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Saturday, October 20, 2007


Like all good parents, I want the best for my kids. So I strive to learn as much as I can, in an effort to know more about what that "best" might look like. I learn best from reading, but I also get great insight from talking with S and my mommy friends and from trying to be fully present and aware in the time I spend with my children. These days, almost all of my reading is related in one way or another to kids, babies, and parenting. Sometimes I feel like I'm studying for the Mommy Midterm. I'd probably do well to read some fluffy fantasy or silly sci-fi.

But no. There never seems to be the time for such diversions these days. Recently, I've been working my way through a stack of books about Waldorf education, potty training, and "gifted children." This week, it's titles like Hothouse Kids by Alissa Quart and Enjoying Your Gifted Child by Carol Takacs.

The reading has been both enlightening and infuriating. Both S and I were "gifted" kids, as well as being fairly sensible parents (though I say it myself) so it's not like we're totally clueless about all this. And long before reading Quart's book, I was absolutely convinced that I do not want to "hothouse" my children. We have yet to enroll BJ in any classes, we're holding off on preschool, and we certainly don't force him towards intellectual achievements. Sure, he's seen his share of Baby Einstein videos, but we harbored no illusions about their impact on his intelligence. Watching them was merely a way to gain the occasional 20 minutes of relative quiet. (It's interesting to note that, unlike her brother, BB wants nothing to do with these videos. They will interest her for a few moments, but that's all, whereas BJ was mesmerized.) It might be hard to believe if you don't know our family, but all the fascination with language, letters, and numbers really does come from him. We've surrounded our kids with books, and we read to them all the time, but we don't push things. Of course we encourage his interests, but they are his interests, and we'll do the same with BB.

Some of the stories that Quart tells made me shudder. I'd hate to think of myself as the sort of parent who schedules her child's every last moment. Though I have to say, for somebody who hasn't had children of her own, Quart is pretty harsh with some of the judgments she makes against parents. As a hothoused kid herself, she obviously has her own axe to grind. More than once I found myself wondering if she might have been more sympathetic if she'd had kids of her own.

It's always interesting when parenting books directly contradict each other. The best example from this week is advice about boredom. Here are some of Takacs' thoughts on boredom from Enjoy your Gifted Child :

The condition most intolerable to human beings is boredom! Children and adults will go to great lengths to escape boredom, reading the labels on bathroom cleanser containers or seeking a numerical sequence of license plate numbers to add interest to routine drives. Just as children have a right to sufficient food to nurture bodily development, they have a right to sufficient stimulation to nurture mental development. Children have a right not to be bored! (p. 40)

Sounds good, right? But contrast this with what Quart has to say in Hothouse Kids, as she is discussing the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex," which is her term for the trend of supposedly educational items such as baby videos, flash cards, toys, etc.

It seems to me that the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex exists, in part, out of a deeper fear than that of infants losing their learning opportunities. It responds to adults' fear of children's boredom. The edutainment products are, at bottom, meant to reduce unproductive boredom.

But what exactly is boredom, especially in infancy and childhood?....One specialist in gifted education suggests that an adult finger can be just as stimulating for an infant as the whirling dervish of rainbows on a Baby Einstein DVD.... parents who aren't sold on the need for stimulating DVDs can see that the perfect educational baby toys are everywhere: keys on a chain. They jingle. Babies get excited....

Such simple pleasures, which adults find boring -- and this is part of it: our inability, as adults, to remember how easily we were entertained during our infancies -- are often just what infants need. Their systems are ready for simplicity, not for a deluge of diffuse stimuli. (p. 43)

Granted, Takacs is writing nearly 20 years earlier, well before this "edutainment" phenomenon came fully into being. But the contrast -- and the absolute conviction with which each author makes her case -- really got my attention.

One has to wonder if these two authors are actually talking about the same thing. Quart is quite persuasive in her argument that boredom is the necessary fuel for imagination, that it provides the necessary space from which genuine interests will arise. She's writing within the context of overstimulation, of parents who will fill the void with anything and everything in an attempt to make their kid smarter, better, sooner. Tacaks, on the other hand, seems more concerned with the parents who want to downplay or even deny the intellectual potential of their children. In this sense, her plea for stimulation makes sense. One would be hard pressed to imagine the 'hothoused' child forced to fill her days by reading the labels on bathroom cleaners. (Of course, it's a moot point, since those containers would be safely locked away in a childproofed cabinet. But that's another issue.)

