Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mindful Parenting: Childrearing is a Job. Pay Me and Get Over It.

It's hard to know where to begin. Do I launch into a critique of Erica Jong's rambling, contradictory column in the Wall Street Journal, in which she criticized attachment parenting -- essentially, it seemed, because it put too much pressure on mothers? How about pointing once again to the Salary Survey study that found stay-at-home mothers, if they do 10 common activities per week (including preparing meals, minor housecleaning, and driving kids around to various activities), are worth nearly $118,000 per year? How about the studies that show that people who have children are unhappier than those without? Or last year's factually incorrect attack on breastfeeding in The Atlantic Monthly, in which Hanna Rosin sacrificed scientific fact in order to justify how pissed off she was at society's lack of support for breastfeeding and other beneficial parenting practices?

I will start, instead, with one statement and one little story. The statement: conditions for parents, families, and mothers in particular are never going to improve if the only people given voice in the media are the ones criticizing others' parenting choices.

The story: Last night I got really pissed off at my husband, simply because he offered to help me.

You see, I haven't made much money since our son was born 3 years ago. It's a long story, which I won't go into here. But this week, for the first time since he was born, I am taking on paying work in my job as a copy editor and proofreader of textbooks. As our house flooded recently and we could use the extra income, my husband was happy to hear it. Last night we were discussing how many hours I could do per week, given that our son is in preschool 3 days a week but we also have a daughter almost 5 months old who needs my care.

"I can't do it the days I have John home," I said. "It's just not gonna happen." I've explained to my husband (and friends without small children) that using a computer with our 3-year-old around is just an exercise in frustration. I can't even check email, much less concentrate on a detailed proofreading job I get paid to do. Forget it.

He said, "Maybe I can help a bit in the mornings on those days, and you can do an hour or so of work."


Of course I knew, and I know now, that this was a generous offer. My husband is emphatically not a morning person. But he is a modern father, one who cooks dinners and cleans the bathroom and, before we had the second baby, took our son out on weekends so I could have Saturday mornings off. And one who wants to support me in the choices I make regarding our life, my life, and our children's care. However. Behind that statement (and I emphasize that my husband never intended this meaning, and was simply trying to be thoughtful and helpful) is an unspoken point that all of the other work that I do every morning is worthless compared to something that actually earns money. Being the one to get up at 5:30 when our son says, "I all done sleeping," playing with him, helping him poop on the toilet and wash his hands with soap, making the granola we all eat, packing a healthy, tasty lunch for both of them, writing notes to our son's preschool teacher and speech therapist. Making breakfast, sweeping up spilled granola, nursing our baby daughter, making coffee, washing the dishes, writing checks for bills, making our son brush his teeth, changing our daughter's diaper, reminding our son for the zillionth time to say please and thank you. God. Let's not even talk about the rest of the day. Or my often smothered efforts at writing essays, novels, stories.

None of those things have ever earned an offer of help in the morning. (Since so many people like to criticize women for complaining too much, I emphasize once again that my husband is awesome. He just can't deal with mornings. My brain checks out after 6 at night, so we balance each other.)

Then again, I don't earn an income for any of those things. And in this fact lies the tangle that mothers these days have found themselves in. Because while some of us read books and practice what I think of as 'mindful parenting,' other mothers attack us for treating childrearing as a job, a job for which we are not paid.

"When I was a mother, all we had to do was keep the kids alive," I've heard. "If you're breastfeeding exclusively you're only doing it because you've been brainwashed to think of yourself as a cow." (Okay, that's a paraphrase.) "If you treat childrearing as a job, then you're taking it too seriously."

So, essentially, those of us who actually spend the time and effort to consciously do a good job of mothering? We suck. And we make life suck for all the other mothers who feel guilty for not doing what we try to do. We should all just wing it, all just throw out the research of the last 50 years, ignore the benefits of breastfeeding and attachment parenting, put our kids in preschool, take our kids out of preschool, spend more time listening to them, spend less time listening to them -- basically, do whatever feels like it takes the least effort.

None of the critics has actually come out and said this, but that's what it boils down to. If any of your childrearing choices feel like they take mental effort or thought, then you'd better stop. Because it means you're taking it all too seriously.

Yeah, that attitude has worked real well for humanity up until now. You can see how well we're all doing. No greed, no wars, no poverty, no wasteful use of non-renewable natural resources. Life's just roses all over the world.

You think the state of the world, the condition of humanity, the choices that the powerful make, the struggles we have for equality and justice have nothing to do with how we are raised? They have everything to do with how we are raised.

Those who criticize some of us for treating mothering as a job have a misconception as to what that job is. My children are not my job. My job is to understand my children in the best way I can, to provide an environment for them to become the most complete human beings they can be, and to instill in them certain lessons that, if we adults actually followed them, would make the world a livable place for everyone: share, let everyone else have some, wait your turn, say please and thank you, wash your hands with soap, listen (if adults just listened and paid attention to others' points of view, we could probably solve about 80% of our problems), don't hit, clean up after yourself, apologize when you've hurt someone, don't take more than your fair share, everything you do has consequences, good or bad, listen to your intuition, trust yourself, respect your choices, respect others' choices, if you've done something you regret, then own up to it. Goodness knows how many others I'm not even aware of.

The most important of all these lessons is respect. And here is where the job comes in. Before my children can learn to respect others, they need to respect themselves. And in order to do that, I have to help them understand that I respect them. I think this is the lesson that sticks in the craw of many critics. Somewhere in the back of our minds still lies the mantra that children should be seen and not heard, that their needs are unimportant and subservient to others' needs. Even I was raised somewhat that way. When I say that I try to listen to and respect my children, too many people hear "I let my life be ruled by my children."

Not. What. I. Said. Listen.

When my son says that he wants to watch more Curious George when he's already had several episodes, or play with my computer, or squeeze his baby sister, I try not to say just plain 'no.' That's all it means. I don't let him do these things. I don't let him negotiate for them. But I do take 20 seconds to focus on what he is asking for, show him that I understand what he wants, and explain why it isn't happening.

