Saturday, September 8, 2012

Little Kids Shouldn't Play With Matches. But How About Letters and Numbers?

I'm watching Jedda today. It's a 1955 film about an Aboriginal child raised by a white woman in the Northern Territory.

In this section of the film, Mrs. Sarah McMann has young Jedda practice her letters.  

The foster mum is a bit pushy about the whole thing.

The narrator tells us the little Jedda would rather make animal tracks in the dough. But Sarah McMann won't have that. She wants Jedda to do her academics.

Do I agree with this type of parenting of a young child?


I don't think academics should be forced on young kids. Nor do I think that type of knowledge is superior to other types of knowledge.

But I disagree with folks who believe children should be kept away from academic thingies until a certain age.

I just finished reading Mayim Bialik's parenting book,  Beyond The Sling.

After reading way too many parenting books and having a few years of real life parenting experience, I began to avoid parenting books like the plague.

They always make me feel like I'm not doing enough or I'm doing things wrong.

There's never a parenting book that agrees with everything I do.

Ah!  Idea:  Write my own parenting book. Not for other people. But just for me. Then I can get 100% agreement on everything I do. 

Anyway, I made a rare exception for Mayim.


I'm obsessively in love with the TV show she's on—The Big Bang Theory

I'm also thrilled that she does the attachment parenting thing.  Because that's what we do.

Like Mayim, we breastfed Jack beyond infancy...and even toddlerhood. We co-slept (and still do sometimes). We carried Jack in a sling.  We homeschool.

It's nice to have something in common with a smart, talented, and cool celebrity.

We don't do everything the same, though. Reading about that stuff in the book made me uneasy at times.  Like I said, I'm yearning for a parenting book that agrees with me completely.

As for the the differences, it varied. Sometimes I read things and thought, well, maybe Mayim Bialik has it right. We kind of missed the boat on that one. In other words, I sort of wish I had done things differently.

Other times I read things and felt unsure about whether I preferred her way of doing things or my way of doing things.  

Then there were occasions where I definitely disagreed with her.  Actually, I think there was only one. That's when my defensiveness went up, and I declared I'd never watch The Big Bang Theory again.   Or I'd at least fast-forward through all the Amy Farah Fowler scenes.  

I'm joking.

Don't worry.

But Mayim did annoy me a bit by having a different opinion than me. I felt criticized. See, I'm really not good with parenting books.


Let me get to the point.

(I should probably NOT write a parenting book. It would go off in way too many tangents)

Mayim is against exposing young children to letters and numbers.

She says in one part. But where did we get the notion that they have to learn their alphabet, their numbers, and even identify colors as soon as they can?  I'd like to say the following: just because they can doesn't mean they should.

I agree with her to some sense. Can shouldn't equal should.  

But what if the child seems happy learning academic stuff?

Should it be avoided?

What if Jedda liked learning letters more than making tracks in the dough?  Would Mayim have frowned down on this?

Later in the book, Mayim says, My husband and I made a personal choice not to introduce academics in any form to our children in their first five or so years of life.  This included no ABC books, no singing the alphabet song, no puzzles with letters or numbers, and we even went so far as to not teach colors, to the dismay of parents and in-laws. 

This viewpoint is actually not new to me.  It's part of the Waldorf method of teaching, and the preschool I worked at in New York followed it to some degree.

The classroom avoided toys with letters and numbers. 

We weren't allowed to write the children's names on the front of their painting, because it might give the idea that we were trying to teach children to write their name.

It was all a bit hypocritical, though, because the parents didn't follow the philosophy at home.   Children would come to school with letter and number skills. The same teachers who didn't want to teach the skills were very impressed with the kids who knew the skills.

I'm not saying that parents and teachers who follow the philosophy are harming their children. 

I'm not even really against the practice.

It's more like I don't regret that I did things differently with Jack.

I didn't push academics on Jack, but we had learning materials available.  I'd play games, sing songs, and have conversations that taught him things. If he was happy with the activities, I'd continue with them. If he looked bored, I'd stop.

Usually, he was happy with them.

Did it make him smarter in the long run?


Maybe not.

Who knows.

I don't.

But I had fun.

He had fun.

No harm my opinion.

It seems there's two extremes when it comes to young children and academics: 1. Children need to get a head start and quickly learn these basics.  2. Exposure to these academic basics should be avoided until a child is of a certain age.

I say have the materials ready so the child can get a head start if they want to do that. If they'd rather play in the sandbox, that's fine too.    

I took break here, from writing this, because I had a game-playing appointment with Jack.

While I played, in the back of my head, I wondered how the hell I would conclude the post?

How can I express myself and defend my viewpoint, because I didn't feel I did a good job of it thus far.

Then I thought of something.  Our big bag of collage materials in the art room.

I started collecting collage materials back when I was a preschool teacher. I kept collecting while Jack was a baby.

Our family is blessed with a big paper bag full of magazine pieces, wallpaper pieces, wrapping paper pieces, etc.

It's fabulous.

And would any parent of any parenting philosophy argue against making collages?

Paper, and paste.  How could that be bad?

And it's kind of green too.   It's putting to use stuff that would be otherwise thrown away.

From what I know of crunchy parents like Mayim Bialik; art is a positive and usually non-controversial activity.

Okay but....

Jack has rarely shown any interest in doing collages.

I can probably count on my fingers the amount of times, since his birth, that he's used the bag of collage goodies.  

