Monday, March 21, 2011

Alpha moms and the alphabet

Last week a woman I know remarked that she fears her not-even-two-year-old daughter might be colorblind. While I blinked at her vacuously, trying to process whether I heard her correctly, she inquired if the Grape knew his colors. No, I conceded readily. He doesn't.

It honestly hadn't occurred to me to attempt to drill such information into his head. I figure kids learn that stuff organically, by which I mean, they'll figure out the colors when the colors mean something to them.

For my two and a half year old niece, her a-ha moment came when invited to choose nail polish colors. She proudly displayed her blue toes to everyone one week, her pink fingernails the next. I remember she really enjoyed green week.

When I explained my position to the mother of the child suspected of colorblindness, she nodded coolly and herded her kid away from the Grape. I could hear her insisting, "Your socks are yellow! Not brown!" as they made their retreat.

If you look at the world through a toddler's eyes, there's so much cool stuff to see that it's no wonder they don't spend their precious waking hours contemplating the tint of their socks. The knowledge that this square is red or that triangle is blue doesn't captivate the Grape when he's busy taking in live dogs and ducks, blaring fire engines and honking taxis. He hears that the dog is black or the fire truck is red in passing, like we observe all kinds of facts.

But I have no idea whether he gets the concept of color or not, and I frankly refuse to devote any bandwidth to worrying about it.

For this reason, and because I have a low tolerance for annoying mechanical noises, the Grape has no "educational" toys. I don't care what the Baby Einstein people claim; it can't be all that beneficial to have a dozen gadgets broadcasting the alphabet, numbers one through ten and various primary colors all the time.

Some such toys even sense when they're being ignored. "Purple! Purple! Purple!" they insist, though Junior has taken refuge at the far side of the room. Sorry, but I find that feature a little creepy.

There's also no trophy at the end of motherhood for teaching Junior to read before he ever darkens the doorway of a school.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that the Grape loves books. So thrilled that I happily read his favorites over and over (and over) again. But I don't want to turn him off reading by pushing him to struggle with something his mind just isn't ready to tackle.

For that matter, I've lost no sleep over his complete inability to recite the ABC's.

Most of us learned the alphabet as a song, the one they still sing at the local library's sing-alongs. The Grape hears the song, but I haven't rushed out to buy him those multi-colored alphabet magnets, or to inform him that A is for apple before serving one up as a snack. I don't see the need to push rote memorization at such a tender age.

Because I'm certain of one thing: Learning can be rendered dull if adults don't tread carefully. Something as crucial as reading needs to be made interesting to young minds. Not tedious. Good books are ones where stuff happens.

They don't have to be nail biters by adult standards; indeed much of preschool literature focuses on various animals preparing to go to bed. (Who knew they made pajamas for bears, elephants and bunnies?) But I think a story - a reason to turn the page and see what happens next - is incredibly important if you're concerned with fostering a love of reading, rather than the mere ability to do so.

One of my clearest early memories is of my first grade teacher (she was incidentally a lovely woman) presenting those old See Jane readers to our class. I knew from experience that many books contained better yarns than those about Jane running after Dick for no apparent reason.

That was the moment I realized school had the potential to be really boring. I remember feeling betrayed; not that I, a barely literate six-year-old, knew the word for such an emotion.
I sometimes wonder if those babies whose parents sit them down with flashcards before they're able to walk away feel something close to boredom, or even intellectual fatigue. I'm also curious as to what would possess a mother to make her tots recite the color, shape and number of each and every object encountered during the day's errands and activities.

I've met many such moms in passing and they all share a possessed though mildly medicated air. Not that I wouldn't need a prescription tranquilizer if I had to face 365 days a year of making every activity into a formal learning exercise. Will these parents really feel they have failed if their children cannot read, count, tell time and see the difference between fuschia and puce by age three?

All joking aside, I understand that some kids do read early on their own. That's fine, but it doesn't mean all parents should get their knickers in a twist over Junior's preschool reading skills. No credible study exists showing any link between pre-school aged reading and longterm academic success.

Besides, I have a hunch that a good percentage, though certainly not all, of the alleged legions of three-year-old readers have simply memorized a whole bunch of books.

Anecdotally, I know two adults who really read at age three, although this was rare in the seventies. One remains an avid reader who devours several books a month in an eye-popping seven (or is it eight) languages to this day, despite having children and a job; the other reads one or two books a year. At the most. Guess which one did it on her own, and which was pushed?

The Grape will probably recite his books to me as soon as he develops the ability to speak in sentences. But I don't care if learns to read (as in new material without help) before starting elementary school. If he figures it out, great. If he's too busying playing and imagining and being a kid, that's great too.

I figure if reading is brand new to him in kindergarten, he won't get so bored with the lackluster antics of old Dick and Jane.

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