Musings

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I used to proudly announce that L, now 7, was really really clever and brilliant and super bright and way ahead of her age. And then I stopped.

I’m not sure why. It’s difficult to think about. I think it’s partially that she wasn’t reading fluently until she was almost six, in spite of reading at least a bit from age three. It’s partially that people can be quite nasty when one says one’s child is bright. Some of it is that she has never been as visible in her achievements as other children – she tends not to write cute angry notes, or do sums I can point at, or tell everyone everything she knows obsessively, like some other children. I’ve never had a nice clean progression of her academic achievements to draw on. When she’s consciously learning something she denies all knowledge of it – even what she used to know before she decided to learn more – until she reaches a level of competence she herself is comfortable with.

And the late reading thing really got to me; I can’t remember being unable to read, and I know for sure I was reading ok at three and very competently at four, though my handwriting was atrocious and got me into a lot of trouble until I was seven or so (after that it was just impossibly tiny).

Then I had E, now 5, and she wasn’t as obviously miles ahead of the curve, and is also temperamentally much easier in a billion ways, though less independent and outgoing and so on. And I got less and less comfortable with the comparison inherent in “gifted” as a description. E is gifted at being easy to get along with, but still hardly reads at all – almost no whole words – even though she writes a lot.

And A is 18 months and she’s more like L, though less extreme, and using words like “gifted” or even “clever” makes me very uncomfortable at the moment, because compared to other children – which is what “gifted” and “clever” do automatically, they are comparisons to the norm – I might be mislabeling them.

And I worry that they’re not gifted enough when I see other people’s children discovering the cure for cancer etc. Mine are discovering what happens when you soak all the cardboard pieces in a board game and send the plastic bits for a ride around the bathroom in the pirates’ dinghy.

Clutter

(For The Friday Club)

I’ve been actively decluttering since before the first baby was born to this house.

You can’t tell.

But actually, you can, if you used to know what it looked like before. Two adults filled three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and a garden shed, and still kept a lot of stuff up in the attic. Now we are two adults and three children, and we have two bedrooms for family use, and a spare room for guests which has a place (only one, but a place) for them to unpack their stuff, if there isn’t much stuff, and more room to move in the downstairs rooms than we used to.

It’s partially because children NEED more space to move. Their time at home isn’t spent sitting still in their house doing things, it’s spent moving around their house doing things. They need space to run and dance and spread stuff out on the floor to glue, and enough room to open the front of the dollhouse, and they also need the same sleeping and wardrobe space the adults need, more or less.

So we have gradually decluttered, while never feeling in the least minimalist. We found FLYlady very helpful, if also very enraging, and FreeCycle (now Freegle) has also helped a lot — we even decluttered the garden shed that way, and someone came to disassemble it. Someone with a phobia of spiders, unfortunately; I helped chase the big ones away. Now the playhouse lives on the foundations the shed used to rest on, and we have a small garden storage cupboard for all the other stuff – and we’re about to get an even smaller one, and get rid of even more things. We don’t garden enough to need proper grownup gardening kit.

We even got rid of books. Hundreds of books. Metres and metres of books. We went through a phase of leaving a box of books out on the footpath most weekends, a few years ago. Now we’ve filled the space back up with picture books, encyclopaedias, activity books, cookbooks, poetry books… children’s books.

IKEA helps a lot. I might make a separate home-educating-the-IKEA-way post at some point. It’s a bit silly how much IKEA stuff we have specifically for dealing with home ed kit.

We got an LCD type TV after reading about several children who were crushed by falling televisions, usually at Christmas; our old TV was a bought-in-his-youth one and weighed slightly more than he does, or as much as I did at the height of my most ginormous pregnancies. That freed up space in the room, and covering it with a big painting made it look visually freer, too.

Clothes with years of wear in them yet are harder. A lot of our clothes aren’t quite good enough for a charity shop to sell, but much too good to get rid of. And don’t fit. This is particularly true of the kids’ clothes, but we have a sort of system of filing them in the attic in boxes labelled by age, and if I ever decide I’ve finished having babies, I’ll give them away (and have another, I assume; that’s how it usually works, isn’t it?). We do haul them out as the younger two grow into them.

Another big clutter is artwork. The children’s artwork is almost impossible to part with. Mine I can just sell or give away, but theirs… it’s more difficult. The grandparent on one side has a total of 11 grandchildren, and a limited capacity to treasure art forever and ever and ever, and on the other side they like to take maybe two or three pieces every so often. That’s not enough. We are still left with cases and boxes and envelopes of art, ranging from the magnificent to the developmentally interesting. I have a soft spot for keeping originals, too. How do I teach my heart to part with children’s art?

