Monthly Archives: April 2014

Pregnancy Is Not An Emergency

Over the years, our number one gripe about TV drama, scientifically measured by the number of times we roll our eyes and let out a big groan, is that you never get to see a child born without some terrible disaster taking place. One of our old favorites, the hospital drama E.R., was one of the worst offenders. Granted, it was an emergency room, but the number of times that seemingly healthy mothers were doomed by the very fact of being with child was ridiculously high. Cue the pregnancy alarm and turn on the ‘Oh no she’s dead’ music, STAT! … Fast forward to today, and NBC’s remake of the ultimate childbirth horror story, Rosemary’s Baby, is due in 10 days.

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Why would anyone risk starting a family after watching a season of primetime TV? It’s terrifying. Our first child was born in a hospital, and we survived. Add that to the plus column. But we chose to have our second child at home, because, we reasoned, childbirth was not a disease that needs to be cured in an operating theater. Our midwife was an R.N., and we were glad for her experience, because we were happy to have someone who knew the signs of trouble, just-in-case. But, we did not want to treat the beginning of our child’s life like a medical emergency, because it wasn’t. Of course, there are times when giving birth in the hospital is the prudent thing to do, and these days, hospitals do their best to make the experience less clinical and cold. We hope parents get educated about the options available to them when their baby’s ready. And we know that some parents will feel more comfortable giving birth in a hospital setting, and not because they expect things to go wrong, but for good reasons that we wouldn’t dare second guess.

But the wider culture seems determined to equate birth with danger, even horror. On the science fiction blog io9, a recent article lists 10 science fiction and fantasy stories that editors are tired of seeing (some graphic imagery on this site), and there, among the usual suspects (zombies, parallel universes, time travel, etc.), is “pregnancy horror”, because apparently, that’s a thing. Think about it: science fiction editors alone receive enough story submissions that feature a mother’s body as an object of horror that the market is saturated. Even though we personally don’t read these stories, we are not surprised. Strange as it is to see pregnancy listed along with zombies, we know that in our weird culture, what happens inside mothers’ bodies is enough of a mystery to become a metaphor for all sorts of fears.

We were tired of it years ago. How about this for a story idea: a man and a woman love each other very much; they come together and in the mystery of their love-making the happy outcome is that a child begins to grow inside the woman; and at the fulness of time, this child is born, not without some pain, but with a far greater measure of joy. Does this sound like a story we might tell to children? And what if it is a childlike perspective on childbirth? Does that make it less true?

 

This post first appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula Blog

Teenagers: a Whole New Relationship

I (Dave) had a conversation with a mom recently who had some concerns about her teenage son. These concerns were of the normal kind: he’s becoming more remote, less talkative, seemingly out-of-reach for this home-schooling mom who has been actively involved in his life. And she is very involved, thoughtful, careful, and supportive, which makes the current slowdown in communication especially difficult for her. Our conversation took an interesting turn for me when we left behind the discussion about his needs and began to talk about her needs and desires.

For parents, it’s all about the kids. We are the adults, and we give while they receive; we sacrifice, and they grow; we support and encourage and build the structures that provide a launching pad for their future success. Every parent would agree with this ideal, but this altruistic perspective can overshadow the equally powerful ways that we parents are blessed and encouraged and helped by our children. The parent-child relationship is a relationship, after all: it’s a two-way thing. Sure we have to be careful not to burden our children by looking to them to satisfy our adult needs. But at the same time, it is foolish to think that being a parent is all give and no receive.

And so the conversation turned for me when we acknowledged that her teenage son isn’t the only one going through a massive transition. She also is transitioning from a mother with a young child to a mother with grown man for a son. This isn’t happening quickly of course: he still lives at home, eats what is served him, and lives by some measure according to his parents’ rules. But he is beginning to change: he will take less pleasure in childish interactions and will need less from his parents, even as he faces some very adult problems. As he separates—for this is what’s happening—mom is feeling the change acutely. At this point, it’s natural for parents to wonder why we aren’t able to engage our children as we once did.

All this is complicated by the radically different way that kids and adults think of this transition. Kids passing through adolescence believe they are becoming less like their parents. After all, parents want to continue to enjoy the things of childhood with their kids (toss a ball, read a favorite book, lie in bed and talk, etc.). Because kids no longer want to do these things, they believe that they are outgrowing their parents. It would never occur to them that they are in fact, finally, growing to be more like them. It is difficult for both parents and kids to know how to shift the conversation to more mature matters. When and how, exactly, do we stop talking about favorite childhood storybook characters, and begin to talk about sex, drugs, rock and roll, death, and taxes? That we are in no hurry to make this transition isn’t a mystery.

It’s important to understand the dramatic change that we parents are going through at a point like this. For better or for worse, we are losing a relationship with a child. The time has come to begin to get to know the man or the woman that has taken over our baby’s room. It’s critical that we speak honestly and truthfully about what’s happening.