So I've been thinking about boredom a lot lately. Note that I said thinking about -- not experiencing. I can't remember the last time I was bored, really bored. Granted, it has been some time since I had an intellectually challenging conversation that wasn't about children.... where kids are concerned, there's lots to learn, ponder, and debate, no doubt about it. But hanging out most of the time with a baby and a toddler naturally results in more talk about playdough and the alphabet, and fewer discussions of a philosophical nature. (Though perhaps that will change when BJ hits the "Why?" stage.)

Some folks claim that spending time with kids is boring. As Quart points out, adults often have little tolerance for the repetition on which kids thrive, for the simplicity of children's pursuits. I see their point. (Of course I do -- I've only been at this parenting thing for 2 1/2 years, and already I've read and re-read and ultimately memorized too much horrible 'poetry' posing as kids books.) But I can't help but wonder: have those same folks taken the time to look at the world on a child's level?

It's much like prayer, or meditation. Kneel down, and allow yourself to watch -- really watch -- or talk, or play with a child. Be in the moment; this is key. Open yourself to the excitement and satisfaction a child feels when a beloved book is read for the hundredth time. Let yourself be a little silly. Laugh. Tickle. Roll around together on the floor. Above all, avoid the urge to watch the clock. Allow yourself to be with a child, especially your own child, and you won't be bored.


Julie said...

I don't know. There was a certain stage, right around one year or so, where I was quite bored. DJ was content to let me hold a container while he pulled the cap on and off over and over for A HALF AN HOUR. Or another similar activity.

Was he learning? Absolutely. But I gotta say that the fascination wore off for me quite quickly as he was wanting to repeat this activity numerous times daily, and for days on end.

I actually had to redirect his attention sometimes for my own sanity. I also found that sometimes a change in routine was necessary for *me* not to get bored.

So I agree that you're less likely to get bored when you get down on their level and engage in their play and see the world through their eyes. But I also can't deny that there are times when I need a little more intellectual stimulation than I get from simply doing that.

Jen said...

Oh, don't get me wrong --
as a parent, I've had my share of bored moments (or half hours). I think that clock-watching has much to do with it. The awareness of time, which we have as adults and which children lack (or have in a different way). Isn't that really what leads to boredom? I know that when I'm least bored, most engaged, I have no idea of how time is passing.

I was at my most bored as a parent when I was most aware of exactly how long we'd been doing whatever it was.... and, related to that, exactly how many hours I had yet to go in the day.

This happens less now that BB is on the scene, simply because everything is busier. I also find it more difficult to make time for being focused, one-on-one, with each of the children. Maybe that's why I can't remember the last time I was bored ;-)

Cara said...

That's all pretty interesting. I hadn't heard the term hot housing before, I have heard 'fast tracking' which I think is the same thing. I've found that what I call over stimulation they call fast tracking LOL!

I can't remember the last time I was bored either. I think it was before I got married :P

I think that I just don't have time to be bored- in the parenting example above, I *do* interact with my baby, I love to show her things and interact with her, but I might be spending the half hour folding laundry at the couch while *she* did the bottle cap thing. We might have the same thing going on as you do with 2 kids, with living in the country and me working from home doing transcription...

Have you been able to get a hold of You Are Your Child's First Teacher yet? I'm going to have to check out the books you're reading too. I love parenting books. I don't know why, but I just find them fascinating :)


Julie said...

I understand what your saying. We, too, strive to give our girls the best childhood, full of carefree days and just plain fun. This Fall, I have probably over scheduled ourselves with playdates, but easily cancel them before forcing the girls to go. I try hard to just just following their lead in planning out our day, and find that they do much better with a certain flow about our day (its why I came up with mt blog name) We have taken classes-swim, music, etc. but nothing that emphasized learning as much as fun :)
About being, can't remember a time. I am too far behind on everything to be bored :) I am really trying to just focus on being in the present when I am with the girls, to forget what I have to do or what we're going to do can be tough sometimes, but things are so much more relaxed when I do!

Jen said...

I hear ya, Julie, about being in the present... zen parenting, I guess. It's when I'm happiest as a mother. A challenge to maintain (and impossible to do all the time) but I'm always grateful for when I manage it.

Hey Cara, I'm working my way through "You Are Your Child's First Teacher." Thanks for the recommendation! I'm liking lots of it (though I find the anthroposophic stuff is a bit much) and it's an interesting read.