And on that note I must depart. In a cart. Don’t start…

Days like today are so tiring. Things didn’t go the way I wanted, and I repeatedly wished I could just hand at least one child over to someone else for six hours a day, to someone who was at least being PAID to be at odds with her. If I could get rid of all of them for a while, at least I could stare at the wall and drink tea.

But of course that’s not the real right answer.

It’s tough right now. I have two school-age children with very different social and academic needs and preferences, and balancing them is extremely challenging. They go through emotionally difficult patches at different times, to different intensity levels, and part of my job is to keep one child’s traumas from having a serious impact on the other children, without neglecting the needs of the upset child, either. Meeting the enthusiasms of two people at once, while meeting the needs of an almost-toddler, is tricky, too. I’m not sure whether dealing with upset or interest is harder, actually. One of each is hardest, I think.

I’m beginning to think that I need to be more scheduled, because something in me says that a schedule makes everything easier. But will it? If I’m getting 5-6 hours sleep in 3-4 chunks on a good night, will scheduling my day really make that much difference?

I have a week of solo parenting coming up now. I might try to use the time to figure out where I’m going wrong.

I mustn’t forget to bring the cardboard mobius strip in from the garden, either. It’s huge, and it will rot in the rain.

For some reason, I never published this when I wrote it in September. Wonder why not?

Short answers: I think it’s a good idea. I think it’s the best thing for my children. It’s interesting. Everyone seems to like it. I don’t think school (the only realistic alternative) would be good for my children right now.

Longer answers: When I was six I spent a lot of time very confused and unhappy about the fact that school kept us all in same-age groups, more or less, doing much the same things at very similar levels, in large groups, with almost no unsupervised or unstructured time. Also, I was bored silly. I asked my mother for an explanation and she wasn’t able to give one which was acceptable to me, though eventually she agreed that once school was over I was unlikely to find myself in such a situation again, because offices, laboratories, factories,and most other workplaces are pretty mixed both in age and in activity, so I just had to get through school. Things were easier after that.

I spent some time in a school with mixed-age classrooms, a one- or two-teacher school, and that was less alienating and made it much easier to learn things, but still not quite right. The large large groups thing was probably part of it.

When I was about eight I met a home-educated child who had her very own donkey to ride around on. Her name was, I think, Sophia, and she was American, or her mother was, and we played a lot together for a while. She taught me to scramble eggs and make chamomile tea from fresh flowers, and had her very own donkey. Which was hers. So jealous.

I don’t think I thought much about home education after that for a few years, but my mother periodically mentioned Máire Mullarney approvingly and assured me that school was not the pinnacle and highlight of my life and that if I waited it out things woudl get better, which they did, which was a relief.

Then later on I was planning babies and buying a house with my partner, and we were pleased to find an area with LOTS of schools to choose from.

But gradually, as I thought of it more and more, and the first baby was actually born, I liked the idea (of automatically sending them to school and hoping to continually firefight problems as they arose, through joining groups and committees and talking to teachers and principals and changing schools as necessary) less and less. I found various people living in my computer and read a lot. And decided that since what we were doing right now seemed to work, I’d change my default – instead of the default option being to change everything, from who we socialised with to what time we got up in the morning to what we did all day, the default is now to keep calm and carry on as normal, with the option of doing something else if that seems like a better idea at any point.

Linnea does best in a totally unstructured, unpressured environment where she can do things at exactly her own pace as and when she pleases – or a totally new environment with totally new adults. At least, she has until now, but she’s only just five and a half, so things will change, I’m sure. Emer is a bit easier to handle, because she can take suggestion and instruction even from adults she actually knows. And she doesn’t mind being praised half as much.

I like being able to accommodate their ever-changing physical needs. Children need more sleep, or less sleep, or more rest, or more running around, in hugely varying amounts from day to day, depending on the weather or what they’re learning or whatever. I like not having to get anyone out into the rain in the dark to walk to school in the middle of winter. I like their ability to just do things, without any adults interfering or knowing what they’re doing, and suddenly they appear with Something Finished, sometimes even with evidence, happy with what they’ve achieved.

I like that their friends are aged 1 year to 8 years old, if you don’t count their grown-up friends. I like it when they teach grown-ups things.

