catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 14 :: 2011.07.22 — 2011.09.01



Before I had children, I had plans. I thought my husband and I would start teaching our kids early and intensively, that they’d be reading by age three, bi-lingual before grade school; I imagined them as young children trotting through art museums, sketchbooks in hand, pausing to render their impressions in charcoal. We’d do some version of a Great Books education; we’d introduce them to the best of all that’s been thought, written, painted, composed, performed, filmed. Basically, I was imagining our theoretical children as empty backpacks that we’d load up with great stuff (okay, the stuff we thought was great) and emblazon with cool patches and buttons to make all that awesomeness known to the world. And then we had Aidan.

Like all new parents, my husband and I fervently believed that our son was, objectively speaking, the most beautiful child we had ever seen. He was exquisite and tiny; in place of baby fat, he had the defined physique and proportions of a very small, athletic man. But that was just the beginning of what was unusual about Aidan. While most babies (including our second son, Graeme) have a sleepy period of several weeks or so following their births, Aidan was oddly alert much of the time. We’d prop him on a nursing pillow on the table while we ate, and as we did so, we noticed that his head would turn, slowly, toward the window. If we moved him to a place where he couldn’t see out of the window, he would grunt and struggle. He cried a lot. My husband said many times that it seemed like he was angry that he couldn’t move or talk.

Seems like he was right, too. With each stage of development Aidan grew happier and less fussy. Decreasing fussiness is usually attributed to the maturation of the infant’s nervous system, and maybe that’s so, but I’ll never forget the first time Aidan was able to hold his butterfly rattle himself and bring it to his face. He was all of eight weeks old, but he was deeply intentional and seriously joyful. As soon as he could hold his head up, he insisted on being held in a sitting or standing position for what seemed like hours at a time. He would study each of his toys in turn, and then reach for water bottles, sunglass cases, keys, cooking utensils, and he had a special fondness for very small circles or dots. When Grandma held him while wearing an eyelet blouse, he was in ecstasy, his tiny forefinger testing each eyelet with utmost precision. He smiled broadly and often. We considered teaching him sign language, but mostly we just learned to read the signs he made up on his own.

Aidan, now nearly six, is much the same child as he was then. He’s passionate, curious, observant, active, intentional and determined to direct rather than to be directed. When we sit to do schoolwork, it’s almost always an interruption to his plans, which inevitably involve either Legos, sticks or pails of water in the yard. He has no interest in breaking any early-reading records, although he’ll eagerly listen to a full-length novel in one sitting. (Of a recent audiobook classic, he reported that he loved the story, but that, at three hours 15 minutes, it was much too short.)   The “why” questions that I thought would fade away after age four persist with such frequency that I occasionally set five-minute timers to indicate question-free periods. His current obsession centers on medieval times, castles, knights and Arthurian legend; he pores over library books with drawings and then sets up elaborate battle scenes, complete with Lincoln Log battering rams wheeled in on Lego carts outside the walls of a cardboard box castle. (The child of pacifists, he’ll freely affirm that since only God can make a life, only God should take a life, but he’s willing to adjust his ethics for the sake of a satisfying re-enactment of Agincourt.)

Occasionally I get nervous about Aidan’s education — worried about when he’ll finally start reading books on his own or concerned that we’re not “doing school” for enough hours each day.    I always imagined our family as the high-achieving kind of homeschoolers — the ones who not only play the violin beautifully but masterfully craft the instruments in between acing achievement tests and volunteering for humanitarian aid projects. (Not that my husband and I are anything remotely like that, but, you know, you want your kids to surpass you.) I am the kind of person who tries to follow curricula, though. Tonight I made zucchini pancakes, and before I made them, I consulted several cookbooks plus several versions of zucchini pancake recipes on the internet plus a webpage discussing the pros and cons of pre-draining the zucchini before cooking before I actually cooked anything. I like to have a plan, and I guess I used to think that I could have a plan for my kids — that the right reading lists and stimulation and curricula would produce a certain kind of kid. I guess what I didn’t count on was that Aidan (and Graeme after him) would have plans of his own.

Around the time I began to understand this, I became aware that research actually supports the kind of learning my young children engage in all by themselves — that, in fact, the disappearance of imaginative play from the lives of many children (thanks to classrooms decked out with tiny desks and computers, communities that are either inhospitable or unsafe for children’s play and too much time in front of television and video games) is utterly unhealthy in every way and in fact contributes to learning problems. By contrast, playing sculpts the brain, conditions the body, makes people smarter, happier, more adaptable and more creative. And, well, it’s fun. Is it a coincidence that mathematical concepts come almost as naturally to Aidan as breathing? He happens to be well above grade-level in mathematics, but it’s not because we’ve drilled the concepts into him. It’s because he followed on his infant love of dots and holes with a devotion to Legos, and in order to build medieval castles out of Legos, he had to become familiar with the way Legos work, and to do that, he needed to learn how numbers work. But in all of this, the process was fluid and joyful — serious, to be sure, full of purpose and planning — but nonetheless permeated with a playfulness that moves me deeply because it seems, somehow, so very close to the joy of the Creator in his good Work.

There are so many things that Aidan needs to learn. I’m humbled by the responsibility of bringing him up and helping him make his way in the world, but no longer do I see him as an empty sack to be filled up and decorated as I see fit. Yes, I choose books to read to him and make him practice his violin. I teach him about God. I teach him not to pick his nose. And I still make plans regarding his education — I search out quality curricula and read educational theory. I even use workbooks sometimes. But in all this I’m conscious of something I never really understood before I met Aidan — that the real challenge is learning to tread lightly in the garden of possibility that is my son. The fertile soil there, bursting with life and growth, must have light and air and space. Are there weeds to uproot, and seeds to plant? Sure. But more importantly, there’s play — a serious, joyful play that pokes fun at all my plans and points me toward my Creator and away from the “need to achieve.”

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