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Monday, October 1, 2012

Little Children, Great Expectations


Back in August, my daughter started school. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. A lot has changed in the 30+ years since I started the first grade.

I still remember my first day of school. It was January, 1981. At going-home time, our teacher helped us make a “newspaper”. In her handwritten lettering that not a single one of us could read, she wrote, “Today we played with play-dough and puzzles.” Later that week, we learned to read and write the letter ‘A’ and the number ‘1’. Our school owned one Betamax video cassette player and two television sets, which were shared among 500+ students from grades one to seven. When I was 12 we took turns on the school's new computer (just the one).

Times have changed. Big Sister was taught to read last year at preschool, and was tackling chapter books before she started school. Her first grade class already does simple multiplication and division. The class uses online resources. We communicate with her teacher via email. It is a different world.

Something else that has changed is the parents. In my childhood neighbourhood, Helicopter Parents were few and far between. Thirty years on, I find myself having conversations with anxious expat parents whose children learned to read at age 2 and were counting to 10,000 by age 3 (only half joking). These parents are concerned that their child is not being pushed to the outer range of his/her competence and at this rate is not going to get into Harvard. Parents question me (politely, but with challenge in their eyes) about Big Sister's extra-curricular activities. 

Before the age of 8 I was involved in a total of zero extra-curricular pursuits. When I started school, I couldn't read, write, swim, catch a ball, play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language. I was allowed to learn piano from age 8, but it was A Big Deal. Outside school hours, I ran wild with the neighbourhood children, barefoot and carefree (both literally and figuratively). I don’t remember homework until at least the third grade. 

Despite this slow start in life, I still qualified as a lawyer, and got a Decent Job that paid well. 

If my children decide that a Decent Job is what they want, I want them to be able to achieve that. I worry about my children lacking the necessary edge to succeed against stiff competition. And yet, I can't believe that my children should have to sacrifice their childhood for the sake of their future.

Already during her preschool year, Big Sister had often seemed hopelessly tired by the end of the week. I eventually realized that preschool was not to blame. We - her own parents - were the problem. We fairly bombarded her with “interesting” and “stimulating” extra-curricular activities – Japanese school, ice skating, swimming, kung fu, singing. She was being pushed to her full potential six days a week. She was frequently exhausted and tearful.

A Tiger Mom would have given her a brisk talking-to and driven her to her next commitment. My choice was to pull the plug on every extra-curricular activity she wasn't enjoying. I even let her quit Japanese Saturday school, knowing full well that this was the only thing keeping her from forgetting Japanese completely (we haven’t lived there in over two years). 

These days, she loves school. She does her homework efficiently and without complaint, and after that she plays tag in the park with her friends, draws creative pictures, reads The Famous Five, designs and sews clothes for her Barbies, and writes in her secret lockable diary. Sometimes she even has fits of generosity towards her little sister and deigns to play Guess Who or dress-ups with her. Sometimes they perform lavish concerts for me (Big Sister favors singing Diandra’s “Outta My Head”; Little Sister favors her infamous “bottom dancing”).

These days, with “only” school and a weekly singing class, my big girl seems so happy. Her life seems full of pursuits that are interesting and challenging and fun. It doesn’t feel like I’m preventing her from reaching her potential or ruining her future prospects. 

I still have lingering doubts - am I doing the wrong thing in not pushing this capable child beyond her comfort zone? But my gut feeling is that pushing our children overly hard has significant side-effects. It can stifle their creativity, their resourcefulness, and their feeling of freedom. It can leave them with insufficient time alone with their own thoughts. Worst of all, it can also make them unhappy.

Other families’ choices notwithstanding, I've decided to stop pushing my kids against their will to achieve adult-defined goals. Short-term, I'm not going to force Big Sister to study Japanese. Long-term, I'm not going to actively promote so-called "top" jobs (with six-figure salaries, long workdays, and necessary sacrifice of free time, sleep and health) as the Holy Grail.  

Here’s to children being children, and to adults allowing that to happen.


26 comments:

  1. I think it's really important that children are kept occupied. They need to be stimulated. Making dolls clothes, playing games and tag is a great way to do this without pressure. Children don't need pressure. If an extra curricular is fun then go for it. If its a tiring stress then it's time to stop. The main aim at this early age is to create happy little people with good self esteem and an understanding or awareness of society rules (politeness, respect, no littering etc). Early ground work. Hot housing can happen later if you feel inclined to undo all the happy person work you invested in ! It's really easy to get swept up in the worry that you aren't pushing them hard enough, that other parents are doing more etc Just listen for the laughter and love. If its there then so far things are going just dandy.