To be honest is to own our feelings of confusion and grief, as our children change. We are losing something good, something simple, innocent, and sweet, and neither parent or child can really prepare for the confusion that comes with this radical change. Most parents don’t want their children to remain childish, but that doesn’t make the loss of child-like qualities less jarring. We have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the difficulty of this change. It’s natural, and ultimately good, but painful nonetheless. We also should be able to own the fact that we have been committed to nurturing and guiding our children, and they will need this less as they grow. It’s not easy to let that go.

To be truthful is to name what’s happening in our children, and name it well—they are growing up. They are growing in strength, responsibility, power, and maturity. It’s important that we choose our words carefully here! It is too easy to be frustrated with their silence and isolation and moodiness and abrasiveness, and name these as problems, and point to them as the cause of family tensions. How much more encouraging and empowering to give them words for the positive transition that they are pulling off, even if it isn’t always smooth sailing. Strength, single-mindedness, courage, intelligence, passion, joy, and a keen desire for justice can be found in every teenager. Sure these new attributes are often to blame for clashes with parents, but we should see them for what they are—a part of their differentiation … and the beginnings of their adulthood.

Our children will probably always need us … or at least there will always be ways that parents can help their children. We see their strengths clearly, and we can speak up about them. We also see the weaknesses, but we know the world will do a fine job of pointing these out. We get to bless our kids. And maybe, as we encourage them to charge forward into adulthood, we will continue to get the blessing that only a parent can receive.

 

This post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Legislating early childhood education: good intentions

A little political reflection from a parent and preschool director.

Two senate bills that will affect early childhood education are in the news these days. These bills include some good innovation, but also threaten to weaken the good that already exists for our youngest students. SB 837 and SB 1123 each lower the age of publicly-funded education, and are good in many ways, yet could chip away at the strength of existing preschools and the expertise and community experience they provide.

I’d like to look at this from four perspectives: early childhood education, parenting, elementary education, and just me.

From the standpoint of an early childhood educator, the bills are good. They advocate for early childhood education. They take into account all the data showing that early childhood education raises better learners and stronger members of the community. Children who participate in preschools do better in the long term, academically and socially. It is the stuff educators have been saying and defending for years. The state of California has a good track record in this regard. In the 1950s the state began to establish a network of parent education cooperative schools (with education standards and curriculum guidelines) which were funded through public adult education schools. Many of these (such as those in the Sequoia Union high School District, and Santa Clara Unified) are still in operation, even though public funding has been recently eliminated. These bills add to the state’s long support of the need for early childhood education.

From the standpoint of parents, these bills are good. The intent of the legislature is to provide a stable and comprehensive early-learning and educational support system for children from birth to five years of age that promotes access to safe, high-quality, part-day and full-day services that support the development of the whole child, especially for those children who need it most… this means free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds. What can be better than that for parents?

From the standpoint of elementary schools, they might be good. If funding is provided, schools will be able to develop environments, add equipment, and plan for other upgrades to prepare for incoming preschoolers. Curriculum will be designed, staff will get special training, and the transition between preschool and elementary curricula could be seamless.

I recognize the good intentions behind the bills, and the potential good if they are implemented. However, as a preschool director, parent, and member of the community, I wonder what will happen to all the wonderful existing preschools in our neighborhoods?

The government might spend millions building the new system from the ground up … when the infrastructure to support young children at the beginning of their school careers already exists around the corner, down the street, in the neighborhood preschool. Could it be possible to legislate preschool for all without ignoring the resources that already exist? Existing, well-established, quality programs should be taken full advantage of: it’s hard to imagine, even at the end of what would likely be a difficult transition, that the level of specialized expertise available in established preschools can be replicated any time soon.

The developmental needs (social, physical, cognitive, spiritual, emotional) of 3 and even 4 year olds are very different than those of elementary school children. They need to be in environments designed to meet these needs. Environment includes classroom, materials, play yard, curriculum, and staff. Staff must have strong backgrounds in age-appropriate child development. These schools must also attend to the unique needs of parents at the beginning of their journey: they must be able to support families, involve parents in their child’s education, teach parenting skills, and work to bridge the home/school gap.

High quality programs which meet these needs already exist, but their existence will inevitably be threatened by low-quality, free alternatives. If funding were given to existing preschools, more children from lower-income families would benefit from the enrichment which leads to elementary school success.

What you can learn from reading the bills is that legislators are looking into what they call a mixed delivery system, which means that all kinds of infrastructure can be a part of delivering on the promise of preschool for all. This could mean that the state could start with existing infrastructure, endorsing and funding your local preschools. You can read about it in the literature, it’s a bullet point somewhere in the mix, but I fear that it might be practically lost in the rush to turn funding into an excuse to develop new programs at the expense of what already exists. I think using existing schools should be the primary way early childhood legislation is implemented. I say, start with what is already in place, get 3 and 4 year olds into existing preschools, and let elementary schools stick to what they do well—they have enough on their plate.

Many preschools are already suffering since Transitional Kindergarten is luring kids of a certain age away from Pre K classes. Public schools will take on more and more students (of earlier and earlier ages—ages outside of their training and expertise) while local preschools lose more and more students. I say fund existing preschools that meet key criteria and make preschool affordable for all who choose it. Just let’s keep our wonderful preschools and their well-trained early childhood educators in business … they already exist … for the good of every preschooler.

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog