Parental Pressure

This past week, I was fortunate to be trained to give an assessment, the Gesell Developmental Observation-Revised. My school administers it to all PreK3 students and any applicants for PreK4 and kindergarten. Although I may not ever be the examiner, I will need to know how to interpret this assessment’s results and share them with parents.

During the Gesell Institute‘s training, I realized that the information I gained about child development is crucial – not just for teachers, but for parents, as well. After being a mother for nearly eight years and being in the classroom almost three, I’ve figured out a lot of things, but some facts came as quite a surprise.

For instance, did you know you can do your child a disservice by teaching her to read too early? And the reason isn’t what you might initially think. Like everyone, I’ve been told that young brains are sponges, and this is absolutely true. But young bodies are still developing, and while a child’s brain might get that A is A and B is B, his eye muscles aren’t able to track from left to right (which we Westerners do when we read) until, on average, age five-and-a-half. In fact, you can usually tell a child who has learned to read too early because he turns his whole head in order to read across the page.

I can already hear outraged parents saying that their children learned to read on their own or that reading is a wonderful thing – we should promote it in any way possible. Number one, I know it’s possible that some kids just figure it out – my younger son certainly did, surprising us when he started reading the letters off my husband’s shirt a few months ago. It was not something we’d taught him at all. Number two, I absolutely agree that reading is wonderful and should be encouraged.

But could it also be possible that, underlying the desire to do what’s right for our kids by stimulating their little intellects and filling their minds with lots of valuable information, there’s something else at play here? Something a little selfish that you don’t want to admit?

I’m talking about peer pressure morphed into parental pressure. Peer pressure is an ugly thing when you’re thirteen, and your best friend makes a stupid decision and wants you along for the ride. It can either make you also do said stupid thing, or it can ostracize you from that friend when you say no. Either way, no fun, right?

But it doesn’t end when your zits disappear and your braces come off. It continues in fraternities and sororities, in the work place and across your neighbor’s fence. It’s the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mess, which can turn expensive if you’re susceptible to it. It can wreck marriages or throw a kink into what you thought was a lifelong friendship.

And if you’re a parent, you can drag your innocent children into it. You have the best of intentions, but you’re actually doing damage to the precious people that you love so dearly.

I’m not saying that I’m immune. Far from it. When my son Peter was a toddler, I was talking to a mom whose child was a little older. This other child knew the entire alphabet and most of the sounds the letters made. While impressed, I also felt guilty. My son could sort of sing the alphabet, but that was the extent of it. Knowing little about early education at the time, I thought that I was remiss as a parent because my own child’s brain wasn’t brimming with this knowledge. So I came up with a brilliant plan.

Peter had a cute, wooden train, each car holding a different letter. I decided that every time he mastered a new letter, I would put the next car on. He loved trains. It would be a fun reward for him. We never got past B. I tried computer games, but the only ones he liked had nothing to do with letters. I was frustrated when nothing seemed to work, and I assumed that there was something wrong with how I was trying to teach him. But there was hope: in preschool, the problem would be solved because he would be with a person who was qualified to teach him.

Except letters didn’t come any easier in preschool. By the end of his first year, he could almost always tell you how to spell his name (and when he couldn’t, it was because he mixed up the order of the middle letters), and sometimes he could even recognize those four letters when they weren’t in his name. Otherwise, he knew the letter O.

Although it took until he was almost seven to get the formal diagnosis, we now know that Peter is dyslexic. When he couldn’t learn his letters, it wasn’t his fault, wasn’t my fault, and wasn’t his teacher’s fault. I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I hadn’t tried to push him to do something at an age that was young for a normal child, not to mention unachievable for a dyslexic.

And reading isn’t the only place this happens.

Moms of babies, how often do you compare milestones with friends?

My child is seven months old and pulling up, but poor Susan – her baby is eight months old and hasn’t even crawled yet.

It’s hard not to feel that pride when your child does something that you think is Facebook status-worthy. I was thrilled that both of my boys walked at ten months, and I wasn’t shy about spreading the news. But that didn’t stop my elder son from having dyslexia. It didn’t teach my younger son how to behave.

One excellent resource that the Gesell Institute puts out is a booklet entitled “Ready or Not: Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten?” It points out that while the average child is able to walk at twelve months, the normal range is anywhere from eight-and-three-quarters to seventeen months. By two, all normal children can walk. Where is the relevance of my ten-month walkers now, when they’re seven and three?

