Contractions, kindergarten, middle school and tomorrow

IMG_7276My material is growing up. It’s going to middle school tomorrow. And 3rd grade. On Wednesday, kindergarten. Pretty soon, their stories will be their own—not mine to tell.

I’m sitting here with two glasses of wine and a glowing candle. When it goes out, I’ll stop writing and go to bed. For now, it is suspending me between summer vacation and children who grow up too fast. I had a toast with the 2nd glass, poured for my husband who can’t stop folding laundry. He also did some chores tonight that he’s had in the works for years. We have different suspension systems.

Tomorrow when I wake up I have to pack lunches and deliver my babies. It doesn’t feel that different than impending births. They still kick me in the ribs–especially my youngest. In utero, he once kicked me so hard it knocked me off course, foreshadowing the kid to come. At nine months, he climbed out of the crib, de-diapered, crawled down the stairs, ascended our countertop, removed a bottle of children’s IB profen from the cupboard and finished it as I rounded the corner after finding his crib empty.

Whenever I speak sternly with him, he responds, “Geez, Shawna,” as if we should be working things out woman to man. He is enterprising and canny and luckily, cute.

I am hoping his kindergarten teacher sees him that way too.

Speaking of small men, my oldest has turned twelve. I anticipate I will soon have a bearded transportation engineer on my hands and it will be time to retire to the lake and start selecting a nursing home. My rational self reminds me he still plays with toy trains.

I shared with my husband last week, “After they grow up, it seems like life will just be hard.” He reminded me that life with little ones is actually really, really hard. And no, we should not adopt a baby girl now.

I don’t actually want more babies. I want to know today who I will be with no babies in my house, the same way I anticipated who I would be once motherhood began.

Yesterday I ran 9 miles. Today, I walked the dog, hiked with the family, swam with my middle son and did some stairs. I have no babies to rock all night and toddlers to chase all day. I may break up more arguments, clean more wounds and talk through more hurts, but I feel a bit like a stretched out balloon that now takes more air to refill. For the first time in a long time, I have both a capacity I did not realize before parenting and time to fill it with a few more things for me.

Or so I think today. I am also still in transition to full time work outside of the bouncy castle that is our home. So far, though far busier, it feels less hard on my body. Sometimes, I speak in paragraphs and finish cups of coffee. But I am entering the unknown and nervous. Reprieves have tended to come and go like contractions over the past thirteen years.

I remember when my oldest was crying in my arms at the JCC when he was about a year old. A beautiful older woman who spoke very little English walked up to us and started to gently rub his brow. He fell asleep. She said, “Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems,” and walked away.

At this moment, I feel ill prepared for the heartaches of big children. I have worked in teen health since 1996, but it is so different with my own. Puberty, acne, choices, disappointments, bullies, grades, first loves, stress, insecurities, hormones…all lay ahead. I am more nervous for me than I am for my middle schooler because I am equally excited for him and self-discoveries ahead. How in the world could I stretch this balloon any thinner? What will it feel like for me when their lives feel hard to them and I can’t fix it?

My kindergartner is excited for school. My 3rd grader whimpered as I held him tonight, “I don’t want to grow up,” and “Do I have to go to school?” He is my tender-hearted, wispy-haired artist. I tell him I have a good feeling about this year for him. I swallow my own tears. The kicking of ribs and contractions have yet to cease.

We did not know how hard childbirth would be. Yet the babies arrived. Why fear what lies ahead when it seems we never knew our capacity to begin with?

The candle is flinching. It’s time to let tomorrow come.

A one-marshmallow world

“Stanford researchers see trouble ahead for kindergarten students with low self-regulation unless parents and teachers help.”

Summary: The basis of this article is new research surrounding the Stanford marshmallow experiment. As Sanders writes, “young children were offered one small marshmallow now, or two marshmallows in 15 minutes if they could resist eating the first one. Children with low self-regulation ate the first marshmallow. In follow-up studies these youngsters tended to grow up to be teenagers with lower SAT scores, higher body mass indexes and higher rates of drug abuse.”

Sanders goes on to explain that this study demonstrated first grade academic success is partially dependent upon “high self-regulation,” and “a low-conflict relationship between student and teacher.” The good news is that research from the University of California, San Francisco (http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/Portilla-ObradovicANGxp1.pdf) shows that supportive classroom management and parent engagement can improve outcomes for kids who enter kindergarten with low self-regulation.

photo-4The scientist in me had to look deeply into the validity of the marshmallow experiment and this follow up, but it is indisputable: the study design was decent. “Low regulation” was determined in the secondary study by teacher and parent questionnaires rather than an oversimplified marshmallow test. I appreciate this. I also appreciate the findings: good parenting and good teaching can help kids who are not as emotionally ready for kindergarten to catch up before first grade. My discomfort doesn’t even lie with the fact that a good deal of money and time was spent proving what most of us assume logical. In fact, there is value in identifying factors that lead to school failure. But herein lies the rub.

This study rials me up for the same reason it bothers me that kindergarten no longer prepares kids for grade school. Kindergarten is the new first grade; ask any kindergarten teacher who has been in the business for 30 years. We now demand things of kindergartners that are not necessarily developmentally appropriate for all 5 and 6 years olds. For those who are not “ready,” we often point to their lack of pre-schooling or parenting instead of their lack of time out of the womb. I believe play serves a purpose longer than we give it run in the U.S., whether kids are at home or in daycare. I think creativity and art and time to think without letters and numbers and the constraints of a classroom environment, with abundant recess and songs and perhaps some digging, painting and moving, fosters better thinkers, learners, workers and citizens for today’s world. In fact, research also supports playtime. I wish for children that kindergarten still focused on organizing play and regulating behavior in preparation for first grade.