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    1. Wonderful advice from someone who I know has spent a great deal of time around smaller and bigger children! Thank you so much. It is so easy to get swept along with the wave and anxiously do exactly what other parents are doing, but every child is different and we parents should keep that in mind!

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  2. I really love this these thoughts and insights! I have a few years before I have to worry about this but it is a great reminder to let my boy be a kid (like I was allowed to be).

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    1. Thanks, Heather, and congratulations on your new baby boy! Yes, definitely let him be a little kid :) Also, let yourself be a parent the way you believe is right. The extra-curricular activities might not start right away, but the self-criticism and comparing of oneself with other parents can too easily start from day 1. With my first baby, I remember getting really anxious about milestones and sleeping patterns and feeding etc. after talking with other mums, and none of that anxiety was necessary!

      I'm reminded of this recent post by Daphne at MOTHER INC. It is great advice that applies to parents of older children just as much as mums of newborns:
      http://www.motherinc.org/milestones-musings/lessons-from-a-3rd-time-mom/

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    2. Thanks for directing me to this post and blog. Love it.

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  3. I think you've made a wonderful, wise decision as a parent. :-) You pay attention to your children's needs and if you think they're taking too much than what they can handle right now, you take off some of their burdens so that they can enjoy a quality life/childhood. Not just life in pursuit of "success-as-the-world-calls-it".

    I have a friend whose Mom used to be a Tiger Mom and in elementary school she used to be scared if she came home with a 7, 'coz her Mom only wanted her to get 8 or even more than that. Thankfully, though, this Mom loosened up after she got into Junior High School. But then again this friend of mine is smart, so she did excel at school anyway.

    My parents were never that strict. They would support us if they think we're interested into learning something (for me: learning English and for my bro: music). All they ask from us was that we never had to repeat a class 'coz they have to pay everything in Indo and education is expensive. My bro is a slower learner compared to myself and my parents never pushed him to "be like me" (because he has strengths in other departments that I'm lacking). They let him learn and grow at his own pace and he "bloomed" in High School as well as at the university. One reason for his bloom at the uni was 'coz he had a crush on this very smart girl, so in order to get closer to her, he didn't want to fall behind he he he he...

    I think it's important to know when to push and when not to push a child. If the child is interested in learning something, but the child isn't too focused (or for whatever reason), then the parent should help nudge him/her a little. But if the child has tried a certain activity but there's no interest to continue, what's the use of pushing him/her? Just sharing my POV based on what my parents did with us.

    P.S. I think we had a similar childhood, though there were no TVs or videos in our schools ever. And I had plenty of homework ever since first grade.

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    1. Aw, thank you so much, Amel! You said it so well: that there can be a big difference between personal success and "success-as-the-world-calls-it".

      I also like your point about pushing being a good thing sometimes, when a child clearly wants to do something but isn't sure how to go about it (or doesn't want to work hard enough for it). Sometimes children do need to be encouraged to keep going and not give up, and sometimes they need help in finding their own path in the first place.

      My friend told me a great story the other day about her friend's son. When he finished school, he had no idea what he wanted to do. His mum pointed out, "You know, you've always seemed very interested in plants. Have you thought about studying something like horticulture?" This advice struck a chord with him, and today he is a successful winemaker - something he'd never have thought of doing, but turned out to be the perfect occupation for him!

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    2. AWWWWW that's a LOVELY story about your friend and her son. THANKS for sharing with me! :-D It's amazing how a parent can really help the kids grow to be their best. :-)

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  4. A brilliant post. I did a lot of extra curriculum activities as a child, but I dabbled in each interest before leaving it and moving to the next. Only swimming I stuck with for longer than a term and even that was given up at 13. Not really doing more than one at once meant I spent most of my evenings building back garden dens with the other children on my road, and my Saturdays always included a bike ride with my dad. I want Dylan to grow up to be the best possible version of himself but I agree that they need freedom to find that person and what they will succeed in. I will not old him back from activities but I hope I will give him the freedom to choose what makes him happy as well. Sounds like you are doing a great job of bringing up happy, healthy girls who have the freedom to pick their own paths x

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    1. Bex - I think your plan is great, i.e. "I will not hold him back but will give him the freedom to choose what makes him happy". This is the key, I think! Thanks so much for the kind words of encouragement :)

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  5. You wonderful and wise woman.

    I have spent years (22 in fact) despairing of those parents who see their own children only through the filter of how well their children's achievements reflect upon them - their children are not individuals in their own right; rather, they are signifiers of their parents' worth...