Just as you don’t expect your newborn to get up and walk, you shouldn’t have ridiculous expectations for your child when it comes to reading. That’s not to say that exposure to words is bad or that certain children won’t start reading spontaneously. But it does mean that when it comes time to fill out college applications, the child who was seated in front of an encyclopedia at age two won’t have the upper hand over a child who learned to read in kindergarten.

So what are we parents to do? Are we not supposed to be proud of our children? Are we not supposed to encourage them when they show potential? A dad sees his four-year-old son chuck an acorn at a tree, and Dad immediately signs the kid up for the t-ball team (where he has just as much trouble tracking the ball flying toward him as he does reading without turning his head). A mom hears her two-year-old daughter singing along with the radio and starts looking for private music instruction.

Sometimes wonderful things happen. Star baseball players are discovered. Young musical prodigies attend Julliard and become famous concert pianists.

But sometimes Bobby complains that he doesn’t like t-ball, and then what do you do? It seems that parents are either reluctant to let him quit, thinking that he’ll get there one day if they keep pushing him, or they’re quick to involve him in another sport or activity because he’s got to be brilliant at something, right?

Maybe – and I know that I’m really going out on a limb here – maybe children need to be children. Maybe they are brilliant, yes, but that in no way means that they’ll miss their true calling unless they’re turned into little professionals right now. When they’re one or three or five or even ten, their true calling is to be a child. It’s to run around outside and catch lizards. Or to learn to ride a bike and even scrape their knees in the process. Or to have weekends that aren’t packed with activities, where they can bake cookies with their moms, help their dads wash the cars. Where the whole family can sit around and read a book together.

Through play, believe it or not, children learn. Play is their work. Putting puzzles together is a pre-cursor to reading. Building with large blocks can help them with math. Smooshing clay into pancakes or working it into balls with their little fingers develops fine muscles. Finger painting encourages hand-eye coordination, and cutting scrap paper with a pair of safety scissors teaches organization. (And I know, as a pre-school teacher, I might sound like I’m bashing my own job, but it’s nurturing and guided play that happens all day long with us.)

And reading… This one has a special place in my heart. Reading lessens discipline and self-esteem problems. It keeps kids in school, keeps them out of trouble (of course, good parenting is a big contributor, too, but then good parents often read to their children).

Since I’m such a big proponent of reading yet am getting onto parents for pressuring their kids to learn to read too early, what’s the solution? Read to your kids, of course. And not just moms – dads should be involved, too. Most nights, my husband reads a book like Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear to our younger son, and I read a chapter book with our elder son. Right now, that chapter book happens to be Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but at other times, it’s something easier, like Magic Tree House, that Peter can read to me.

Parents, quit pressuring your kids to be little adults. Quit expecting your schools to turn out mini physicists and doctors and poets by age four. And quit the boastful comparisons with other parents.

I don’t mean for everyone to immediately pull their kids from all ballet and music lessons, all gymnastics classes and tutoring sessions. As ever, you have to find the balance that’s right for your family. But that balance needs to include time to breathe, time to make a pile of leaves and jump on it, time to say yes to a trip to the park because you have plenty of time and aren’t stressed out about your packed schedule.

And when they’re tired and ready to rest, sit together and read a good book.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a list because, why not? Lists are cool. I wish I could take credit for it, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: my trainer from Gesell passed it out to everyone in our workshop, and I’m passing it on to you.

10 Reasons to Read to Your Child

  1. Because when you hold children and give them this attention, they know you love them.
  2. Because reading to children will encourage them to become readers.
  3. Because children’s books today are so good that they are fun even for adults.
  4. Because children’s books’ illustrations often rank with the best, giving children a life-long feeling for good art.
  5. Because books are one way of passing on your moral values to children. Readers know how to put themselves in others’ shoes.
  6. Because until they learn to read for themselves, they will think you are magic.
  7. Because every teacher and librarian they encounter will thank you.
  8. Because it’s nostalgic.
  9. Because for that short space of time, they will stay clean and quiet.
  10. Because, if you do, they may then let you read in peace.

And I’ll add my own #11: Because when the time is right (and it will be), they will read to you.

This Tree Has a Story

Tree #9 This Three Has a Story Photo by Sandy Malcolm

Tree #9, This Three Has a Story
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

When my friend, Karen Saltmarsh, told me that she wanted to write a book of creative writing prompts for kids, I said, “Let’s do it!” (You know that I can’t turn down a good book project.)

Karen has been an educator for 28 years, and she was one of my son Peter’s kindergarten teachers. Karen’s dream was to inspire children to tell creative stories, just as she taught her own children.