He's just not very into it.  

I've never pushed him, despite the fact that I collected all this stuff.

That to me is good parenting.  Yes, I'm patting myself on the back right now. (okay.  not literally, actually.   I'm too busy typing). 

So that's what I'm going to say. It's not about the activity. It's about the attitude and behavior surrounding the activity.

Do I support parents forcing their three-year-olds to play soccer?


Do I believe parents should hide soccer balls from their three-year-old, because they're against kids being pressured to play sports.   No.

I think if the parents enjoy sports they should buy a kiddie soccer ball, kick it around a bit, and see if their kid is interested.  

Should kids be forced into acting careers?   No.   But if the child loves singing, dancing, dressing up, and performing in front of guests, I'd say it might be nice to take them to an audition or two.

Of course there's limits.   I don't think we need to expose our children to everything. And just because a child is interested in something, it doesn't mean you must allow them to partake in the activity.

Well, yes we let Betsy play with matches. She's always had an interest in fire!

That would be silly.


Maybe not. Maybe it WOULD be okay with proper supervision.

Perhaps Betsy could grow up to have a promising career in pyrotechnics.


FruitCake said...

Having been a child once [very briefly] and reared, I would like to offer my own expert opinion on the above topics.

Firstly Jedda is a wonderful movie - for its time. It provides some good insights into the thinking and debates of white people in a certain part of white Australia's history.

Thankfully we have moved on since then and all indigenous are now healthy, wealthy and well adjusted people.

Secondly, I like the idea that you offered jack real opportunities to discover and develop his own interests. I also like the fact that you feel the need to insist he do one or two things that don't excite him over much such as mathS.

Most geniuses I have heard of were a dud in formal schools. Take Einstein. All those years at high school and never learned to comb his hair - but look what he achieved. Who the heck can understand calculus? I thought it was some kind of white scummy build up on one's teeth til I just googled it. But he couldn't have achieved anything if someone hadn't told him an alphabet existed.

He decided for himself what was interesting and went for it. But Mayim sounds like a bit of a twit. Jack is very lucky that you and Tim are more realistic.

Dina said...


Yes, I'm so glad we all moved past the Jedda days. It's nice that racism has been eradicated...along with sexism, domestic violence, homophobia, etc.

Life is great!

I'm not sure if forcing Jack to do math is good for him in the long run. But it makes ME feel good. And you know what...that is important.

I think Mayim is VERY far on one side of the spectrum. We know people who are very much on the opposite side of the spectrum. Tim and I are between the two of them...closer to Mayim, but not so close to the edge.

Like you or HappyOrganist (or both?) said it's extreme people who change the world.

I don't think Mayim is doing the wrong thing. But I think she's doing things that are very strange to most people, and somewhat strange to weirdos like us.

Most people parent a very different way. The world is very much a shitty place. So we can't say THAT type of parenting has created tons of well-adjusted wonderful smart people.

That's not to say Mayim's way is going to save the world. I just can't say, with conviction, that she's turning her back on something that's been overwhelmingly successful.

FruitCake said...

I agree that Mayim is hardly turning her back on something that is wildly successful.

Sadly, I know too many people whose parents simply dump their kids in front of the TV because it's easier than actually engaging with them. These children then fail to develop any kind of physical perspective, motor skills or even remotely logical thought processes. There is no way formal schooling will offer them much except an even stronger feeling of alienation and confusion - only a chance to network with other alienated youth and join a gang of their choice.

As a child I was privileged to be encouraged to exercise - nagged to get out of bed, go to my room, go outside and play, polish floors - stuff like that. Relying on a copper and handwashing rather than a washing machine also helped me develop a sense of perspective.

Although I have an extremely high IQ Mensa rejected me [my responses to test questions were too advanced for even them to see that I was right]. Sigh.

In a formal education system I was a total dud. I couldn't wait til I was 15 and could legally escape. One assignment was to make a petticoat which, after many false starts, ultimately became a handkerchief. I had a geography teacher once who graded my end of year exam at 49%. This surprised me as the paper I handed in was totally blank. Not only have I minus zero interest in igneous rocks or the formation of faultlines, the teacher was a cow. I thought the mark was quite generous all things considered, but all I learned from that subject was that adults can be capricious, self-serving, and full of shit.

I would like to say that just as Einstein was a drop out but managed to come up with the theory of relativity, as a drop out I too have been the source of great leaps forward. In truth, after 15 attempts I have given up trying to understand the theory of relativity. Few of my relatives have ever made sense to me.

Like Hitler I threw aside formal education and became an autodidact. Unfortunately I have never been locked in jail and so have failed to write a bestseller.

On balance though, I think I am rather well balanced only because I rejected formal schooling from within the system.
I admire your approach, but still hold that Mayim is a bit of a twit.

Dina said...


Your school story is sad, yet inspiring.

I like the whole idea of being an autodidact. Although I have no idea how to pronounce that word. Maybe if I had been an autodidact, I would know.

Or am I an autodidact now? Can anyone be one once they finish school; or do you actually have to drop out.

Then again...whoever doesn't go and get their PhD; could they say they're ultimately dropouts?

I mean we all ultimately drop out at SOME point.

Interesting that you got a 49% on a blank paper.

It's like when we play Just Dance. Sometimes there's someone who's not dancing; but they have a remote in their hand. They just sit there, and somehow manage to still get points.

Mayim is against letting her kids watch TV; so you might like her for at least that.