“What should I get my child for their birthday” is a commonly asked question in my mommy groups. The answers are always stock – superheroes for boys, Shopkins (of late) for girls, the same books over and over. It is only very infrequently that people ask what the child likes and answer based off of that. I was talking to my husband about it this morning which is when I realized why it bothers me and why it relates here.
My parents always gave wonderful gifts. They didn’t have to ask strangers what to get us, they just observed what we liked and bought based off that. It’s the same thing we do with our kids. We watch what they’re interested in and find gifts that fit in those categories. Mischief gets art supplies, puzzles, games and twirly dresses and Mayhem gets coloring books and stuffed animals. I wonder how much of the confusion about what to get kids comes from the lives that all too many are asked to live.
We send children to school for eight hours of cookie-cutter instruction a day. They come home and do far too much homework of worksheets which look the same whether you’re in California or Kentucky. The children are all supposed to be identical factory outputs – there isn’t too much room for creativity and self-expression in test-prep. If we don’t know our kids, how do we know what they would like. They do the same work as everyone else so they must like the same things as everyone else.
Children need the freedom to find out what they do and don’t like. They need to explore and try on many different hats – see what fits and what is only an attempt to make something fit. If we deprive kids of that exploration, then any gift will do. Judy, Sally and Sarah can all get the same thing because they’re all supposed to be the same people. They’re standardized kids as it were. We’ve standardized everything else about childhood, why not include their personalities in that list.
This is what I’m trying to fight against with my kids. There are some parts of their personalities that I think are just there for a test run and will be gone in a few months. I don’t try and force them to keep it, but I don’t require that they get rid of it either. Mischief has gone through times where she thought Frozen and dresses were ridiculous, and times (like now) when she loves them. It isn’t my job to tell her that’s right or wrong, just to let her know it’s her choice. The hope is if I give her the chance to choose her personality now, she will be more confident doing it when she’s older. She isn’t required to give into the peer pressure of her parents as to her personality so she can learn tools to avoid peer pressure from teenagers. I don’t know if that will work, but it’s a hope.
So, for now, she gives me gift ideas through how she interacts with the world around her. I don’t trust a group of people who have never met her to pick a present to fulfill a gift-giving requirement. I don’t think we could have avoided that if she were still in school and I was seeing what they taught her, but not who she is at her core. That core person is who’s going to be with her for life, I don’t want her to make decisions based on what people on the internet tell her to like. I want to know my child and see the uniqueness of her. I want to do her present shopping by myself, not give gifts by committee.
First thing this morning Mischief came up to me excitedly. “Mom, I found a puzzle that I want to do!” The puzzle in question was 500-pieces of a fairy sitting by a stream, significantly larger than what she’s used to. I tried to direct her towards something else – drawing, a different puzzle that’s more her size (100 pieces or so), reading, anything else. She insisted – it was going to be that puzzle or nothing. “Mom, I just want to spend quality time making this puzzle with you. Please give me this quality time.” I don’t know where she heard that expression, but when your kids specifically asks for quality time you don’t say no.
She decided that I would look for all the orange pieces and she would put them together. I started pulling pieces out and she tried to make matches. It wasn’t easy for her, not many pieces fit together, but it was wonderful to watch. She concentrated and focused on the task at hand – make a background. For anyone who thinks that small kids don’t have an attention span, watch one who is doing something that they care deeply about, it will change your mind. She put puzzle pieces together for an hour. How many she found that matched (maybe 20) wasn’t the point for her, it was all about learning the process.
I sell the kids short too often, assuming that I need to come up with another activity over and over to keep their attention. Maybe the reality is I come up with things for them to do that they don’t love or that they get the point of very quickly. To paraphrase my husband, kids don’t have short attention spans. They pay attention to something for as long as their brains can handle being focused only on it before needing a break. The activity seems to be kept it in the back of their mind until the new they learned has settled and they’re ready for more. Mischief’s brain could handle something she wanted to do for an hour before she needed time for that lesson to settle while she did something else.
That something else also was time consuming. She wrote all the names of the Disney princesses on separate sheets of paper and stapled them together to make a book. I helped her spell and she diligently printed the letters. After she finished the first book, I was informed that we were going to make five because she’s five years old. It felt tedious to me, but for her it was practice at both focusing on writing for a long period of time, and a way to incorporate something she loves into her day. This was another hour spent on one thing. I thought about asking if she wanted to break for snack at one point, it was when she normally eats after all. However, I realized that I would be annoyed if I were doing something I cared about that deeply and someone kept interrupting me. I decided to let her work. She meticulously wrote and stapled until she had her books made. There was so much pride in her eyes as she read them to me one by one.
This has been the benefit for me of homeschooling. I’m learning more about my children’s abilities than I feel like they are from me. I learned today to let them set their own pace and trust in their own abilities. I could dictate everything we do all day, but as long as she picks something within the bounds of play-learning (i.e. not a day of TV), why stop her? I need to trust that she will pay attention to the things that she gets some form of learning out of even if I can’t always see what that is. I need to trust in her attention to details. I need to be willing to be taught about concentration by my child.