Sometimes in response he'll throw a fit and have to go into time-out. But over time the lesson does sink in -- both the lesson of what is allowed and what's not, and the lesson that I will listen to him, respect his wishes, and explain when they're not possible. And I use the same lesson to teach him respect for me: that sometimes Mummy has to work, that sometimes she needs quiet or some space, that he can't just take my things without asking for them, that I am a person, too, with wishes and needs of my own.

If I expect my children to honor my needs and my space and my possessions (and, I hope, take those lessons to their interactions with others in the outer world), the best way to achieve that is to give them the same respect.

This is a really hard job. It takes an immense amount of time and energy. I read piles of books and articles, looking for more tips on certain sticking points. I talk at length with other parents about their difficulties and problem-solving tips and frustrations. I practice a lot. I start over a lot. I have done more work in three years of parenting than I devoted to my Master's degree.

Yes, I take this job seriously. And because I and others do take it seriously, the world might possibly be a marginally better place in the next generation.

Therefore, I think we should be paid for this job. I think the taxpayer should pay all stay-at-home parents a salary. You think I'm kidding? We pay politicians crazy amounts of money to solicit campaign contributions and future job offers from lobbyists in order to push through laws that they neither read nor understand -- I mean, we pay them to pass thoughtful legislation for the benefit of their constituents. How is that any different from paying full-time parents for raising the next generation in ways that are most beneficial to society?

Of course, the danger is that many full-time parents might do a bad job. There's little quality control. But seeing as how the aforementioned politicians largely fail to do the job they're paid for (concentrating instead on aforementioned campaign donations, thinking up nasty things to say about people they dislike, and trying to make sure the other party can't do anything they want to do), and seeing as how I can think of a number of bank executives who did a really shitty job and still walked away with millions of dollars each, I don't see why it's such a stretch.

The easiest way to put a stop to the "Mommy Wars" (for a critique on that concept, read my post Declaring War on the Mommy Wars) is to simply make full-time parenting a paid position funded by the taxpayer, like Congress or public schools, with Social Security benefits and a monthly check.

Personally, I'm going to continue treating this as a job. Maybe if I raise my children right, the next generation will pass more family-friendly policies and will start giving mothers some compensation besides brunch on Mother's Day, rights to half our 'working' spouse's Social Security benefits, and really repetitive essays about our children's love being all the compensation we need. And maybe a day will come when that is true, too.

[Note that during the time I spent writing this, I also made breakfast for 3 people, ironed a shirt, made coffee, nursed my daughter, showered and dressed, reminded my husband of tomorrow's haircut appointment, and 3 times took my son to poop on the potty and wash his hands with soap. I'd like to see my husband do that while performing the job he gets paid lots of money for!]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Push me, pull me, leave me alone: What is wrong with hugging on your own terms?

[This is Part II of the occupation therapy evaluation. For Part I, the evaluation experience itself and the crazy-making fixation on "school readiness," click here.]

The Evaluation Report: Are You Gonna Hug My Way?

Today we received the evaluation reports. Among the thick stack of papers was the occupational therapist's evaluation, in which the topic Sensory Issues was labeled in bold.

Having been involved in John's Early Intervention services for well over 10 months now, I have learned to be wary of these occupational therapists and their infatuation with 'sensory issues.' His first therapist kept mentioning them, even when he blatantly proved her wrong as she was speaking. It was a classic case of entering a situation with preconceived notions and refusing to let go of them despite all evidence to the contrary. (Such as: on separate occasions she spoke of his difficulty eating highly flavored foods while he chomped feta cheese, garlic chicken, and drank a full glass of grapefruit juice right in front of her.)

In this evaluation report, the OT makes her concern with sensory issues as a general topic clear, while unfortunately muddying the understanding of them for the general population. Clear, because they're in bold and larger type than anything else. Muddy, because the description is confusing: "Many children fluctuate between sensory sensitivity and sensory seeking behaviors and others may be sensitive to certain sensations but seek other ones. Each child's patterns may be highly unique and individual, and it is not uncommon for those patterns to change depending upon the context the child is in."

And this is different from being a regular human being how, exactly? It's very hard to read this language as other than "Kids like some things. Other things annoy them. Different things annoy different kids, and sometimes whether or not a kid is annoyed will depend on the circumstances." What can one say about this explanation except that hey, most of us have slightly more self-awareness than a head of cabbage.

Here's an example of the sort of thing this evaluation concentrates on. With the exception of our current occupational therapist, all the ones I've met have had a thing about "tolerating imposed touch." They will poke John, push him, and prod him repeatedly, sometimes trying to push him over to see how he corrects himself. And then they act surprised when he eventually gets pissed off. Wouldn't you? I don't tolerate imposed touch very well. Hell, I'm pregnant and people are constantly putting their hands on my belly. I know exactly how John feels because mostly I want to punch them. In addition, he will "tolerate" this touch from some therapists more than others. His first one tended to get a very wise and know-it-all look on her face when he reacted strongly, which he did increasingly early in her sessions. As a parent, it was hard not to respond to her bullshit analysis with pointing out the obvious: "No, the problem is, he just doesn't like you." And he didn't. I didn't like her either.

I loved this question from both that original OT (the one we have now, I should say, is fabulous and John looks forward to their sessions) and the school evaluator: "Does he only hug on his own terms?" To which my response is, "What the fuck?" Do these people not consider the logic of what they're asking? To follow these expectations to their logical conclusions, children should be able to tolerate being touched or even hit by anyone. Of course nobody thinks about it that way, but where do you draw the line?

To insist that a child hug and kiss on anyone else's terms but their own is extremely dangerous. How far do you expect them to take that? Do you hone your therapy to override their own instincts and self-preservation, much less any safety protocols built in by parents? I don't want my child to accept hugs, kisses, or touch of any kind from anyone if he's not comfortable, much less insist he give the same when he doesn't feel like it.

