Early Childhood Learning

Today Samuel wacked himself on the foot with a wooden spoon. I’d like to say it was an accident, but it really was quite purposeful. He had been banging an upside down laundry basket and enjoying the satisyfing thud of the spoon against the plastic. This is a fourteen inch piece of wood and he has quite an arm, so the noise was not insignificant. Then he had to start exploring what sounds he could make whacking the carpet and the floor and other surfaces, with a big smile on his face after each impact. When he unexpectedly and quite deliberately took aim at his foot, there was a loud smack. He did smile at first, but the smile quickly dissolved into dismay and bewilderment, followed closely by a simpering whine. Dawn was there in an instant, but sometimes you just have to say, “Buddy, it sucks to be you.” He did learn from his experience though. The wooden spoon lay on the floor well within reach for the rest of the afternoon and evening, but he never picked it up again.

Earlier in the day I volunteered to walk him and Rose down to the library so Dawn, who is sick, could catch up on some sleep. It’s about a twenty minute walk at Rose’s pace with Samuel in his wheels, and Rose chattered the entire way down. We had a warm spell yesterday, but overnight we went back to the mid forties. Fortunately there was no breeze and the sun came out so it was a comfortable walk, and even Samuel didn’t mind being confined to his stroller.

Our library was built over a hundred years ago, I think. A simple classical stone structure with some decorative columns in front. The interior is full of scrolled wood trim and heavy solid wooden tables and bookshelves. There is a small atrium with a fireplace, a wide carpeted staircase to the second floor, and wainscotting in the marbled bathroom. Several years ago, a children’s library addition was built. It has a separate entrance, and while the architecture blends nicely with the old building (the original exterior was left in place, and you can touch the stone wall in the stairwell), you can tell it is a more modern design inside. Not as classical perhaps, but the central air conditioning in summer makes it far more pleasant than the main building.

We took the elevator up to the second floor where it opens to a small enclosed foyer with a window facing the children’s library room. Food and drink are not allowed in the library, but this is a small town and exceptions are easily overlooked if not broadly flaunted. I sat with the children below the level of the window and fed them crackers and fruit leather, while Samuel kept pointing to the elevator and saying “See!” He wanted to see the elevator again and go for a ride. I wasn’t going to oblige him, but we started hearing a loud THUMP Thump Thump Thump THUMP Thump Thump Thump which kept repeating from somewhere beneath the floor. There is a room down there available for community events, and soon we heard people chanting along.

“That sounds like the Native American music we sang at my school, Papa.” And Rose was absolutely right. I assumed it was some event for children, not because we were in the children’s library, but because there had been an unusually large number of children milling about the building for a Saturday morning, and they had all disappeared. So we decided to go “See!” We took the elevator down and stepped into the foyer just outside the meeting room. There was a large floor-to-ceiling glass window, so we could see inside pretty well without having to squeeze through the crowd. The room was packed with parents and children. I didn’t recognize any of them, but they seemed like a familiar type of crunchy graDawn crowd I’ve run around with for years. In the center of the room was a large native American drum, about four feet across. An older woman sat in front of it beating it with a wooden mallet. Several children, all preschoolers, stood around the drum beating it with the hands at the same time. They were all chanting together, the entire room, and these were the words:

The wheels on the bus go round and round
Round and Round, ROund and round.
The wheels on the bus go round and round
All over town.

Samuel began to pout, and Rose looked at me and said, “Papa, I don’t want to go in that room.”

If nothing else, my children have excellent taste. It reminded me of an incident about three years ago, when Rose was nearly two years old, we went to the Anchorage Folk Festival where I was performing with my Old Time string band. Our band was practicing in the hall, so Dawn took Rose up to see the performances. She came back fifteen minutes later with Rose on her shoulders crying and saying, “Stop! Stop!” and Dawn was laughing. She told me that there was a group of dancers on stage in silver bolos and fluffy starched petticoats with metal clogs tapdancing to disco music by The Village People, “YMCA” if I remember correctly. Apparently, not ten seconds into this performance, Rose started screaming, “Stop the music! Stop the music!”

Mutual Admiration Society

I suppose all parents are familiar with the ingenious skill with which their children can make them both proud and angry, but my daughter has recently begun to master the art of flattery. Has anyone else experienced this with their four-year-old?