    Our children are gifted to us. Our task is to raise them to leave us - to ensure they can live independant lives. They are not badges of our own worth. Nor extensions of us. Nor do they live some part of a life we thought we had missed out on. They are not performing seals. They are not ponies to be taught tricks.

    You describe a heavenly childhood - the same type of childhood I was fortunate enough to own as my own. Freedom. Racing and running and being free to discover your own limits, to test your own abilities.

    My 5 continue to surprise and delight me. And even as they sometimes 'fail' to live up to their own expectations they learn some new and valuable lesson: to try harder or to change the goalposts or that they are not what they presumed or that they actually have a skill slightly different from the one they thought they had.

    We do our best to nurture their sense of security and hope they have confidence. They know they are loved just because they are - but know also that they are not us; that they are unique and distinct; they are their own selves and are ultimately responsible for their own lives. We will always be there for them. They need never fear being on their own because we will always - as long as we have breath - support where there is need. But they also know that standards are high; that where they do not try to be the best that they can be then they let themselves down (not us).

    More power to you Katriina. You let your daughters shine with their own light and discover their own path. Yx

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    1. LML, as always you speak with such wisdom. Yes indeed, children are merely "of us" - not ours to brandish around as badges of honour. Their strengths and achievements are their very own, not ours, and when they fall down it's hard enough for them without also having to feel accountable to us. It's hard sometimes to know how best to guide them, and maybe the answer is that when in doubt, letting them find their own way is the best thing we can do.

      I encourage my children to try their best, and I try to reinforce how good it feels when they manage to tackle something they've wanted to achieve. I think I also need to remind them more often that even when they feel disappointed in themselves, this doesn't mean we are disappointed at them.

      I love that you have raised 5 children who are so different and so individual and independent. They clearly understand who they are and what they want out of life, and if my own daughters can achieve this I will be ecstatic.

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  6. PS I wrote on this very topic a wee while back: http://primerascanciones.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/parenthood.html

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    1. This was a wonderful post to read. It reflects my thoughts exactly. I will have to have a closer look at some more of your older posts!

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  7. I wanted to reply to this as well, though people already said a lot that was on my mind. I have worked with children for .. jeez, almost 10 years now, and I see a lot of.. different styles of parenting. I think the biggest words of wisdom in this were when you talked about how your daughter was taking it. There are so many parents who whether they are tiger moms or really laid back ('vapaa kasvatus') that somehow manage to ignore their children! They think they need to do this or that or don't do this or that, but completely forget that their children are individuals as well! You should observe and talk to your child and see what makes them happy. Some children really enjoy being on the go and some children even perform well and love being a little bit under pressure (albeit there are quite a small number of those). I am so happy to read that you have understood and tried different things with your girl and found what suits her. There is no handbook to parenting, because no two children are alike.

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    1. Katri, your observations are really astute, and I suspect that you are an excellent teacher because you take the time to observe and understand your students. You are so right - no two children are alike, and we adults (especially those of us who are parents) really should be more aware of that. You are right, too, that some children really do prefer some level of order and even pressure, while others do much better with a less structured approach. My own two daughters are completely different from each other, let alone from other children.

      Most small children have their own very clear ideas about how they want to approach life. I guess the trick is finding a balance between teaching them how to function effectively as a member of a family/group/society, and encouraging them to do their own thing. I love the Montessori preschool that my younger daughter currently attends, because it seems to me that they are very good at helping children find this balance. I have learned so much from my daughters' teachers. As you noted, parenting is not an exact science! - I think it really is mostly about trial and error, and definitely all about keeping an open mind.

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  8. Katri - I also think that the most important part of this post was that Katriina observed her daughter, listened to her and then responded to those things. Each child is unique and will blossom and bloom in different environments. Ultimately I hope that each of my children will be happy and fulfilled in their own way. I do also believe that I can offer them valuable advice and perspective along the way, but I will never try (once they are old enough) to unduly influence their decisions. We all recognise the parent dilemma that is described - are we giving our children enough opportunities, or are we pushing them in to too many? My eldest child thrives on being involved in many after school activities - so he does a lot of them. We make sure that his weekends are free for relaxing/playing outside/doing his own thing. My middle child is not as keen to do so many things, and she does less than he did at her age, but she has asked to add an activity this year. I will let her. I also have noticed that being involved in these types of activities has affected her confidence in a positive way. My youngest (aged 4) loves his gymnastics so much that he went on his birthday and left Grandma's present to open when he got back - he also loves swimming. Where we live the school is tiny (75 children) and the community is strong so after school clubs provide a social opportunity to see friends as well as a chance to make new ones from other schools. I worry at times that my eldest child does too much, but he is happy, he loves school, and has no problem fitting in his homework which he is also keen on! I digress but ultimately I think Katriina that your decision to allow your daughter to give up activities because she wanted to is a good one, because it is based on her not you. Equally I think my decision to let eldest son do lots of his activities is a good one, because it is based on him not me!! I don't think either decision will materially impact their future career - what matters is that they both have the intelligent love and support of very interested parents.

