Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Small Skeptics

You've heard it, the stereotypical image of a 4-year-old child: "But WHY, Mommy?"

It's a fun question when you're four. You get to find out all kinds of interesting things, like why leaves fall off of trees but branches stay on, and why Kool-Aid makes a stain but water doesn't, and (if you ask it enough times and your mom remembers what she learned in grade school about light and wavelengths and color) why the sky is blue. Plus, it keeps her talking with very little expenditure of energy on your part.

The simple brilliance of it is that it serves as its own follow-up question. "Mama, why is that ant carrying my sandwich crumb?" To take it back to the nest. "Why?" To share it with the rest of the ants. "Why?" Because ants all share their food. "Why?" Because they are social insects, and instead of eating what they find, they bring it back so that the ant queen and the other ants can eat it too. "Why?" And by the time your mom loses patience, you've learned quite a lot about ants, and maybe a little bit about people too.

You have to be kind of careful with this one-note line of inquiry though, or things get metaphysical. Ask it too many times, and you'll get a snappish little "Because God WANTS the ant to be that way, that's why." (Asking why God wants it to be that way will probably result in you being sent out to play or inside to clean your room.)

Somewhere along the line, we lose that. We stop asking some of the questions because we always get the same insufficient answers. We stop asking some questions because we are perpetually redirected to encyclopedias, which may or may not tell us what we really wanted to know. We stop asking some of them because we learn to trust our books and our teachers and our friends, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can be dangerous if it becomes the answer to too many questions. Some questions, we stop asking because nobody knows the answer yet. And sometimes the reason is less complicated ... we stop asking simply because we move out of that childish phase of wonder and into a world with more immediate questions: "Can I call Madison, can I get my ears pierced, can I spend the night if her mom says yes?"

I think, though, that we need that questioning spirit more as adults than at any point since age four. We need it desperately, and sometimes half the battle is discovering that we need it at all.

We need it for the questions whose premises are so entrenched that people forget that there are more questions to ask. "Is global warming really our fault? How do you know? What studies were done? And if so, can we fix it? And if not, should we fix it?"

We need it for the questions that the media blithely answers for all too many people, without the prerequisite of even a moment's actual thought. "But WHY does Oprah recommend that? Did Barack Obama do his research? Has People magazine looked at the science behind that claim? Can John McCain back that up?"

We need it for the questions that pick up where our mothers' answers left off. "Why does God want it to be that way? How do we know? Did He say He does? If not, why do we think He does? If so, do we then have any responsibilities to change our behavior?"

More than anything, we need it for the questions that have not yet been answered. We need it for the tiny (the insects, the viruses, the insides of atoms) and we need it for the immense (the stars, the gods, the outsides of universes).

We need to teach it to our four-year-olds, to live it ourselves, and to remember it when we are old. We need the neverending Why.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Move Over, Dick and Jane!

Sorry, Dick and Jane ... you're great little kids, but you don't stand a chance against a talking tiger.

Peter started learning the alphabet in preschool, and it didn't take him too long to attach the sounds to the appropriate letters. However, he stayed at that point in his reading development for many, many months. Since we had plenty of other things to work on with him, it seemed unwise to push the reading and risk having him resist the whole idea of it, so we just reviewed the alphabet and read him lots and lots of stories.

When he started kindergarten, he had more exposure to other children reading, and his interest picked up again. He is in a special-needs class geared for children who have communication or social challenges, but who are cognitively up to speed. Some are in fact quite bright, but are likely to clobber classmates on the head over the ownership of a little green plastic soldier, just to pick a completely random example. His class therefore spends much time working on appropriate peer interaction and social skills, but they also work hard at keeping the children current with the schoolwork being done in the "typical" classroom. Since Peter's class is a combined group of kindergarten, first and second graders, this means he hears children reading aloud daily, and it was not surprising when he suddenly showed a renewed interest in letters and sounds.

I dug out the little reading system I'd used with limited effect with Mary, a set of ten books which move gradually through various vowel and consonant sounds. The pictures are funny, but the words (not surprisingly) are repetitive, and they quickly became tedious. All too often, Peter would make it four pages into a book, and then it would become airborne and he'd be off to play with his trains, which were infinitely more interesting.

We tried having him read his beloved Frog and Toad, but no dice. Slightly more success with the equally cherished Little Bear books, but he lost interest in those as well. I was ready to just hand the whole process over to his teacher, when he happened to run across a stack of Calvin and Hobbes books. Years ago, when my parents were cleaning out some bookshelves, they gave us several comic collections, and we have a large majority of the collected cartoon for the whole ten years it ran in the papers. Peter opened one, and fell in the five-year-old version of true love.

It's not too surprising, when you stop and think about it. Calvin is six. He rides the bus and eats dinner and goes to bed, just like Peter. He has funny hair that stands straight on end and sometimes appears to have a life of its own. He has a stuffed animal who walks, talks, and has his baths in the washing machine. It doesn't take long to figure out that this is way, way cooler than watching Spot run, stop, and run yet again.

Peter started out by just looking at the pictures, but when he realized that all the letters had something to do with the pictures (and were often easy words like "Wow!" and "Bang!" and "Hahahaha!"), he suddenly got very, very motivated to learn how to read. And boy, did he ever. Within about a month's time, he went from carefully sounding out three-letter words to being able to read at least half of the words in the cartoons -- not enough to get all the jokes, but certainly enough to figure out what was going on.

However, there was an unexpected flip side to all of this wonderful progress, as we discovered in a conversation with his teacher, Mrs. Beech. It transpired that Peter had been talking about some very unusual activities during their daily sharing time. Apparently when he was not at school, Peter was flying space ships, turning into a dinosaur, and being attacked by his food. Since they try hard to help these kids separate fact from reality, she requested that we not allow Peter to read Calvin and Hobbes any more at home.