It’s hard to know what they like or dislike because they are young enough that their personal basis for comparison is meaninglessly small. But they are happy.

I tried hard to be reasonable and calm, going through the Recommendations one by one. But I don’t feel in the least little bit reasonable or calm. My most strongly felt objections, on an emotional level, are in two parts.

Education

The entire document is based on an assumption that education happens basically one way, though there’s some variation on detail. It’s based on teacher-led school-style pre-planned education. It’s based on the assumption that goals and targets and developmental norms are useful to everyone, and that plans and set goals are reasonable things to ask all parents and all children to create, believe in, and work with.

If I thought school-style education would be good for my children, I would send them to school They are both perfectly happy without me. They thrive in large groups of children and demand vast amounts of social interaction from their peers (though we have a broader definition of peers then the school system does, since we don’t restrict as narrowly by age as they do). I have no reason to believe that they would be bullied much or be unable to handle complicated social situations. They already do, often.

The document, and its recommendations, and the LA systems and the School Attendance Orders and the criminal prosecutions which may follow, all ignore the concept of Autonomous Education entirely.

And I read on the BBC News website that Mr Badman (Mummy, make the bad man go away) claims that

But he said parents would be judged against their education plans.

“This is not some woolly statement,” he said.

“They will be judged on their plans. These statements should contain some milestones for children to achieve,” he went on.

“For example by the age of eight, I think they should be autonomous learners, able to read.

“I’m calling for further work to be done, but also setting some parameters.”

What is so magical about the age of eight? I know several people who could read early who went on to be extremely bright, or perfectly average, or so uninterested in the education on offer at school that they dropped out completely. I also know several people who read much later – including some who were as old as 9 or 10 before they could read with any fluency at all – who grew up into perfectly normal people with entirely functional lives and, in some cases, well-paid secure jobs which are oddly not disappearing into the waters of the recession.

Why is reading the same as learning autonomously, to this man? They are so clearly not the same to me, who loves reading and has lived on the inside of books for most of the past 25 years since I was one of those early fluent readers, that it seems entirely absurd. Why isn’t it more important that an eight-year-old be able to plan a meal, go to the shops with twenty quid, buy groceries based on brand-recognition or single-word recognition, and prepare and cook a meal? Or knit a jumper, or plant, tend, and harvest a plot of vegetables? Eventually either it will become obvious that reading isn’t necessary to the things this person wants to do, or they will put the effort in to becoming fluent readers, or they will figure out some other way around the problem.

That goal is just an easier way to measure from outside whether parents are providing the opportunity to learn to read, and that’s not good enough. It doesn’t measure the actual availability of the opportunity to learn autonomously from their reading, and it certainly doesn’t measure whether the education provided for the child is “suitable to his age ability and aptitude and to any special needs he may have”. It’s perfectly possible to teach a child to read and not to question authority at the same time.

Child protection and rescue

I am absolutely in favour of children being protected, by the state, from abuse, and when protection fails, I am in favour of their being rescued. And that’s one reason I am incensed by the idea of a register and an annual visit in the name of “Safeguarding.” The numbers of adults I know who grew up in abusive homes – including barely-adults, aged 17 or 18, through the system very recently – and escaped, sometimes taking their younger siblings into their charge, without once having aroused the suspicion of their teachers or neighbours, is terrifying and tragic. It is abundantly obvious to me that relying on daily interaction with teachers to detect abuse is hugely inadequate, and annual visits can only be more so.

But given that they are already reducing the Health Visitor service for the under-fives, the most at-risk group, seriously injured and killed by their parents more than any other age group, I see no hope at all that they will increase the services available to children older than that. I heard somewhere that Education Officers (the title was from someone’s memory so may be inaccurate) used to visit children of school age, taking over from Health Visitors, visiting more often when the child is younger and less and less as they grow older, tapering off gradually. They visited homes whether or not children were at school, offering advice on education and development stuff. I think it wasn’t available everywhere, perhaps only in London, but it seems obvious to me that this service could help so many children, if adequately funded…

And as for a register, well, it will be lovely to find it on a bus or in a taxi somewhere, like the Child Benefit data, with everyone’s names, parents’ names, birthdays, and addresses. That will be great.

Tags:

But what if you miss stuff?

Every system of education misses stuff. I’ll miss stuff. I don’t think I’ll miss much important, though.

What about the things they teach in school that you can’t teach at home?

I’ve never worked out what these are. What is impossible to teach at home? And why?

What about learning to socialise with large age-sorted groups?

I can’t say this is something I think is useful or necessary. In fact, for a lot of people, it’s actively harmful, as far as I can see. Learning to socialise within large groups of any kind is a useful skill, and there are lots of places where people can learn to do that. I learned to do it fairly well aged about 25, myself, after unlearning a lot of what school situations taught me was “normal behaviour”.

Doesn’t anyone check?

Not as much as I do, no, but there are circumstances under which various state-sanctioned individuals or bodies can and do check up on whether one is fulfilling one’s legal obligation to provide a child with an education. One could wish they were as rigorous in schools but obviously the sheer numbers make that impossible.

How will you know whether you’re covering the whole curriculum?

Whose curriculum, and why would I want to cover it? Many curriculums(a?) are available for free or for sale, so I could just look it up, if I decided that a curriculum was the best thing for my children, or that that was a useful way to guide my own work.

What if you don’t want to teach her long division because she’ll never use it in real life?

Basic practical skills which are used in real life are kind of automatic. Things which are no useful in real life might be learned for sheer joy of them, and if not, does it really matter?

Are you really allowed?

It’s legal, if that’s what you mean.

How will you know you’re doing it right?

How does anyone? How do teachers, schools, examining boards, anyone?

What if she’s not normal?

What’s normal?

Linnea is four years eight months old now, apparently. I find it hard to believe, myself. And
what is she doing?

She’s definitely learning to be more conciliating in her interpersonal relationships – children who cry or shout at her are very likely to get their way unless she’s totally confident that they will still be her friend tomorrow. She clearly offers compromises and gets upset when they aren’t listened to.

Her favourite protest at home is “You are a Gnoring me!” and her favourite insult is “Now you are nuis-less,” (also “Don’t be so nuis-less.”) She’s toying with “You’re a stinky poo,” too, but that’s for fun rather than to express unhappiness or frustration.

She’s more and more interested in learning to read and write but still not interested in being Taught. Similar with maths – she’s adding, subtracting and multiplying single-digit numbers all the time, but doesn’t like us initiating a session of it, though we’re expected to drop everything and answer “what is seven nines?” at her lightest whim.

I gave her window crayons recently and she drew some lovely stuff on the bay window. I must brave the cold without my gloves and photograph it. It’s very bold and confident; there’s a house and a snail and a sun and some waves.

She’d like to learn to knit but doesn’t like how fiddly and difficult it is. She has short needles and lovely mixed-colours yarn, thanks to Nana, but hasn’t stuck it out as far as knitting a whole stitch yet.

Her grasp of anatomy surprises us sometimes – she told us over Christmas that her ribs are the bones which protect her heart and lungs because her heart and lungs are soft and squashy and bones are hard. Presumably that was in a book or on telly but I didn’t know she knew it.

I said “I like spending time with you, Linnea,” today, and she responded, thoughtfully, “But not when you’re cross.”

True enough. Don’t like much when I’m cross.

Motivation

My daughter has absolutely ZERO motivation to write her own name. Her friend’s name? THAT she needs to learn.

So there you go.

Bounded

It’s easy to see from the three-year-old’s behaviour that she’s happy with firm, reliable rules, clear boundaries, and regular mealtimes.

And now the one-year-old is getting in on the act; she visibly tests boundaries, is confused when they’re not enforced, and depends on their being there for her physical safety (stairgates, for one).

The kids need reliability, it seems. And freedom. And boundaries. And open spaces.

And sometimes, a mother who will just close her eyes, wait, and quietly go grey while they learn something new, like how to climb the swing-set without dropping the teddy or the carton of juice, or how to get down an 18-inch precipice hands-first.

Read Me

Today we were in town with friends, sitting in a cafe, reading books and drinking overpriced trendy beverages. Linnea’s OTB was an “innocent” brand pure-fruit smoothie, and she read the label aloud to me for my entertainment.

“There was a Nea who went on a train a-day and with her Mammy and -”

And my friend interrupted her to say “I don’t think it says that, Nea, does it?”

To which I can only respond (hours later, of course, because that’s how it works): “I can’t imagine how anyone would think she did think that. And if she did, I can’t fathom why anyone would feel a need to correct her. She’s two-and-a-third-years-old.”

But this particular friend does correct. I remember when Nea was 14 months old she pointed out a triangle (“chi-angle”) to me. I was delighted. My friend corrected her. “No, it’s a cone.”

Why?

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