Time to teach, nothing that “matters”

Sometimes I look with longing at the single-child families. The time those parents have to share with their children and be intentional about life. How they can all sit together quietly, while teaching their kids to count to 100, identify trees, recite the names of all the planets and how to read and speak two languages, just for fun. All before their 3rd birthday.

I have felt the sting when I hear another preschooler can write their name, or another baby is potty training at 8 months and I have wondered if we are failing to help our own kids along. But, maybe as a way of assuaging my guilt, I have also felt confused by the preoccupation with milestones and put off by the whiff of competitiveness it suggests to me.

When Serafina was 9 months old, another mom with a new baby asked me, “What is she doing these days? What is she into?” I think the answer to the question was supposed to be a list of her latest achievements, followed by a list of enriching activities that brought her joy. The best I could offer was something like, “She’s only waking up three times a night to nurse usually. And she really likes these silicone measuring bowls we have in our kitchen.”

I’m confident our children *will* learn to count to 100 and one day they will read and hopefully even study another language. Does it make a difference if that happens ahead of the typical schedule for these things? Maybe? Maybe not.

I don’t know if it’s true, but all of this also has smelled distinctly American to me, and distinctly privileged American to me. What are the end goals of this early striving? Better test scores? “Smarter” kids. Does it matter when you’re 40 how old you were when you could write every letter in the alphabet? (Which makes me wonder about another question — what does matter when you’re 40? I will find out soon enough.)

I had a wonderful moment of validation a few weeks back when I read this, which called out our American tendency to push hard for early communication, literacy and academic victory and put it in contrast to the milestones that are at the top of the list in other parts of the world. Milestones elsewhere looked less “measurable” — a sense of independence, caring for others, especially younger siblings, social responsibility.

We might be short on time to bake muffins for our new neighbors (a thing I would like to do with Serafina since some new people have moved in), but on our nightly walk last week, we did welcome them warmly and introduce ourselves. It was an act of kindness and generosity that we received from others when we moved to our street two years ago and our friendly, regular chat with neighbors has struck me since then as a fundamental lesson that will be present in our kids’ young lives. I have no idea if this is a thing that will stand out or make an impression on them, but if I had the time to teach Serafina how to count to 100 right, it would be just as much of a guess on the impact of that.

In my own young life, there was very little emphasis on milestones. My own under-educated, working and working class parents operated on the opposite end of the striving spectrum and pushed us to do basically nothing. The upshot was that my brothers and I were free to pursue what we naturally stumbled on as interesting — and that resulted, in my case and my younger brother’s case, in a love for books and early literacy; in my older brother’s case, an ability to pickup basically any trade.

What was noticeably absent for us was a deeper sense of confidence and support to explore more, or any of the funding and parental support (in the way of rides, encouragement) to go beyond that initial discovery if we did. What was emphasized instead was family: we were devoted to our time with grandparents, cousins. We were taught loyalty, to care for them and help them and to rely on them to return that care and help when we needed it. It was my job from as early as I can remember to help in the daily care of my younger brother. I think there is something to that.

But here we are, Darry and I, living the life of socio-economic straddlers — not quite inhabiting the working class space and mindset that kept me in an insular world as young person, also not quite having the wealth and opportunity to feel free as a bird as an adult.

Darry and I are conscious of that straddling, but most especially of what was absent from our own childhood. We want to make sure we are nurturing and present in a way that will help our girls feel safe and invited to pursue what they like. But we can already see the glimmers of the disadvantage they will have next to their peers because we are working people with limited time, money and energy. I hope our priorities of love and happiness for us and our family will be enough to even out any of those gaps.

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