She can be as whiny and surly as any Bowery Street loafer, especially when we interrupt her reading and chivy her to the dinner table so she can pick at the few calories she has condescended to eat. But I’ve noticed that sometimes, just sometimes, if we respond to these episodes with patience and kind words, she’ll spin on a dime and start saying wonderful,unexpected things to us.

“Papa, you’re the best Papa in the whole world.”

“Samuel, you’re soooo cute!”

Or my all time favorite:

“Mama, you’re the best Mama I was ever born with.”

The best part of this performance, in fact the most incredible part, is that it is not a performance. There is no expectation of applause, no reciprocity beyond a “thank you” expected, though often we lavish praise back. It is never followed up with requests for candy or gifts or five more minutes before bed time. It is genuinely from the heart. What did we do right?

I have to contrast this with something I read in a local, now somewhat defunct, Montpelier newsletter called Mama Says. This was a parent-focused periodical, but unlike other popular parent-focused magazines that you can find in medical waiting rooms, it boldly declares its focus on parents rather than children. Unlike glossy, ad-splashed magazines like “Parents,” it does not spend pages assuaging the guilt of double-career parents trying to maintain a semblance of their single lifestyle (am I being judgmental here? ;-). This newsletter was a padded room for mothers to scream out the frustrations of their emotional depression and anatomical erosion. It avoided any mention of childhood development. The editors felt this was already sufficiently covered in numerous other periodicals, and they were offering a different and unique service to the community.

I supported the concept, for those who wanted it, but I was astonished at the lack of mediation. This was literary group therapy without a therapist, and every once in a while I read soemthing that came across as glaringly inappropriate advice. It is one thing to share and validate the turmoil of motherhood, especially for young mothers who have not settled into their new role. It is an entirely different thing to suggest situational remedies that are repudiated by most child development experts. Remember, this is a newsletter written by parents for parents, and people could say whatever was on their mind.

I am thinking of a small example that truly got under my skin. One woman wrote an essay explaining how she had no intention of teaching her children to say please or thank you. She felt that her job as a parent was to develop her child’s inborn sense of appreciation, and that her child would eventually offer her pleases and thank yous spontaneously and with more heart-felt warmth than her peers. I would wager a guess that this particular parent had her P’s and Q’s drilled into her by a prim Victorian aunt or schoolmaster, and this was her way of avoiding that same mistake. I think it is wonderful to help children appreciate the world, but why would you neglect your responsibility to teach them basic social interaction? How will they learn to mediate this bizarre American culture they were born into, to know what to say and when to say it, without a model or instruction? No one is suggesting that she stand over them with a switch or have her children recite Miss Manners tutorials. I truly wish this woman well and hope her experiment succeeds, but I believe there is a happy medium, and I can point to my own children as supportive, if anecdotal, evidence that teaching manners does not have to be boring, cruel, or didactic (my new word of the day – thanks Debby!).

Ha! Foof!

Night before last, when Rose and I were done with dinner, I was getting her ready for bed when I heard Dawn and Samuel laughing their silly heads off at the table. She called me over and Samuel was giggling like a school girl. The laugh slid into a chortle before dropping into the deep-throated raspy maniacal laughter that I love so dearly – Snidely Whiplash as a lad. I’ve often wondered how he’d look with a handlebar mustache.

What brought on this fit of merriment was a new joke that Samuel invented all by himself. He looks you in the eye with a smiling and uncertain face, as if he isn’t sure you are going to appreciate the humor but it’s too dang funny to keep to himself. Then he says very clearly, “Ha! Foof!” and breaks into peels of laughter.

He’s been saying this on and off for two days, and it never fails to bring at least a smile to everyone’s face, if for no other reason than his own infectious merriment. When he woke from his nap yesterday with a sopping wet diaper, he was in a miserable mood. He was clinging to Dawn with the ferocious stength of an 18 month old child who needs his fingernails cut, his lower lip pouting and his face buried in her once-clean, now tear-stained, shirt. I called his name gently and when he turned his face slightly towards me, I Ha-Foofed him. A big smile spread across his features and he leaned back a bit from Mama’s shirt, loosening his death grip enough that she could shift him to a more comfortable position.

Everytime I hear him say it, I picture a teenager sneaking out of a house with an enormous pile of feathers, out to commit some act of adolescent vandalism, when someone, a parent or big sister, creeps up behind him and catches him in the act. Aha! (Foof!)