We reluctantly complied, hid the books, and tried to find some alternatives. But really, if you were used to books where the main character could turn into Spaceman Spiff at will, would YOU want to read Goodnight Moon for the fourteenth time? I didn't think so. Neither did Peter. With his usual resourcefulness, he found the stash, and within a day or two he was to be found back on the couch every afternoon, reading and laughing hysterically.

And I do mean reading. The more he read, the more expressive he got, and the better he got at sounding out the words. By the end of kindergarten, he scored so high on the kindergarten reading assessment that I asked to have him tested again with the first-grade assessment. Sure enough, they estimated him at somewhere between a second and third-grade reading level, which isn't too shabby for a kid who just turned six (and has only been using complete sentences for two years).

So, my apologies to Mrs. Beech, but I don't think I'm going to mess with a good thing. I'll do my best to help Peter learn that balloons will not in fact take you to Mars and that mutant killer snowmen aren't going to invade our lawn. I apologize in advance for any incident in which he calls his lunch "green icky guck" or refers to a classmate as a "slimy bucket of boogers." And I'll just tell you right now that if he says he had a bath in the washing machine, you don't need to call Child Protective Services.

I think it's worth a little extra effort, when the trade-off means that he can painstakingly copy the word "transmogrifier" onto the side of a cardboard box, climb in, and emerge into a land of imagination. Books are the best transmogrifier out there, and if a naughty little boy and a smartmouth tiger can reach into Peter's heart and mind and bring him laughing into a new world ...

... then have fun, boys, and be back in time for dinner.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Children's Bill of Non-Rights

Dear children,

It is summer, and as you know, our daily life is a little different. We are not bound by bus schedules, carpool schedules, or gym schedules, and that means things get a little flexible.

However, the relaxed attitude of summer does NOT mean that all rules and discipline go out the window. You are not the King and Queen of Everything, and I think a few guidelines are in order.

Bill of Non-Rights

I. You do not have the right to watch all thirteen episodes of The New Scooby-Doo on DVD every single day.

II. You do not have the right to use the rewind button on the VCR as an act of aggression against your little brother.

III. You do not have the right to be given a milkshake every time we drive past a McDonald's.

IV. If you play a game that includes the words, "OK, now you sit on me and hit me with that pillow", you do not have the right to come and cry to me that your sister hit you.

V. If you want a drink of water, you know where the faucet is.

VI. You do not have the right to get back out of bed every half hour on the half hour until 11:30 p.m. When I say it's time for bed, IT'S TIME FOR BED.

VII. You do not have the right to whack your brother/sister on the arm for "looking at you funny." You also do not have the right to look at your brother/sister funny for fifteen minutes straight without some kind of parental intervention.

VIII. You do not have the right to wear your pajamas until 2 p.m. No, I don't have to explain why, it's just the way it is.

IX. Contrary to local popular belief, it is not child abuse to restrict the consumption of popsicles to one per day, even if it is 95 degrees outside. Also, there is nothing wrong with requiring you to eat them on the back porch and wash your hands afterwards. Washing hands is not in fact recognized as torture by the Geneva Convention.

X. You do not have the right to cover your body with band-aids as a visual reminder of every time your sibling accidentally bumped into you.

XI. You do not have the right to eat all of the Jelly Bellies your mom bought as a special treat for your dad, even if they were sitting right there out in the open on his computer desk, even if they are your most favorite treat ever, and even if the bag was sort of open already.

XII. You do not have the right to be the first one in the door every time we come home, nor do you have the right to punch your sibling for going in the door ahead of you. You do not have the right to spread your arms out or trip your sibling to keep them from getting in first, and you do not have the right to make "mean faces" at your sibling if he or she should happen to elude you and get through first.

XIII. If you sleep in the basement, I do not care who sleeps on which side of the couch. I don't care which is the favored side at the moment. I don't care if you have bad dreams on the left side of the couch, or if you can only sleep if you have your enormous toy horse standing next to you. If you interrupt me one more time with a couch-based complaint while I'm watching "24", I will put you to bed in your own room even if it IS the approximate temperature of Death Valley in there.

XIV. Playing outside on a beautifully sunny day is not cruel and unusual punishment, and you can expect to find that it is suddenly your only option if you say the words "I'm bored" seventeen times in fifteen minutes. And no, you may not dig a hole with a shovel, you may not wash the house with the hose, you may not put your brother up in the oak tree, you may not build a "home for ants" in the middle of the driveway, you may not pick the heads off the roses and put them in a pretty pile, and you may not have a hammer and nails for any reason. I really mean it about the shovel.


I. I promise I will feed you good food three times a day, and sometimes you might even get hot dogs.

II. I promise that you will always have clean clothes to wear, even if I don't do daily laundry so you can wear that one pair of pants every single day all summer long.

III. I promise we will take fun trips to the park, the library, the carousel, and the Capital Building so we can feed the squirrels, even if we don't do them on the exact day you had in mind. You will not die of boredom on the days we stay home, I promise.

IV. I promise I will let you play in the sprinkler sometimes. But just as a heads-up, when you ask to do it at 9:45 p.m., the answer will always be "no".

V. I love you with all my heart, my sweet silly kids.

All items are subject to change without notice, even if that doesn't seem fair, even if it's not the way your friend's mom does it, even if that's not how we did it last time, and even if you think it's going to make you have bad dreams, throw up, cry, have an unexplainable ache in your left arm, or (dramatic sob) Never Be Happy Again.

Well, OK, all items are subject to change except the "I love you" one ... that one, you can count on.