I think some kindergartners should want to snatch marshmallows and shouldn’t give a crap about the future. I think little ones should be praised for acting on their impulses and being in the present moment. Who decided wanting more is smarter? Perhaps one of many roots of the problem in education today is what is haled as THE SOLUTION in this study. Rather than kindergarten teachers receiving training to identify low self-regulation for targeted nurturing, I wish kindergarten teachers were trained to value low-self regulation because it is developmentally appropriate, embracing kids acting like kids and their wonderful present-mindedness and impulsivity.

What kind of culture shift would we create if kindergarten teachers felt able to be genuinely DELIGHTED by disregulation? I am not suggesting we allow children to act like monsters. My own children have manners they sometimes exercise and we manage their mood swings and choices. I am suggesting that if schools went one step further and actually accepted low self-regulation as developmentally appropriate, rather than encouraging “low” students to be more like the highly self-regulated kids currently destined to achieve, perhaps things would improve for everyone. Perhaps education equity would begin. Perhaps the achievement gap would start to close. Not because we caught them up, but because we saw the value in their childishness.

I am suggesting that perhaps the reason the less self-regulated children in kindergarten end up with lower SAT scores, higher body mass indexes and higher rates of drug abuse is actually because, from the moment they entered a school, the pressure to have children succeed on tests demonstrated to them that they were less-regulated, and therefore less prepared, and therefore less able, and therefore less destined to succeed than the kids who could wait for two marshmallows. I am suggesting there might be something intrinsically valuable about the kids who took one marshmallow: perhaps those kids just wanted one damn marshmallow from the beginning. But as soon as they reached for it, someone judged them. Perhaps the low SAT-scoring kids, and the fat kids, and the addicts were actually destined to be the leaders, and the innovators, and the feelers, until they were asked to be different, implying, that they weren’t enough from the beginning.

As a teacher, a camp counselor, an outward bound leader, a health educator and having spent most of my career with so-called “at risk” kids, I want to live in the world that THEY create. What I hope for my children and for the future of my world is that teachers across the country feel free to turn to the one-marchmallow kids and say, “you have just as much potential.” And NOT “you have as much potential as those other kids if you change, and soon.” But, “you have just as much potential, perhaps more, just as you are. Look over here kids, we have a leader among us.”

Fail well, little one

imageToday my second child went off to kindergarten. He wore the blue plaid “kindergarten shirt” his big brother wore on his first day. When he boarded the bus and sat down, the window revealed only a blond tuft and his little waving fingers. My husband said “he looks so small” and his voice broke, eyes wet, he giggled self-consciously and had a little cry. This day did not sneak up on me the way it did my husband. I have been home with him full time for five years. I feel like I have given him all a mom can provide in these early years before school starts. That feels good. He is ready and I am ready. I admit, I am excited to have a little more help fostering and molding this guy’s life.

I did the follow-the-bus-to-school thing and when I met him there, he got off the bus with his big brother’s arm around him and did not acknowledge my presence. When Tenny went his own way, he peeked behind his shoulder to make sure I followed. I brought him to his hallway, took pictures and helped him find his locker. We met his teacher, put on his name tag, practiced his lunch number and found his miniature table. When his eyes were no longer glossy I said, “can I give you a hug?” “No.” “Kiss?” “No.” “Pat on the back?” “No.” “Can you squeeze my hand?” Big, tight squeeze under the table. I had my teary moment.

imageAll week we have been talking about kindergarten and his only concern has been “what happens when you get sent to the Principal’s office?” I am not sure how he even discovered this concept. Arthur, PBS’s biggest nincompoop? A poor, hastily selected movie? Big brother? But I have said over and over again, “you won’t.” I have said, “you are a good boy,” which is only a small stretch of the truth. But last night as I snuggled him to sleep he brought it up again, so I took a new approach. I told him “I expect you to make mistakes in kindergarten. We all make mistakes when we are learning.” He turned his head toward me, which this independent, non-auditory learner rarely does. “Kindergarten is for learning how to learn. Learning means trying and if you try really hard, you will fail sometimes. If you make a mistake and get sent to the Principal’s office, he will be stern but kind and help you to understand how to do better next time. You will learn something if you fail well.” He responded, “Faiw wewl?” “You got it, buddy. Fail well.”

When I got home I filled out the kindergarten paperwork. Plink, plink, plink. Tears on page as I filled in the blank “what do you hope your child will learn in kindergarten?” I hope he learns to love learning. I hope he learns that he is a very capable being. I hope he discovers his own awesomeness. But most of all, I hope he learns to try, fail, and keep going. Right now he has try, fail, and fall-apart-in-glorious-splendor down. But it’s time for something new; something sustainable. Which means, it’s time for me to let him go. Let’s face it; he will probably reserve fall-apart-in-glorious-splendor for his dad and I for years to come. And that’s why it’s time for me to squeeze his hand under the table, tell myself I have prepared him well, walk out of his kindergarten room, call my mom, and fall apart in glorious splendor.

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