The nice OT, when I asked her how this could possibly be good for children, explained that the question should really be "Does he like hugging," as in hugging from parents and close relatives, anyone they'd be comfortable around. Unfortunately, the way it's asked is open to gross misinterpretation and makes me question the safety of the therapy itself, at least when unmonitored by a parent (which the school therapy services are -- unmonitored, that is).

So maybe that's a big of an overreaction. But I, personally, have never liked being touched when it's uninvited. And I certainly know when it feels wrong (try being a young female journalist in Australia and you'll get intimately acquainted with people trying to touch you inappropriately, and constantly). How much of this therapy would it take before a child starts to lose that sense, starts to mistrust their own intuition telling them this touch is simply not right?

I don't know the answer. But I do know one thing. There is no way I'm going to risk my son finding out.

(Apologies if this post sounds a bit bitchy. But you try watching someone poke and shove your kid, and tap their joints and fiddle with them when they're trying to eat, as your child gets increasingly annoyed, irritated, and frustrated at his inability to make them stop, and see how well you react to it.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

For the Sake of Our Society, for the Sake of Our Kids: It's Time to End Standardized and High-Stakes Testing

I've heard from a lot of people (most of whom responded directly on Facebook) regarding my family's recent experiences with public school evaluations and standardized tests. In addition, I've been reading piles of books about homeschooling, peppered with narratives of families who chose to homeschool after the evaluation and standardized teaching culture affected their kids in gut-wrenching ways from the loss of a smile, to anxiety-driven insomnia, to very young children forced to take Ritalin to be allowed in school.

The stories that have come out -- powerful, personal, some heartbreaking -- leave me wondering why on earth we put up with such a ridiculous, demoralizing, wasteful, and finally counter-productive system. There's only one answer, and I'm afraid it's unacceptable. We put up with it because we're too tired, too overworked, the top-heavy bureaucracy of the education system is just too immovably pigheaded, and so we give up and put our energies into the one thing that counts: navigating the system to ensure the mental and emotional and academic welfare of our own children, because that's the only place we have an impact.

Not that there's anything wrong with caring for our children first. But if we can't change a system we know is wrong, what kind of society are we leaving for them, in the end?

In a recent post on standardized tests (TEKS and TAAS), I mentioned the complaints of college professors that their students lack the ability to think independently: "These students, they moan, are always wanting to know 'what the teacher is looking for' in a paper. In other words, they’re so used to being taught to the test, that it comes naturally to them to write to the teacher."

That's aside from the worried, stressed-out reality many kids are living in, whether it's in response to high-stakes high school graduation testing or twice-weekly spelling drills to prepare 2nd graders for high-pressure standardized tests. The book Guerilla Learning (by Amy Silver and Grace Llewellyn) has an excellent chapter on the history of standardized tests, and how they have gained prominence in our schools. It has absolutely nothing to do with our children's education, and everything to do with bureaucracy's need to formulate colossal busywork rather than doing anything real to improve the quality of education. Numerous studies have shown that standardized testing is self-referential -- while test scores might improve, education and learning do not. And, as one mother friend said, "I don't think you can standardize results for a young child. They can do great one day and terrible the next purely based on whether or not they had a good nap or ate enough lunch."

The problem is, this busywork, and the industry that now makes millions off of it, is not only denying our kids real learning opportunities, but is actually causing them lasting harm.

What sort of humans are we creating, in the pursuit of this hyper-testing culture? Nervous young creatures driven by anxiety and unable to think for themselves or engage in imagination because they are so used to being judged by an arbitrary metric that they don’t know how to function without it. No proponents of standardized testing answer this question: What happens when the testing stops? What happens to the kids we’ve trained when we throw them into the world and suddenly say, “Now think and do for yourselves, even though we haven’t allowed to do so for 18 years, and you have no idea of what it means to succeed or fail without a test score returned to you”?

Where did we go so wrong?

Our society is never going to be competitive in math or engineering, or ingenuity or philosophy or literature or justice, or in fact anything at all if the way we measure success keeps being driven by standardized tests. Because, as anyone with an ounce of sense knows by this time, the reliance on tests means that the tests are all we teach. And what use are the tests in life? Absolutely none.

So if a lesson is in no way useful in real life, why is the school teaching it? Your tax dollars at work, spinning out reams of pointless paperwork designed to make your children nervous, fearful, and more prone to need anxiety medication as they grow. Is that what we want? A nation of anxious, sleep-deprived people who are unable to make decisions or solve problems without hanging on to a life raft of a standardized metric, without receiving a score that tells them whether they passed or failed?

If you want a nation of people who are dependent on the rest of the world for solving problems and inventing new technologies, that’s a surefire way to do it—not to mention a nation of people easily led by any dogma, no matter how ignorant or narrow-minded, that happens to strike a chord with them. Ignorance and anxiety, as history has taught us countless times, is an explosive mix. This is not how humanity makes progress.

In the case of students with special needs, the use of evaluations and tests seems counter-intuitive. Do the evaluations actually do much to identify those needs and how to meet them? It’s what the tests are supposedly designed for, but do they succeed?

As with any complex problem that needs solving, the answer is no. What the evaluations do is allow providers to apply easily identifiable labels to children without taking into account each child’s personality, quirks, tendencies, or, indeed, actual needs.

I realize this difficulty is hard to overcome. No one but the parent and perhaps future teachers truly has the time to get to know the child and work with who they are. They only have the time to work with a broad outline—those labels—of what this human might be.

While the system might for the most part do little harm and sometimes quite a bit of good, there are two reasons it is hopelessly flawed. One is that in some cases it can do harm. Think of the child who really doesn’t fit the mold, and is forced to, or children who are under the care of an incompetent or uncaring provider.

The second is that providers and parents could accomplish the same tasks without the use of evaluations. Any parent even mildly observant can tell the provider enough about their child to make the evaluation redundant (yes, there are crappy parents; I have yet to see any real evidence that standardized evaluations make up for that). And any provider worth their salt can easily discover all they need to know about how to begin working with a child within one or two sessions of observation and play.

