We’re not necessarily big believers in preschool at this house (watch for an upcoming post on that subject). However, my husband and I did decide recently that we should teach our 5-year-old to sight-read numbers, the ultimate goal being that he could play cards with us.
Super enthusiastic, I made up a batch of flashcards showcasing the numbers 0 through 9. At the bottom of each card I included the corresponding number of dots, figuring he could start out by counting the dots and correspondingly memorize the shape of the written number. We got right to work.
That was a couple weeks ago. Things went fine at first; the boy can count the dots easily. But he’s not yet connecting the number of dots with the shape of the written number.
That’s when I got it in my head that it would be very easy for him to learn the numbers 6 and 9. They are, after all, unique — special, you might say — because they’re the only two numbers that have the same shape. So convinced was I that this distinction would be his pathway to learning, I threw out the 9 card and just kept the 6 card. Time and again I showed him: See, it’s 6 when I hold it this way, but then I turn it upside down and… look, it turned into a 9!
My special treatment of 6 and 9, unfortunately, has not really made a difference in his learning path. Not only does he never remember that six and nine are the names of our two special numbers, but he also has to recount the dots every time I flip the card over:
“One-two-three-four-five-six. Six! Six! Six!”
“Okay, I’m gonna flip the card upside down. Now what to do you see?”
“One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine. Nine! Nine! Nine!”
“That’s right! It’s nine this way, and when I flip it back over, what is it again?”
“One… two… three… four… five… six. Six?”
One day I grew very impatient with our lack of progress: “Asher, come on. You’re a smart boy. You have to memorize the shape of the number and when you see that shape, you should automatically know its name!”
“Okay, Mom.” His eyes glistened with fear and doubt.
“Don’t you want to play cards with Daddy?”
“Well… not exactly.”
That’s when I realized I’d morphed into Psycho School Mom. Psycho School Mom, in case you don’t know, is over-interested in her child excelling academically.
It’s interesting that I, of all people, fell into the Psycho School Mom black hole. Because I’ve always pretended I’m not interested in preschool and that I want to let my kids be kids and that we’ll start school when they’re seven years old.
Yet here I was, obsessing over my 5-year-old’s inability to read numbers. At one point, to my shame, I grew so frustrated that I even slapped him over the top of his head with the homemade flash cards.
In my defense, I remember my mother-in-law telling the story of when my husband was a preschooler and she was teaching him his numbers and letters. If I remember correctly, the story goes like this: They were about to head in for preschool screening and she was drilling him on numbers or letters or both and he was stubbornly refusing to recite what he knew well. She lost her temper with him and chastised him: “Beau, I know you know this!” Years later, she said, she wondered what in the world she thought she was doing drilling her little boy through his preschool lessons.
When she told me that story, I didn’t have kids and I was somewhat indifferent. Now, though, I think it speaks to the powerful magnetism of the Psycho School Mom black hole. She was pulled in, and so was I.
After hitting him with the homemade flash cards, I apologized to my son for letting the crazy get the best of me, and I later confessed my sin to my husband. My husband’s original reaction was concern that I had ruined our son for a lifetime of learning. I have to admit I own that concern also, along with the worry that I will somehow break his bond of trust of me.
Teaching a child, it turns out, is a big responsibility. He trusts me to tell him the truth, but trust is a fragile thing. I also must be discerning between fact and my own opinion — because I’m not just talking about academic learning but life learning, too. I can’t just fill him full of my opinions, because if I do, some day he will grow up and realize most of the lessons I taught him were somewhat swayed, and that will just be embarrassing for everybody.
His innocent little mind is also depending on me to challenge him… yet not push him beyond his limit. He needs me and his dad to help him find and pursue his true gifts… but also to be sure he can balance a checkbook and write legibly and cook and clean before he leaves us.
Not only all that, but we need to let him be a kid while he’s a kid.
Sigh. This is all the biggest Parenting Ethical Dilemma of all.
To my surprise, my husband — like my son — didn’t quite see the significance in my 6 & 9 lesson. My husband just kind of blinked at me and confessed it didn’t make a lot of sense to him, even though I explained it to him several times.
So… either because he’s a boy and I’m a girl, or because we have different learning styles, my 6 & 9 lesson made very little sense to both my little boy and my husband. I will now retreat to base camp and formulate Plan B, which involves Daddy assuming the job of Math Teacher and thus untangling the 6 & 9 mess I’ve weaved in our son’s mind.
God bless teachers. I now fully realize why the world needs certified teachers: Because they are trained in self-control. Self-control means teaching the same kid the same thing over and over, poking the needle into the cloth again and again until finally it goes through, and refraining from slapping the slow learner with the stack of flashcards.
Not that our son is a slow learner. He’s a bright boy, and we tell him so. But numbers aren’t his thing. The kid, instead, is a born storyteller and history buff. His little sister is the one who just seems to get numbers.
My husband is the numbers guy in the family. So Daddy can turn her into an accountant and I can turn him into a prize-winning playwright.
Or whatever they want to be. I’m flexible. Because I am definitely not a Psycho Mom.
© Tami Blake