Amelia Island Plantation is where it started. First with her son and then two daughters, Karen immersed them in the wonder of nature on a daily basis. Any time they came across an unusual-looking tree, Karen prompted them to tell a story for how the tree came to be like that. “This tree has a story,” she would say.

This Tree Has a Story Cover Photo by Sandy Malcolm

This Tree Has a Story Cover
Photo by Sandy Malcolm

During her 28 years as a teacher, Karen has seen a number of changes, some welcome, others not as much. Twenty-eight  years ago, there wasn’t a TV in every classroom, much less a computer. And while technology has brought so many conveniences, so many benefits, there’s an enormous downside. Twenty-eight years ago, kids didn’t spend all afternoon sitting in front of their TVs playing video games. How many times have you heard someone reminisce (or reminisced, yourself) about the days when they came home from school and went right outside to play, only coming in reluctantly at suppertime?

A number of factors have contributed to this change, and while there still are many kids who do get to enjoy the outdoors, 21st century children are wired differently. As infants, they learn how to operate touch-screens. They understand texting and Facebook updates, even if they don’t have their own accounts. But here’s the thing: kids are still wired to love the simple act of playing. I’m talking about going outside and kicking a ball around. Or climbing a tree. Or looking for lizards. (Can you tell I’m a mom of boys?) When I was a kid, I pretended that azalea leaves were money. I learned how to suck the nectar from a honeysuckle. I ran laps around the backyard. I dug for roly polies. And even when I was bored, I went outside and whispered stories to myself.

There’s not enough of that going on anymore, and as a teacher, Karen has seen the negative results of this firsthand. In a time when brevity and instant gratification prevail, it seems that creativity and imagination are often shoved to the side. But when children have the opportunity to explore and create, amazing things happen.

When Karen first shared with me the dream that she’d been harboring for 25 years, she explained it as a book of writing prompts. But not just any prompts. She wanted to inspire children – children who are babysat by Nickelodeon or mom’s iPad, kids who live on the Xbox – to learn the art of storytelling in the same way that she taught her own children.

Our first step was to find interesting trees. At first, we collected photos from all over the country, but as we developed the book, the focus shifted from interesting or odd or unique trees in general to the trees of Amelia Island. It was the place where Karen received her original inspiration, so it seemed appropriate to start there. (But never fear, there is a short section with photos from other regions, too.)

We narrowed it down to 12 Amelia Island trees. As you can see from the cover photo, we included some really interesting ones. Karen chose one of these photos (the one at the top of this post, in fact) and decided to test her theory on kids in her own kindergarten class.

When I saw Karen that afternoon, she was practically bursting. “It works!” I think it was overwhelming for her to imagine her dream coming to fruition, but then to see it at work – it went beyond her expectations.

When Karen sat down with her kindergarteners, she simply showed them a photo and asked if they could tell a story about that particular tree. I did the same at home with Peter, who is a year older. Peter’s story, plus two from Karen’s students, are included in the introduction of our book.

Karen’s original vision was for the target age group to be from kindergarten to second grade, the years when students are really learning how to spell and write and structure. But after receiving some professional guidance from a child psychologist, we broadened the spectrum to K through 12 – and, of course, it doesn’t have to stop there.

If only we stop to look around, we can find a story in almost anything, and trees are a great place to start. There’s been quite a learning curve in structuring and formatting this book. We’ve searched, and as far as we can tell, there’s not another creative writing book like this on the market. This is wonderful and scary at the same time. Wonderful because we can do anything we want and not be expected to confine ourselves to some pre-existing convention. Scary because it was a challenge to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.

But we finally took This Tree Has a Story to print, and it’s now available. In addition to the trees, our photographer, Sandy Malcolm, took some wonderful photos of wildlife in the trees. These were too good to pass up, so there’s going to be a sequel. But first…

We’re going to conduct a pilot study, and we’re going to do it over the entire spectrum. We were wowed by the stories from the kindergarteners. I can only imagine what we might get from older kids. Kids who are going through adolescent trials. Kids who may never have tried to create a story before. Kids who don’t realize what kind of potential they harbor, that’s just waiting to be stimulated by, I don’t know, an interesting tree.

Karen and I are so excited, and we have lots of plans for our new book, not the least of which is that a portion of our proceeds will go to help preserve or plant trees in areas that have suffered from erosion and natural disasters.

I’m giving away 30 advanced reader copies, so you can conduct your own creative writing study with your students or children. If you’d like to throw your name into the hat, or if you have any other questions, please contact us via the contact form below.

The Proud Authors! Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh

The Proud Authors!
Sarah Cotchaleovitch and Karen Saltmarsh