If the purpose of these systems is to simply standardize people, they succeed, at the expense of humanity. If the intention is to help children become their best selves, how widely they miss the mark. How will they, and we, pay for that mistake in the future?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Capacity for Genius: A Eureka Moment in All of Us

A couple months ago I was talking with a friend about Einstein, whose biography I read last fall (Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson). Actually, I was asking about general relativity, aspects of which I still have a lot of trouble grasping. (I do this to my physicist and mathematician friends, starting with my husband, in a futile hope that someone somewhere will suddenly hand me the key to fully comprehending the stuff in the way I wish I could, and which no amount of reading seems to do.)

We wandered onto the topic of genius. The friend contended that Einstein wasn't necessarily the genius he's always sold as, but simply happened to be the right person at the right time to make "his" discoveries. It's an argument with which I agree, especially as it's clear that many other scientists had already made similar discoveries (but hadn't quite connected the dots yet), or were verging on them.

This led on to the question of whether genius actually exists. And, again, I found myself agreeing with the friend's contention that there are no geniuses, only people who happen to be able to follow or take certain opportunities when they're fortuitously presented.

On further thought, however, I would argue that in fact everyone is a genius, or has the capacity for genius. Two writers have bolstered this personal conviction. First there was Arthur Koestler's book The Act of Creation, now sadly out of print, although you can easily find used copies. I originally picked this book up because I found his Sleepwalkers (about the lives and discoveries of Kepler and Galileo) to be a masterpiece, and thought this book would delve into the psychological activity behind the creativity in art, writing, etc. It was far more interesting than I anticipated, as it actually focused on the "ah-ha" or "eureka" moment of great scientific discoveries.

The Act of Creation is far too long and involved to go into detail here, but what I found interesting was Koestler's investigation into how the "eureka" moment, like that of Darwin's, is often preceded by years, sometimes decades, of research and hard work. In other words, it's not a matter of genius at all but simply a matter of pursuing a passion or interest in a dedicated fashion until one day the pieces seem to fall into a new pattern and you're looking, possibly, at an entirely new discovery or shift in paradigm. Which is essentially what happened with Einstein.

Koestler’s research would indicate that "genius" is actually a matter of having the time, ability, and drive to do or pursue something you're passionate about, with no promise of immediate results or of ever seeing a reward.

This viewpoint is still limited, however, as our accepted concept of genius focuses only on the accomplishments that get mentioned in the public sphere. And genius is so much more than simply academic or creative intelligence. I've met people who are geniuses at dealing with babies, who know instinctively how to handle the toddler tantrums of the terrible twos; people who know how to live at peace with their world, who can cobble a delectable meal from the most unlikely and sparse ingredients; people who can manage the tempers and caprices of a boardroom or political field to help a group of people reach a needed goal; people who seem to make gardens produce unbelievable bounty with the daily stroke of their hand; people who inspire others to do great things with their own lives. Geniuses in every possible aspect of life, not just in the achievements that win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or even those that solve the biggest problems facing the human population and the planet.

If genius is, as I think, a matter of doing what you're meant to be doing with your life, of following your passion, then we are all surrounded by geniuses every day; we just don't know it. And we all have the capacity to tap our own genius.

The other author was Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), whose TED TV talk on "A different way to think about creativity” proposed going back to the Greek and Roman concept of genius being a sort of daemon or “other” who assists the writer or artist or musician in making their piece of work as good as it can possibly be.

(If you don’t watch the occasional TED talk, you should. The organization TED—Technology Entertainment Design—has the sole goal of presenting weekly talks on Ideas Worth Spreading, whether they’re innovative ways to accomplish social justice, new ways to think about creativity, or discussions about brain science.)

Gilbert’s talk was thoroughly enjoyable, aside from presenting a new and interesting idea. And if we took her advice and changed the way we think about artists—seeing their “genius” as some sort of separate entity that simply assists in their work—then there is no reason that the same concept can’t apply to everyone.

The problem is, of course, that very few people will ever have the means to allow their genius to work its magic. Most of us are daily, hourly, grindingly involved in activities that are designed, yes, to earn us a living or scrape us a scanty life, but also to keep us from ever listening to the genius-creature whispering in our ear. The vast spectrum of human experience up to this point doesn’t allow more than a tiny, lucky percentage of the population to even consider what it is they love to do, or expose us to ideas that might inspire us. And even those of us who listen to flashes of insight are constantly derailed by the seemingly constant demands of simple daily life.

None of this reality, however, changes the fact that we all have the capacity for genius. We can stifle it, deny it, run from it, strangle it, or fear it. But we can’t ever fully kill it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TEKS and TAAS: The Standardized Strangulation of Imagination

For several years before my first child was born, I worked as a copy editor for a textbook company. A small place, we took on weighty loads of a variety of textbooks from every major publisher you could think of. Although we specialized in reading, spelling, and phonics for younger grades, I worked on high school science and literature textbooks, and even wrote a 6th-grade math/social science textbook (which you can read to your horror and my shame on Google Books—there are reasons I wasn’t asked to do one again).

Standardized teaching and testing was an intimate part of my life as a copy editor. Every textbook we worked on, from every major company, followed what are known as TEKS and TAAS, the learning and testing guidelines laid down by the state of Texas. (For those conspiracy theorists who always wondered whether the entire national curriculum is really run by the state of Texas, the answer is, essentially, yes. Texas buys its textbooks for the entire state, whereas most states allow their districts to choose and purchase individually. Texas wields enormous power over how our children are educated because it is simply the most important slice of the market for textbook publishers. So yes, the fact that the Texas board is waging war on science should worry you.)

These guidelines are massive, thousands of little instructions and expectations, spanning all grade levels, covering requirements from the specifics of trigonometry in high school, down to the movement of large and small muscle groups in kindergarten. Let your imagination run wild as to how specific the requirements of your child’s education can get, and you can’t go far wrong.

