faire parenting style will not accommodate 15-hour-a week Tiger Mom practice sessions, but even a commitment like the TCC, one that will crowd out art lessons and ballet and cooking class and hours of unstructured lying-around-with-a-book time, is too much for my kids. Looks like they’ll have to either pursue their own passion (and sell me on supporting it), or be pretty good at lots of things but not expert at anything. Either way, I’m sure they’ll find a way to make it work.

The Nutrition Police Are Coming to Your Bake Sale

It has come to my attention that the Ontario government has been so kind as to provide us with a cookbook  with “healthy” recipes for baked goods, so our children don’t have to suffer the ignominy of purchasing delicious, decadent treats at school bake sales.

The cookbook features such Seinfeldian delights as brownies made with mashed black beans, and “vanilla squares”: Rice Krispie squares, minus the Rice Krispies, plus All-Bran. Because what kid doesn’t enjoy a delicious square of Super Colon Blow ‘n Marshmallows?

When I ranted about this to Blake his first response was, “at least it’s not mandatory.” Actually, the cookbook goes hand in hand with Ontario’s new School Food and Beverage Policy, which specifies that 80% or greater of food sold at any given school event should meet certain criteria: no more than 5 grams of fat per serving, no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving, and at least 2 grams of fibre per serving.

Now, I have nothing against healthy eating, but this is ridiculous.

First of all, we’re talking about bake sales here. Bake sales. Bake sales are special occasions, a time for indulgence. Bake sale food does not make up a significant proportion of anyone’s diet. No kid ever got fat eating food from bake sales.

Second, this cookbook, this whole policy, is insulting and patronising.  I’m no liberatarian, but this is literally a nanny state at work. The government is telling us, in very specific and precise terms, what we should feed our children.  Not suggesting, not educating, but decreeing.

Who provides the food for bake sales? Parents. Not corporations or school boards, who might for reasons of profit or expedience not take all childrens’ needs into account, but the parents of the very same children who are buying and eating the food. If we, the parents, thought bake sale food was damaging our childrens health, we would have very straightforward recourse: we would provide different food. No-one sends steak tartar or fugu to bake sales because that would be dangerous. Cupcakes and brownies are not dangerous. They do not need to be regulated.

The final irony is that “the standards do not apply to food and beverages that are offered in schools to students at no cost”. So school meal programs for children who come to school hungry, the programs which are quite likely to furnish a significant proportion of those children’s daily nutrition, are, unfathomably, not governed by these regulations. Good grief.

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

There was an article today on parentcentral.ca about children dying when they’re left in hot cars. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, but the article is interesting because it talks about the number of children who were left because their parents forgot they were there:

The parents of more than half of almost 500 children who died from being left in hot cars from 1998 to 2010 simply forgot their kids were in the vehicles, experts report.

and about the fact that people think it could not happen to them, following this train of thought:

Forgetting your child is something only a bad parent would do. I am not a bad parent. Therefore I would never forget my child.

This is, perhaps, a comforting line of thought, but it’s  flawed. An empty rear-facing car seat looks identical, from the driver’s seat, to a rear-facing car seat with a sleeping baby in it. If you’re outside of your usual routine, tired, sick, or distracted, it would be quite possible—unlikely, to be sure, but possible—to walk away from the car believing that your child is safe at daycare. Maybe you’re not the usual dropper-off, maybe you thought you dropped her off but actually didn’t, maybe when you pulled out of the driveway you immediately started thinking about that big sales call or review meeting and were already in work-mode before you hit the highway. It can happen to anyone, not just flaky people, or stupid people, or irresponsible people. Just because a mistake is tragic and ugly and hard to think about, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The above line of thought is not just flawed, though, it leads to a terrible consequence: neglecting to provide reminders to yourself that your child is in the car. If you think this only happens to bad parents, and you’re not a bad parent, then why remind yourself not to do it? But think how simple it would be to get in the habit of throwing your purse or cellphone on the back seat. You retrieve your purse, you remember your baby (who isn’t there, of course, because it hardly ever happens) and voila, it’s all good. Bad thing (that would never happen to you, of course) averted.

Stranger Danger Wins Again

Yesterday Toronto got its collective knickers in a knot about the Doctor Who-ishly named #wanderingboy. The story is, at 8:30 am someone spotted a little blonde boy (“around 5”) alone and crying near Eglinton and Avenue. They reported the sighting to the police — two separate people called and reported the boy — and the police leapt into action, asking the media and citizenry to look out for this poor abandoned waif (who no-one had actually reported missing).

For the rest of the day there was a great deal of retweeting and clucking and concern – who is #wanderingboy, where is #wanderingboy, let’s all look out for #wanderingboy. The police canvassed local businesses for security video of the boy. Later in the day a report came out that the same boy (how could they tell?) had been seen with a man, 40-45, in a trench coat. At 8:30. So was he alone? Or not? I’m still not sure.

Later still, almost inevitably, it came to pass that the boy had been at school all day; he was never lost.

In the midst of it all I tweeted that I wasn’t sure if the #wanderingboy thing was sweet or creepy. I settled on creepy.

If you see a little kid crying on the street, for god’s sake stop and help the goddamn child. A crying child is not a matter for the police! A crying child is not like a crazy person or an unattended piece of luggage, not to be approached except by professionals. You can actually just go up to them and ask if they’re okay and if they need help finding their adult. (That’s what we’re called at school — “Do you see your adult?” “I see my adult!”)

I know, I know, stranger danger. You don’t want to approach the child because you think you’ll be accused of something, or you’ll scare the kid. You know what, fuck stranger danger. You know you’re not a creepy molester, I know you’re not a creepy molester, and the kid and the kid’s parents will in all likelihood figure out pretty quickly that you’re not a creepy molester. In fact, the odds of you being accused of being a creepy molester are probably only slighly larger than the odds that you are a creepy molester, which is really small. The sad fact is that stranger danger fear has made the world a more hostile place for run-of-the-mill miserable children who could use a hand, in the name of protecting children against the vanishingly small danger of being snatched by a stranger.

For more about how the overblown fear of everything is making life worse for kids, read Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy, and then check out the Free-Range Kids blog.