My kids live a play-heavy life. They make up dances and shows, build trains and play pretend. Both of them have baby dolls that they carry around and are ‘raised’ by their respective parent-child. I want them to be able to make up games and stories and play the way they want to. As part of this, I’m fairly free-range when it comes to watching over them in the house. The bathrooms stay locked, mainly so Mayhem can’t flood them (again), but they have free access to the upstairs. It means that sometimes their rooms are totally and utterly destroyed and they mess up stuff in my room. However, it’s giving them time to figure out how and what they want to play.
Just yesterday, they went upstairs to play while I made dinner. Twenty minutes after I sent them up, I went and checked on them. (Yes, I let them play that long unsupervised.) The had an entire story about a princess rescuing a dragon from a knight with Mischief as the princess and Mayhem as the knight. The dragon was played by several different stuffed animals. It’s not a game I would have come up with if I were directing what they were doing.
Adults, myself included, have decided to break play down into its parts to see its value as a learning tool. We need it to mean something, to educate kids towards something. College prep is always on the mind of grownups these days. When I was ‘helping’ them play, I was too involved; their creativity was interrupted by my ideas. Since I’m the parent, my suggestions are the ones they’re going to default to. It was only when I stepped away that I saw just how wonderful and elaborate their play can be.
I take some heat for this. We’ve had people ask if we even know what they’re doing. (Not always, but I’m keeping an ear out.) People have said to me that I don’t deserve to have kids if I’m not going to watch them all the time. My question is why do I always need to know exactly what they’re doing in their child-safe room. Yes, they’re going to get into mischief and there’s going to be some mayhem. Two kids left to their own devices will create some havoc. However, how are they supposed to play pretend and make things up with an adult voice always in the background dictating and supervising everything they do?
I’m reading Erika Christakis’ The Importance of Being Little and she talks about this. On page 155, she says, “Once again, we see an adult encroachment of play habitat…The resulting message to a young child is that she can’t really enjoy life without big people always there to coach her through it.” I won’t be around for every moment in their lives. Even now, there are times where they have to figure things out on their own with kids their own age. I can’t always step in and save the day. My girls will have to create and think and problem-solve on their own. I could monitor every moment. I guess there would be fewer fights. There would also be fewer giggles, less silliness, and a more structured environment to their free-time. If it’s structured, is it really free? There would be fewer lessons learned about dealing with someone else. Handling social situations is one of the most important things that they learn from play. Why take that away from them?
I haven’t yet written about my younger daughter. She is three and not in school which makes me feel like there isn’t anything to say about her education. The truth is she learns just as much as her sister does only in a different environment. She spends all day with me going to PTO events, playgroups, running errands, and helping me around the house. I don’t do flashcards with her. I don’t drill her on her letters. There aren’t any worksheets. I’ve had people ask if I was worried about her ‘getting behind’ – whatever that means for a three-year-old.
She learns through play, that’s her medium. She’s too young to have much of an attention span, and frankly too chaotic. Her nickname is Mayhem as building and destroying things seems to be her main pastime. She practices writing by drawing circles and straight lines, but only when she feels like picking up a pencil. Coloring doesn’t occur inside the lines here, but neither does life. Her favorite thing to draw is a windstorm which means she scribbles all over the page. Earlier I wrote about my oldest coloring and cutting a leaf. Mayhem was there too; she just drew a scribble-circle on the paper. When the adults tried to tell her to focus on the leaf, she informed them that she was putting it in a storm.
In a few years if we send her to school, then she can have her days of worksheets and inside the lines and flashcards. She’s a full-time kid, not a student. This doesn’t mean she isn’t being taught. She doesn’t have chores in the house, she has responsibilities. We have a dog and she has the responsibility of letting the dog out and in and feeding her. She hands me the dishes from the dishwasher and she gets the ingredients from the cupboard when it’s time to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In those activities she’s being taught how to take care of herself and be part of a family.
I can tell by watching that her mind doesn’t ever stop. Grocery shopping is an event. She wants to learn about everything, so we talk about all the fruits and vegetables – how they grow and what we can make with them. At the store with live lobsters she asks the employees to take a lobster out so she can pet it and we talk about why it has claws. She is fascinated with how various animals protect themselves, that’s a constant source of discussion. We’ve watched videos of different animals eating as she likes learning about what their diets consist of. And while I’ve never formally taught her any vocabulary, her’s is considered advanced by her doctor through me talking to and with her constantly.
This isn’t right for everyone, but it is for us. I get asked how I know she’s learning anything. I see it in her train tracks that span the upstairs and in her shows that she has her stuffed animals put on. For that matter, even if she isn’t that won’t stunt her academic growth forever. She’ll have plenty of time for formal learning. If there was a quality non-academic preschool in the area, she would likely go. She only gets so many years before academics start, why speed that up? She is going to build her education on the foundation of life lessons that will serve her well, or at least that’s the hope.