I used to take all the stupid requirements and niggly publishing quirks in stride, with a sense of humor, but when you see on a daily basis the reality of what we’re forcing on our children for several hours a day, the humor starts to erode.

It wasn’t the New York State Regency exam that, in a multiple-choice question regarding the reasons behind most recent invasion of Iraq, failed to give as an answer/option anything close to the truth (that is, one that questioned the US government’s motives behind the invasion). And it wasn’t the failure of a high school history textbook’s glowing mini-bio of Henry Kissinger to note that he avoids traveling to Europe because he’s wanted for questioning on war crimes. It wasn’t even the exasperating project of writing that math textbook, during which I had to count the number of syllables in each sentence to make sure my writing was “age appropriate.” (Evidently the number of syllables per sentence in a paragraph is more important to your child’s education than information. Heaven forbid the lesson actually be interesting.)

What broke my heart, finally, was not the endless checking and cross-checking to see which sub-requirement a specific math problem or activity might cover in the TEKS, but the cross-invasion of standardized testing into reading lessons for kindergarteners.

As most of us know now, we teach to the test rather than teach to help kids learn, and I saw no more striking or sobering example than lessons for 5-year-olds that focused on questions such as: “Good readers look for main ideas when they read,” or “As you read, identify the main and supporting characters in the story,” and so on with plot and climax and all the elements you expect to be quizzed on when you take the Iowa Basics or similar for the first time. These were tiny little books about, you know, mice and clocks. But the children weren’t allowed to focus on the funny story, the personalities; they weren’t allowed to let themselves go and sink into the weird imagination-river that makes reading, on its own, so powerful.

I can’t think of a better way to kill a child’s budding curiosity about reading and books. And once you strangle a desire to read, imagination has little chance at all.

Standardized tests used to be something we took every few years, an anomaly in our education, something by the wayside. Now there are 2nd-graders riddled with nervous anxiety because their “education” is constructed around frequent quizzes and tests, to prepare them to do well in major standardized tests in the 3rd grade.

I can remember the first time I took the Iowa Basics, one of the country’s most long-standing standardized tests. It was in the 6th grade. Despite being one of the smarter kids in the class, the Reading Comprehension section took me longer than it should have because I got caught up and interested in the content, and had to go back to look for main ideas, supporting ideas, and so on. In other words, reading for me, as it would be for any child given the chance, was a completely separate activity from the comprehension skill the test was looking for.

Years later, editing those kindergarten textbooks, I felt ill. I come from an intellectual family of complete book addicts, yet the lure of reading would not have stood a chance if someone had stood in front of me day after day, telling me what “good readers do” and refusing to let me enjoy the story. But I might have gotten into the 99th percentile on the Iowa Basics rather than the 98th.

Over the last few years I’ve read and heard the complaints of many college professors that the students coming in lack not only basic knowledge, but the ability to think at all. These students, they moan, are always wanting to know “what the teacher is looking for” in a paper. In other words, they’re so used to being taught to the test, that it comes naturally to them to write to the teacher.

The younger we push standardized testing, the further back we seek to squelch true curiosity and the fierce love of learning that most children are born with, the less likely it is that the future’s college students will have any concept of what it means to enjoy learning, much less how to think for themselves.

But personally, I’m more concerned about those kindergarteners, who will never care about the mouse, the clock, and the cheese, or that it’s a funny story, because they need to remember for the Thursday quiz what the main idea was. And the ridiculous thing is, I couldn’t tell them either. It’s a story. It’s fun. I’m sure that future lessons will include books with far less scope for imagination, and far more emphasis on plot and characterization.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Occupational Therapy Evaluation: What Part of "I'm 2" Don't You Understand?

[This is Part I of the occupational therapy (OT) evaluation experience. For Part II, the report and slightly scary obsession with hugging, click here.]

The saga of our 2 1/2-year-old son John's evaluations for special services from the school district continues. I waited to write about the occupational therapy and psychology evaluations until we got the reports back from the evaluators. But the paperwork hasn't changed the initial conclusions, which included: occupational therapy evaluation, strike 3.

It was between the educational and occupational therapy evaluations that I started to seriously look into homeschooling. By the time this evaluation was over, I'd already signed up for the newsletters of two local homeschooling groups. That's how much this process is pissing me off.

The Evaluation: Your Son's Kindergarten Experience Will Suck -- for His Teacher

Actually, I'd thought the occupational therapy (OT) evaluation went much better, not borne out by the evaluation reports. But then I have a much longer acquaintance with John's personality and tantrums than the evaluator does. The evaluation was still, stupidly, an hour long, but it's all interactive--playing, basically. He did very well for about 35 minutes, did everything he was asked. Then he stopped playing along. The evaluator snuck that look onto her face and immediately asked that question I have learned to hate: "Is this typical, that he'll not want to do directed play anymore and will just stop cooperating?"

What could I say? Yes. Specifically, if I'm in the room, yes. If he's without me, say at daycare, he will do everything he's told. I pushed a little harder with her and asked if they really expected kids of his age to finish these [extremely long] evaluations. She said at least with OT, when they start moving from table activities to floor stuff, probably most kids will be fine continuing to play along because the activities change. With her, she didn't say "attention issues," but talked about the "ability to engage in non-self-directed play" for long periods.

In other words, do what they're told when they're told to do it. Speaking with several other early childhood workers in various parts of the country, I learned several things. One is that it's ineffective and inappropriate to start looking for attention issues at the age of 2. Everyone I spoke with, including two Soviet kindergarten teachers (who used to have parents trying to bribe them to get their kids into their classes) were shocked to hear of anyone expecting a toddler to "pay attention" to directed activities for longer than 20 minutes.

I also learned that about 75% of children will be able to happily finish the hour-long evaluations. At first this number surprised me, but when I think about the bulk of humanity ... well, let's just say that people who change the world, for better or worse, are more likely to come from the other 25%.