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    1. Sara, as usual, I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts! My initial instinct was to give my daughter as many different opportunities as I could, but this just wasn't the right approach for her. On the other hand, clearly your son thrives on these kinds of activities, and luckily you are able to provide those for him. It's exactly as you said: "your decision...is a good one, because it is based on her not you [and] my decision...is a good one, because it is based on him not me." As parents, it is often hard to look past our own perceptions of the world and see it through our children's eyes, but this really is what we need to do in order to raise independent, free-thinking, happy little individuals!

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  9. You should know that not pushing the children hard is essentially how Finland got its high PISA scores. Of course, that's a statistical rather than an individual success, but doesn't that still mean that the majority of children are better off doing it that way and those who aren't can't be that much worse off.

    Children need to be allowed to be children. Hell, even adults need to play. All the great inventions are made by people allowed to play around and dabble with things (e.g. Xerox PARC). But sure, that may not have much correlation with financial success - ruthlessness may fare better.

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    1. Well, okay. Maybe the "majority of children" isn't technically justified and neither is "can't be that much worse off". We are talking about statistical averages, after all.

      Looking into this briefly some more, it would seem (Fig. F5.11, page 81), though, that those expressions are, in fact, justified!

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    2. Thanks very much for your interesting comments. Unfortunately, for some reason I couldn't view the document you linked to (will try on another computer later) but I'm intrigued by the link between solid academic results and a "non-pushy" approach.

      You are so right, too, that allowing people of all ages time to "play" is how we get them to perform at their best (some of the most successful companies in Silicon Valley have workplaces that look more like funky living rooms!) You are right that creative output by itself does not equate with financial success, and this is why I think children still need to be brought up with basic values: how to respect and engage with other people, how to concentrate on a task, the importance of trying one's best, etc. The key thing is that they still be allowed the freedom to decide how to use their free time and energy. Without having read the document you mentioned, my own sense is that Finnish schools get the balance right because although quite high standards are demanded during school hours, school days are not unnecessarily long and children have plenty of down-time to process what they have learned, and to do other things.

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    3. It's a PDF. Just download it, if your browser won't show it directly.

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  10. Too true. I don't push the girls into doing anything they don't want to. In fact, the 8yo does Brownies one night a week and that's it. We have recently started gymnastics because she enjoyed a summer workshop and the gym coach highly recommended we pursue it a bit. He was a bit shocked that we'd let her get to 8 years old without any formal lessons (we live in an area full of well-off pushy parents) and he was a bit taken aback with my can't-be-arsed attitude, I think. My girls seem relatively happy. They get time to play at the park with their friends, if that's what they want to do. Or just stay home and write or play on the computer. I also think that by pushing academically gifted children can lead some to lose the love of learning and not go to university like their schools expect just so they're not doing as they're told (like me, oops!). Because of this, I intend to take a more laissez-faire approach with my own children.

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    1. haha, yes, a wise parent learns from his or her own parents' mistakes!! I do think a laissez-faire approach to formal activities does many small children a lot of good. It's great that your daughter is enjoying gymnastics, though - when they find something they're good at and they enjoy, I think it is immensely satisfying for them to be allowed to pursue that activity.

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  11. I couldn't agree with you more. It is frightening the pressure some children are put under. Of course we want them to succeed but there has to be a happy medium. As far as extra curricular activities mine just do swimming and 2 of them do football, 1 does Cubs. Its so important for us, with 5 as well, that they all get time to play together, more learning takes places then than any adult can teach.

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  12. I agree wholeheartedly on the extra-curricular stuff. I think there is a finite time for kids to be kids - Like you I did nothing except piano from about age 10 I think, and I turned out just fine! I think these kids are so over scheduled and tired that by the time they are in college they are a mass of stress and anxiety - Im seeing it now in friends kids who have just graduated. They are being prescribed anti depressants or worse. Lets just take a collective deep breath, expose them to 1 extra-curricular item per year, try and ensure its something they love and let them rest and have fun when they aren't learning. I think we'll end up with much more well-adjusted children in the end!

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