Friday, December 05, 2008


Today is my 30th birthday, and it started off with a bang -- Jasper (my toddler) woke up vomiting at 1AM. Norovirus is circulating in New York City and we were not spared. At least so far it has been better than last year's stomach bug (which also struck right after my birthday -- I'm beginning to think of norovirus as the universe's little "present" to me).

Anyway, Gifted Exchange was born long before Jasper, but the experience of parenthood has, of course, informed my thoughts on kids and learning. Among the realizations as I'm spending today (mostly) with him:

1. Children learn at their own pace.
The idea that parents can "make" their children advanced is just laughable. I'm a writer. I'm into, you know, words. I read multiple books daily to Jasper. I talk to him. I identify things by name and ask him to repeat the names to me. But did Jasper talk early? Hardly. We talked about delaying our 18 month pediatrician appointment so they wouldn't push speech therapy due to his lack of verbalization. He is, finally, expressing himself with a few words. His current favorite? "No." I'm not sure why I was so eager for him to talk just so he'd say that.

2. But boy, are they wired to learn. Kids are natural hard workers if they're given tasks that seem challenging and interesting. Jasper has this little toy which consists of four three-dimensional shapes, and a cube with holes in it in 2-dimensional versions of each of those shapes. He kind of banged it around right until 16 months (it makes annoying noises). Then one day, he looked at the cylinder, looked at the circle hole, and then tried sliding the cylinder through the hole. Bingo! The square and triangle came next, about a week later. He had to practice the star for a while, but now he gets all of them, and can also put his much smaller blocks through the holes in their container top, too. He has figured out creative ways to stick them through -- like that the small triangles will go through both the triangle and the square holes (since the triangles are one-half of the square). We got him a book of magnets in various shapes earlier this week, and yesterday he actually put the little triangle on the various triangle shapes in the book. None of this came easy for him, but he was so interested in figuring things out that he stayed with it.

3. Schools really have to assume a central role in serving kids. Yes, parents can always find other schools, move, hire tutors, bring kids to the library, etc. But the daily experience of being a working parent of a small kid -- and most parents do work outside the home these days -- is so exhausting that it's often hard to assess if your child is getting the best opportunities.

For instance, I think that Jasper has some musical inclination. He likes playing my keyboard -- not just banging it, but listening to the sounds the keys make. He also has some serious rhythm to him. I know these things. I also know about exposing kids to some feedback and instruction on their inclinations is a step in talent development (Tiger Woods was trying to hit golf balls by age 2!). But the only reason Jasper is now taking baby creative movement and music classes is that this year his daycare chose to offer them during center hours (I do have time to write a check). If I didn't do anything about developing these little inclinations of his, why would I assume that other parents would on their own, either?

Nurturing talent has to be a social goal. Schools have to give kids the chance to test out various inclinations, choose the ones they like and then work hard at getting better at them. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of curriculum compacting for gifted kids, to free up time to pursue their passions.


Leslie said...

Happy birthday and thanks for your blog- I love it!

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday. You're still a baby yourself!

Jasper sounds like a delight.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday and your blog is very interesting and intellegent.
Thanks for your hard work and enjoy NYC at Christmas with your toddler. Hope he's feeling better.

Jeremy said...

Happy birthday, and thanks for continuing this excellent blog. I agree with your first two realizations, and with the third too, but with a caveat -- the only way schools will be able nurture children and provide them what they need is if they become something other than schools. Something more like libraries, studios, dojos and labs -- where adults care about them and can help kids learn what they care about. Places with rich resources and mentors, where kids can experiment alone or with friends, and at their own pace.

Curriculum compacting is the main reason we decided to try homeschooling this year, both for our gifted daughter and our bright (but probably not gifted) younger daughter. They both benefit from working through an ability-based curriculum at their own pace(s). We've found that they can cover the curriculum in 8-10 hours a week, leaving lots of time for play, other learning, creative exploration and hanging out.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday!!!!

Thank you so much for this blog! It's a breath of fresh air.

I have a 22month old so your post definitely resonated with me. I love watching her figure things out.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, excellent post. You took the words out of my mouth. I'm a former homeschooling parent, daughter's now in high school.

I gave her an exit strategy today. I told her she could do math/science/ tech at the local college because she has real talent and aptitude in that area, I'd do English my husband would handle history, and we'd hire a tutor for Japanese.

Electives are the community, ballet and ice skating and an instrument. Time to do all those things she can't now because of her mountain of endless homework, much of it busy. Family time is essential, want to make time for hikes and long walks and intense literature discussions.

We'll see...

Anonymous said...

To clarify, I was describing what I'd love to do now, homeschool high school with the help of college and on line courses and a tutor. I wasn't describing college. Hopefully, she'll go away for that. I want to salvage the last bits of childhood before she flies the nest.

The Princess Mom said...

Good for you Anonymous. I have two homeschooled high schoolers (ds 13 and 14). I have nothing against them spending time at school during the day for social reasons, but they have to have time in afternoons and evenings for actual learning (not homework)!

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Laura!

Anonymous said...

Princess mom responds to me:

"but they have to have time in afternoons and evenings for actual learning (not homework)!"

I'm going out my mind. My daughter is in school all day and comes home to hours and hours and hours of homework. She has this look of grim resolve as she sits down to tackle it, rubbing her eyes, chasing off the fatigue.

This can't be right. I always knew it wasn't. She doesn't want to leave her school now because it offers her intellectual peers. But these homework marathons in high achieving schools? I just don't get it. Is it about the child or the school?

The problem with spending all one's available time doing what is prescribed is that it leaves no time for incidental learning. I know parents who fill up their young children's afternoon and evenings with supplemental classes and tutoring, all designed to gain a leg up.

But I was at a highly selective college admissions program the other night, and the guy waxed enthusiastically about the engineering school. Since my DD is really excited about engineering and physics, I listened up. Ironically, she could not accompany me, so saddled with homework is she perpetually.

The man said, are you the kid who was incessantly building structures out of leggos in the basement? That's a future engineer! Yep, that was my kid. Building, assembling, taking things apart.

Yet I know so many parents who would sneer at that playtime in the basement. Yes, there are parents who actually applaud mountains of homework because play is frivolous and not purposeful.

But remember. Building leggos and k'nex, daydreaming in the backyard, designing a forte in the woods, these are not idle pursuits. They stoke the imagination, feed curiosity, nurture creativity and the little boy who seemingly whittles his afternoon away staring at the ceiling could just be constructing the next great theory in physics.