For John, a massive meltdown ensued while the evaluator looked on disapprovingly. Are these poor kids not allowed to get bored and tell people to piss off? Why would anyone continue doing something they don't feel like doing, if they don't understand why they're being asked to do it? Isn't that part of the definition of insanity?

I talked with our service coordinator about my concerns yesterday and she, although an admirable person in many ways, talks the party line: "In a classroom setting he needs to be able to sit and follow instructions, and pay attention to what's being asked of him. If there are attention issues, trust me, you want to find them early." In a classroom setting! Which is years away! What part of "he's 2 not 5" don't you understand? I feel like I'm talking a different language.

I notice, by the way, that not a single evaluator has asked how well he does with self-directed play. I'd be way more concerned about a kid who is unable to entertain themselves for an hour, than I would be about one who refuses to be told how to play for the same amount of time.

Thoughts on 'The System': Have We Forgotten What It Means to Be Two Years Old?

And this response to Up Against the System is from my younger sister, whom we'll call B. My sisters' thoughts about this whole process are so varied, yet so complementary, it's impossible to take one set without the other.

"I imagine John as, I don't know, the son of a sailor. I picture him out on the sea being wild and free. He has a certain quality that begs for independence. I would feel exactly like you do in this situation. I would want him to pass the tests, do well, and do what was expected, but I would also be angry that he was being fed such formulaic standards and labeled something based on a narrow view of who he really is. Perhaps he is behind in many ways. He was born premature and that gave him significant disadvantages. To me that means nothing about his future. I'm sure there are fascinating statistics out there and reasons why we should follow our formulaic methods of teaching toddlers, but the big picture is often not taken into account.

My boyfriend had to do kindergarten twice. He had a muscle issue with his eye that made one eye stay crossed so they had to cut the muscle and he missed too much school to complete the year. Tragic right? Except that it isn't a big deal at all now. Even more tragic to me is the fact that he, another good friend, and many others I know suffered from poor school systems that didn't bother to nurture and teach them much at all. Systems that, had I been in them I never would've accomplished half of what I did academically. I don't know when our education system took the turn and stopped being about developing the minds of our youth, but it has. From these early childhood exams to the public school system it is all about teaching for tests that are standardized by what? .... the Texas board?

What baffles me is that in the arts we understand what we need to do, but we never take those lessons and use them in real life. That may be confusing so here is my example. In Harry Potter and ... um... the one where he forms Dumbldore's army... the evil is the woman who comes and tries to rigidly standardize everything in the school. She teaches for the exams and provides no useful, practical skills for the students. We see this all the time in children's stories and movies, but yet in the real world we still commit these crimes.

What I'm trying to say is that John has a long and bright future ahead. Whatever happens he is set up for success by parents who actually care and take notice. I have known so many amazing people some of whom were born that way and some of whom took a long time to find their intelligent self. It sounds to me like these people that John is dealing with are hard wired to think that the flip charts will give them all the information they need. I grant they will find some things out, but the other part of me wants to grab John, run screaming from the building for no reason and find the nearest muddy pond and start jumping in it. He is 2! I mean, really, he is a toddler and a boy. They destroy and build and hit and run and throw. They are mini-testosterone carrying monkeys that want to do all kinds of crazy things. I have met some moderately patient two-yr-old girls, but boys... never. They are destructos. They hear what they are told and then proceed to immediately forget it.

I have also thought a lot lately about kids and forgetting how to be one. I think getting into being 2 when you are with a 2-year-old is a healthy thing we've lost. So, I try to be more like a kid. Our two nieces [ages 5 and 2] and I drew all over ourselves 'cause the two-year-old had a spot of marker on her nose. I figured she shouldn't be left alone so I drew on my nose. It snowballed from there. We had so much fun and there was nothing educational or constructive at all about it. Then the five-year-old and I made believe that we were a queen and a princess. Then she decided I was Sacajawea and she was the baby. Whatever... it was fun and meaningless. And healthy for us all."

Thoughts on 'The System': Meaningless Evaluation Metrics

With permission from my sisters, I am posting their very thoughtful responses to my post Up Against the System, which is a revised version of a way-too-long email to said sisters. I asked to post their responses to me because my sisters are some of the most insightful and intelligent people I know. Not only that, they're both great writers with completely different personalities, outlooks, and writing styles. Their perspectives keep my own balanced.

I am the middle of three girls, each 5 years apart. This first response is from my older sister, whom we'll call A:

"The evaluation you describe is just plain bizarre. I think if they took a random sample of children and administered these "tests", almost the only ones who would "pass" would be kids who were developmentally delayed in a way that inclined them to passivity. It sounds like someone took bits and pieces of substantive research (like learning size relations is a useful step on the way to learning more abstract mathematical concepts) and utterly distorted them in the construction of a meaningless and misleading evaluation metric."

[A note from me on this point: I hadn't thought about what the purpose of each metric was. But if they were looking for a sense of abstract mathematical concepts, they could have either asked me, or learned through observation. Thanks to his day care, John knows what triangles and octagons are. On his own he has been able to apply this learning in abstract ways: he sees triangles all over the place, where I hadn't thought to look, and octagons too. This ability seems a much more direct way of indicating his grasp of abstract mathematical concepts.]

"If I were in your position, what would anger and upset me most would be the niggling fear that John's future experiences of education and evaluation will look just the same. I would fear that instead of having partners in helping him develop into his truest, best self, I would face years of struggling to counter the malign influence of the educational establishment. It won't be like that though. You will find schools and teachers you can believe in.

I just pity the children who get caught in some of these inane diagnostic holes, and whose parents don't trust their own judgment, or don't have a support network to help them keep perspective. It's not that there aren't many children (smart ones included) who might benefit from various kinds of special help, but there aren't enough smart people to develop, administer, and interpret the evaluations. I now know enough parents to have seen several examples of stupid quasi-diagnoses arrived at by stupid (ahem, not insightful with regard to a particular child) teachers or evaluators."

Up Against the System: One Mother's Shock-Introduction to Standardized Evaluations

Our little family has been going through some tense times recently. As our son is 2 1/2 and receives Early Intervention services (while his intelligence and development are fine, his speech is delayed, likely due to his prematurity), which stop at age 3, we have been working with our local public school system to transition into the services they offer.

That is a mild way of putting what's really happening: the reality of 'the system,' which seeks to place all people, especially children, into manageable boxes and units, to make them easier to label and deal with, has come crashing into our lives like a semi-truck landing full-tilt in the living room.

We are not stupid parents. We are not blind parents. But the evaluators of our local school district would like to believe we are both, because they would like to label our son with handy little devices like "attention issues," no matter how wrong we think they are, or how unreasonable their expectations of a two-year-old are. My son is stubborn and easily frustrated and bright and curious and willful and logical. He does not have "attention issues."

I have been blathering at length to my sisters and parents and friends about what we're experiencing, but what better place to try to clarify a problem than on your own blog?

The problem is not necessarily in the services offered, but in the evaluations themselves. We've had a speech evaluation, which lasted nearly two hours, and then the education evaluation, which was about 45 minutes. We weren't able to fully complete either of them because John simply stopped cooperating after a time. Both the evaluators immediately brought up "attention issues," which, frankly, pissed me off. After some reflection, I realized that I'm angry and frustrated on a variety of levels, all of which are slightly silly because there's no requirement that I go through with this process at all. It's entirely the choice of the parents. But it does leave me a) concerned about the mentality of the people who will be responsible for his future education and development, and b) curious and exasperated with the methodology and expectations in the following ways:

1) John is 2 1/2. I realize I only have one child, and my experience is limited, but how long is a child of that age expected to pay attention to any activity? If he's really interested in something, he can pay attention for a good hour, sometimes longer. That doesn't mean his discipline doesn't need work. Yes, he needs, over time, to learn that he often has to sit and do things he doesn't feel like doing, and we're working on that. But I don't see any difference between his desire to be done with the evaluation, and his desire to run around a restaurant when he's done eating. There is a balance here between attention and discipline, but I don't think being "done" with a very boring task after 30 or 45 minutes qualifies as "attention issues," not at his age.

2) The evaluation is idiotic. Correction: it's a load of bullshit. What is it? It's a flip chart, where he has to identify objects and activities by pointing to different pictures. (Which child is swimming? Can you show me the triangle? Which animal is big? And so on and so forth, moving up skill levels designed for six-month developmental increments.) First off, sitting for a long period in front of a flip-chart seems like a silly way to evaluate such a young child, especially as the Early Intervention program focuses specifically on evaluating and working within the child's normal environment. And John only really stopped cooperating when he stopped understanding the questions/instructions. As his speech therapist said when I vented to her a bit, "Well, do you set yourself up for failure on purpose? He knows when he's not understanding something. Partly it's frustration due to the comprehension and speech, but it's also partly that he doesn't see the need to keep going when he clearly doesn't get it."

3) Standardized tests. After working in textbook publishing for so long, I thought I had about reached my limit of loathing of standardized tests. I was wrong. This was worse. First off, sometimes they ask things he simply hasn't learned, or might have learned differently (like, he gets marked down for not picking out the "big" or "small" animal in the picture, but I haven't thought about teaching him specific size relations yet). Second, my gosh, there were so many things in that education test that I don't think I knew until first grade! Third, he of course gets no credit for being clever outside of the test. Example: when he'd really had quite enough of the speech evaluation, you know what he did? He faked pooping. Seriously. Had the whole expression and position and totally fooled me. I rushed him out to the bathroom, which was in the entry of the building. As soon as we got to the the entry, he straightened up, ran to the door, and said, "car." He did this twice. Clearly, he knows that needing the potty is one surefire way to get me to move my butt out of there. I thought that was pretty damn clever. But there's no "ingenuity" or "problem solving" aspect on these tests, so no one else thought it was cool.

[A note on the standardized test mentality: later in the day, both my husband and I found ourselves "teaching to the test" without realizing it. "This is how it starts," I thought. Kind of pathetic. Does it matter whether he picks out which animal is big, or which ducks are "all in a line" now or in six months? No. And yet here we are, wanting him to pass the test.]

None of this sounds like much. But when you're a person like me -- like many of my friends, probably -- the realizations that hit when you're doing these evaluations are pretty rough. It boils down to "we need your child to perform in this certain way so that he can function in this particular system that we've designed, no matter how false or pointless it is, and no matter how unrelated to his or any child's function as a human being."

What worries and angers me is the concern that the entire process might stunt his development as a complete, realized human being. Yes, he needs to be able to do tasks that he might not like. Yes, he needs to be able to sit in school and pay attention and learn. But he's 2 1/2. Shouldn't there be a different expectation between that age and 5 or 6?

Most people with even the mildest level of intelligence find school a bit dull. How far will we go, how young will we reach, to root out the rich creativity and imagination and cognitive thinking that makes standardized schooling a difficult place for so many children?

[Pending my sisters' permissions, I will later post their excellent responses to this description. I will also be posting further entries as we go through the occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychological evaluations. As the psychologist has already ruffled my spikes by mentioning "non-cooperative," the last should be interesting.]

Monday, March 22, 2010

Universal truths: Potty-training and alcoholism

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a parent in possession of a potty-training toddler, must be in want of a drink.

However little known the trials and pitfalls of such a parent may be on her first undertaking to rear children, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of experienced parents, that her attempts at organized super-mom-ness during phases such as toilet training, the short-lived attempt to force down vegetables, and enthusiastic attendance at idiotic Mommy & Me classes, are cordially laughed off and responded to with a silent handing over of a gin and tonic.

“My dear John,” said the two-year-old’s mother to him one day, “do you remember that if you go poop on the potty you get two chocolates?”

John Henry looked up from his trucks and replied that he wanted chocolate.

“But you must go poop on the potty,” returned she; “for your Granny and aunt recommended that method, and told me all about it.”

John Henry made no answer.

“Don’t you want some chocolate?” cried his mother impatiently.

You want to give me some, and I have no objection to eating it,” he might have said, had he been capable of sentence formation.

His uninterested expression was exasperation enough.

“My dear, you must know, if you go poop on the potty, your Granny living in the north of England advised that you get two chocolates; she sent a well-wrapped parcel to ensure that you had enough of them, and I would be so delighted with you if you went poop on the potty, that I would give them to you immediately; that you would probably be out of your hated diapers by the Equinox, and that I could have some organic cotton underpants in the house for you by the end of next week.”

“No pants?”

“Underpants. And chocolate.”

“I want chocolate.”

“If you go POOP. On the POTTY.”

[John Henry proceeded to ignore his mother, and ten minutes later she caught the telltale strained expression that informed her he was proceeding to crap in his non-organic cotton underpants from OshKosh.]

John Henry was so odd a mixture of stubborn will, rare speech, reserve, and contrary desires, that the experience of two and a half years had been insufficient to make his mother understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a mother of unimaginative persistence, little patience, and short temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself introverted. The business of her life was getting her son to feed himself and wipe his own bum; its solace was the glug-glug-splash of a freshly opened bottle of pinot noir after the child had gone to bed.

(With thanks and apologies to Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Do We Need God to Be Good?

Last night I heard theologian and author Bart Ehrman discussing his new book with Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air, in a show titled "Jesus And The Hidden Contradictions Of The Gospels." While I am always interested in an expose of the Christian Bible's flaws and contradictions, it was Ehrman's own religious evolution that held me near the radio long past my son's bedtime.

As a young man, Ehrman had a religious awakening and became a born-again Christian, an evangelical, "a fundamentalist" (his description). He held on to this viewpoint for years, even in the face of increased realizations about the flawed humanity behind the assembling of the writings that make up the Bible. It was a long time, he said, before he was able to look on the Bible as anything other than the direct, unquestionable word of God.

It was even longer before he was able to let go of his religious beliefs almost entirely and become agnostic. He was concerned, he says, that without belief in Christianity and Christ's divinity, he would no longer have any moral compass or code. He truly believed that without Christianity he would become a bad person. He would no longer have any moral code to live by. Without the Bible, and without his beliefs, he thought "I would become a completely licentious reprobate."

I have heard this viewpoint before, and it never fails to fascinate me. I have had friends, believers, Christians, ask me flat out how I manage to live as an atheist. What sort of moral guidelines can I follow? How can I possibly be a good person -- a Christian person -- without faith in God and the Ten Commandments at a minimum?

Unlike many questions with regards to faith and ethics, I don't always know how to answer this one. What creates an internal moral code? For me it might be empathy. I want to live without hurting others, hopefully through actively helping others, especially those in dire need and those close to me. But these explanations go absolutely nowhere in trying to cross the divide between those of faith and those without.

Listening to Ehrman's discussion of his own fears about living without faith forced me to turn the question inside-out. How can you live a morally good life when your only guideline is faith in a seemingly arbitrary set of rules that might have nothing to do with your understanding of your own capabilities as a human being? The dependence on Christianity for morals, to me, is indicative of a howling chasm in the formation of one's own existence. If a man truly believes that his morals exist only in relation to faith in a particular divine being, they rest on very shaky ground.

(This is not to say that I think people of religious belief have no morals; the questions relate specifically to those who cannot see a way to live morally without religion.)

It seems pretty obvious that faith in the Ten Commandments is no guarantee of a morally upright life. Look at the number of religious leaders and politicians who truly believe that they fear and love God, but at the same time commit adultery or embezzlement, engage in the same-sex relationships they claim to revile, or are just plain mean, nasty greedy people who make the world a much less "Christian" place to live.

So take those Commandments as a guidepost. Christianity certainly didn't invent, say, the idea of adultery. To a person who is afraid to live outside the religious box, adultery is not allowed because it might send you to hell.

As an atheist, I neither need nor believe in hell. Nor in heaven. But I do believe that adultery is wrong. Why? Because it hurts people. If you're in a relationship, no matter of what kind, the person facing you across the dinner table is trusting you to treat that relationship with respect, to treat them with respect, and with love. Adultery is a betrayal of that trust. That doesn't mean that you might not fall in love with someone else, or that the relationship might unravel. What it means is that you choose not to pursue a course of action -- a relationship or string of relationships -- out of cowardice or laziness. If you fall in love with someone else, or a relationship isn't working anymore, you owe it to the other person to be honest with them at the outset.

A lot easier said that done, I'm sure. A whole lot easier to stand stubbornly by a rule your faith lays out for you. No one ever said living without faith was easy. It requires imagination, a level of empathy and sympathy for the people around you. Murder, stealing, lying, betrayal, and coveting your neighbor's possessions (or spouse) are all possible with or without religion telling you it's wrong. (Worshipping God and having false idols is a bit of a moot point for an atheist.)

And I'm a big fan of resting one day of the week. Not that I've noticed our ever-so-Christian society is all that interested in keeping the Sabbath holy and resting on the seventh day of the week, not when there are profits to be made and shopping to be done. Whether those of faith are willing to admit it or not, Mammon has become the idol of our world, not the poor guy who lived in poverty and supposedly died to save others from suffering.

People like Bart Ehrman, or the devout man of faith he used to be, will continue to shake their head over atheists like me, will wonder how we manage to live without stumbling blindly from one sin to the next. I will continue to wonder how anyone can read the Bible as literal, and how millions stumble blindly through life depending only on a set of commandments and some badly misunderstood passages in Leviticus as guidelines for how to live morally. And I will, I am sorry, continue to pity those whose choices are determined by a fear of hell, or hope for heaven.

At the end of the interview, Ehrman says he was finally able to take a final step past religion to see that "there are lots of reasons to behave ethically. Many of us are simply hard-wired to love our neighbors as ourselves." I'll take that.