Book Club: Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in “Teach Your Children Well”

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Unwrapping the Bubble Wrap Kids

My sons are nine, six and two, so my eyes should have been on chapter three, “The Tasks of the Elmentary School Years.” But that chapter didn’t grab me as much as the other two, on middle and high school. As I read through Part Two of Teach Your Children Well, flying through the pages with intense absorption, several times my tears wet the pages of the book and stuck them together. I couldn’t stop thinking of my sons as they are right now, dressed in their small clothes, appropriately prepared for their carefree lives, the ones where deciding whether to have cereal or yogurt after school (and of course, who gets to the fridge first) is their most pressing concern. Yet Part Two reminds us that more lies ahead for our kids; they are going to change, and struggle, to grow up.

Growing up is so simultaneously painful and beautiful, and reading this section, which lays out a pretty good map for what’s going to happen on our kids’ road to independence, is a reminder that the yogurt/cereal quandary will only be with us for a short while longer, then it will evaporate, like t-ball stands and training wheels, into the ether. From the anxiety-riddled piece of my brain – the one that’s screaming please don’t ever grow up! – what’s left after reading the parts on “The Middle School Years” and “The High School Years,” is nothing less than a quiet panic.

It could be my own growing up that causes me to want to lock my boys in a well-stocked closet for a few years – especially for, say, grades 6-7-8. What’s strange is that my growing up wasn’t so painful: I had great parents, great brothers and sisters, good schools, close friends – the works, really, and I couldn’t be more grateful. And yet alongside all those things, I felt outside and alone, awkward and completely misunderstood – things that I now understand are developmentally appropriate for the age. Yet that does not stop me from wanting to hold a cast iron shield between middle school/high school and my sons, to protect them from all that messy uncertainty and confusion. While reading, I had an almost visceral reaction to wanting them to not have to go through it – to not have to be a witness as they break apart (as I did in front of my parents) because they get rejected by someone they adore, or because they can’t make algebra work right, or because they were last to be picked for a team in gym, or because they are confused how to dress, how to act, how to be themselves.

Yet Levine assures us that learning to deal with and understand these very feelings – I’m alone, I’m different, who am I?, what matters to me? – is what strengthens kids’ coping skills. As a veteran high school teacher told me recently, “The kids these days come bubble-wrapped, complete with parents who want to be sure that nothing bad ever happens to them. But life is so complicated for kids today, I can’t really say that I blame them.” I want to be the parent who offers up my kids to the universe – hell, to middle school – without the bubble wrap; but I can’t say that I’m going to enjoy it.

It is perhaps anxiety-filled reactions from moms like me that encouraged Levine to write the book – that we do our kids a disservice by focussing solely on the importance of academics and ignoring the social and emotional growing up that will also determine the course of their lives. That we shouldn’t approach these years with panic. That that might be a bad thing.

After all, Levine does seem a little relentless in her assurance to parents that it is all going to be ok. My favorite passage from “The Tasks of the Middle School Years” says of the ups and downs of adolescence: Think of yourself as a sociologist. Keep your distance. Observe. Resolving the vast majority of high-drama crises that unfold over the middle school years is exactly the kind of challenge that your youngster needs to strengthen confidence in herself.  I find this passage so clarifying, so reassuring, because I think my natural reaction would be exactly the opposite of that. (!)

Levines says, Our system of education for this age group (middle school) is largely a misery, and the middle schooler’s well-documented needs for adequate sleep, flexible study time, multiple breaks, and quiet, restorative time are ignored. Add to this a stew of hormonal and brain changes. And just a few pages later, she writes, With all the push on kids to grow up quickly, there is evidence that they benefit from an extended childhood rather than a precocious adolescence.

Tonight’s talk: What Levine is asking we parents to do is basically the opposite of what’s culturally accepted and has become the norm for how we treat our kids – like the cast-iron shield I was thinking of buying. So, how do we un-bubble wrap our kids?

 

The Nine-Year Change

My oldest son finished up his third grade year on Friday, a year that was heralded by our Waldorf school as one of the most important in his childhood. Rudolph Steiner, philosopher and creator of the Waldorf schools, believed that turning nine years old ends the dependent, dreamlike state of early childhood, in which fairy tales and make-believe rule, and presents the growing child with his first glimpse of separateness, otherness and independence. In popular language, this would definitely be the marker of the beginning of the “tween” years, when children are discovering for the first time who they are as separate beings, and what they believe.

Waldorf parenting tips advise parents to be on alert for highly critical nine-year-olds – critical both of other people, whose beliefs they seem to notice for the very first time, and of value systems, as they try to figure it all out. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that my son recently asked at the dinner table, “Is it true that you need to believe in God to go to heaven?” Before my husband and I could choke down our food to provide some kind of semi-intelligent answer, my son, who sees himself as a scientist-in-training, then announced that he would “prefer not to believe in God or heaven, because there is no science to support it.” Then, in almost the same breath, he expressed his nervousness for not believing, but still tried to maintain that, at this time, he would rather not.

I think this is what politicians call “flip-flopping,” — but, according to Steiner, it is a hallmark of this stage of development.

Wanting to know if this crucial “nine-year change” was also accepted in other realms besides the Waldorf world, I took to the internet to see if there was any research (especially recently) supporting it, but I came up disappointed. (If anyone has anything, please send it to me!) While there is plenty on tweens and preadolescence (which has an age range from 9-14 years old, and covers many issues), no research that I found highlighted this particular turning point – turning nine years old – in any significant way.

Yet I do see something significant happening to my child as we close in on his ninth birthday later this summer. He recently came unglued over a relatively small matter – a drawing he’d worked on that didn’t turn out as he wished it would – and I as I watched him struggle, weeping and punching his fists into the air, to find the words to express how disappointed, angry, and confused he was with himself, I had my own struggle with composure. For a brief moment, my heart desperately wished him four years old again, when I could tell him it was the most beautiful drawing I had ever seen, and he had the capacity to believe me. But it seems that those simple times, when hugs and kisses solved nearly every problem, are behind us now.

So in lieu of research on the nine year change, I’d love to know from you, parents: have you experienced a nine-year change in your child? Do you remember feeling this way at nine years old yourself? (I most certainly do.) Do you think this is complete hooey? Let me hear from you.