How I Became That Parent

Daniel Summers has a nice piece imploring parents to relax and stop trying to optimize their children:

…the degree to which intensive parental involvement actually informs long-term success for children is an open question. Parents may be responding to societal pressures that may not ultimately produce children who are any happier or more well-off than they would have been with less direct supervision and extracurricular hustle.

This is advice our family had been following. Dan mentions that much of intensive parenting is enabled by wealth and availability of resources, and I believe some of that is true.

The same, however, can be said of hands-off parenting where parents don’t feel the need to make sure that their children pick up every academic skill at the exact moment that their child is first cognitively capable of acquiring it. That too is a privilege and comfort afforded to the already-comfortable. Our comfort allowed us to say that we wanted our daughter to have rich preschool experiences that engaged her creativity and allowed plenty of time interacting with nature and her peers. After all, we had no worries that any daughter of ours was going to get caught flat-footed in math. That could be left for later. Narrow academic pursuits could be an afterthought. With this in mind, she went to our university’s hippy child care center that followed the Reggio Emilia approach of experiential, hands-off mentoring. She had a blast, and we wish we could have kept her their forever.

Eventually, she grew up though and went to kindergarten.

She enjoyed kindergarten too. She had lots of fun. Then a few months into the school year she very irritable one evening for no apparent reason.

My wife eventually extracted the truth from her. She had been upset that another kid could read Busy, Buzzy Bee, and she couldn’t. I ordered the book to be prime-shipped to our house, and discovered there was little wonder that she couldn’t. Despite the large “1” in the corner, it’s not a simple book. Obviously this other kid was just very skilled. After all, we had had a parent-teacher conference where her teacher had praised her for being “on-track” and said everything was going swimmingly.

The next time I had the opportunity, I spoke to her teacher about what had happened. That’s when she revealed this nugget of information:

Over half the class came into kindergarten reading at a third-grade level.

In other words, the fact that our daughter was :on-track” meant that she was near the bottom of her class.

We had raised our daughter to have good social and emotional development, and she did! But it’s hard to for her to be happy with that alone in a class where she felt conspicuously behind her peers.

So, I set to remedy this gap. I eventually found out that all those marketing labels that are used to designate “beginning reader” books are useless. Teachers grade books according to “Guided Reading Levels” that range from A too Z.

Guided reading levels offer fine-level gradations for assessing reaching progress. I found it invaluable for selecting books that would neither bore nor frustrate her.

Once I identified her reading level, I made a deal with her. I would buy a book she was interested in. If she read that book cover-to-cover, I’d buy the next book in that series for her. Mind you, we have hundreds of children’s books already, but the prospect of a new book was nevertheless sufficient to motivate her.

Luckily, Amazon Prime allowed me to fulfill my end of the bargain in a timely manner. As soon as she’d finish a book, she’d watch me order one on my phone. This ended up being something like a $50/month habit, but it seemed worth it because she was making progress she otherwise wouldn’t have, and she held those books as special while the cascading piles of books we already owned didn’t incentivize her in the same manner.

Thus have I become what I swore I would not. Or at least I became something different than what I had originally planned. I would love to let my daughter grow her capabilities in different areas at her own speed, but not if that risks making her unhappy. I could comfort her by telling the truth that just about everyone sooner or later can read Busy, Buzzy Bee and in fact find it so simple that it is boring. She can just focus on being a kid and everything will come in time. I wish she could grok what Daniel is getting at here:

Treating kids as though they are merely adults waiting to be formed involves a failure to recognize that childhood is its own valuable part of life. Time spent in childhood is not merely preparatory.

My daughter, however, lives schoolday to schoolday. School is unavoidably part of her childhood, and her school is absolutely judging her as a miniature adults, and she doesn’t want to be conspicuously behind her peers regardless of whether I were to say it’s OK.

child studying photo

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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9 thoughts on “How I Became That Parent

  1. I sounds to me that she wants to improve her reading skills, but you are doubting her motive for wanting this. This seems rather a lot of effort to go to to find something to worry about. Just wait. When they are this age, their inner lives are open to their parents. That will change soon. You will find that you have no idea what is going on in her head, giving your imagination free rein to find things to worry about.

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    • I endorse this strongly.

      And, at a significantly older age, I recall entering college and finding that many of my peers had had calculus in high school. I was salty about this, because I was behind. I was behind due to no fault of my own, but because my school was too small to offer AP Calculus – in fact, I had never heard the phrase “AP Calculus”. I think this might be along the lines of what your daughter felt.

      As it turns out, I passed most of those people. I don’t know exactly when that happened, but I looked around one day and discovered I was probably better at math than a lot of the people I knew who took math in high school.

      I love what you’re doing Vikram – it cultivates the joy of reading for its own sake.

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    • I mostly agree with this, but I do think it is significant that there is both a reading interest and a social issue. I have twin nieces in early grade school and one of them reads at a higher level than the other, and the other asked her parents why. That’s not the conundrum the author here faces, but kids aren’t just containers filled with knowledge given to them by parents and teachers, they are watching and making their own judgments.

      None of this is to suggest there is a social issue that the parent needs to address; it just sounds like something to keep in the back of the mind to avoid potential negative messages. I think that’s what you are suggesting here, pick up on the positive message that she wants to read better.

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  2. My children beg me – BEG ME – to give them grades. They don’t even go to public school and yet are exquisitely aware that they will be and are being held up and ranked against others. And they like it.

    Then again they just spent all morning painting and acting as if discovering red and yellow making orange was akin to curing cancer, so who knows.

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    • My daughter goes to a really awesome school, which does not make a big deal of testing. I have a minor quibble with this, as it really goes into an active anti-testing ideology.

      When the provincial standard tests come out there’s a fairly strong social pressure to write an exemption request for one’s child – if nobody writes the test, nobody has to invigilate, and it’s not an area the school wants to focus energy on. So fair enough.

      But test-writing is an important skill in its own right – knowing how to divide up time so you don’t get hung up on one question you don’t know and run out of time to do three you do, not getting discouraged when you know you got some of the answers wrong, etc. She’s going to need that skill. We can download some tests to practice at home, but it’s not the same. I think next year I’ll spend the time to pen a reply to the school outlining my support for testing, and volunteer my time to invigilate the tests if that makes it easier on people.

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  3. Thus have I become what I swore I would not. Or at least I became something different than what I had originally planned. I would love to let my daughter grow her capabilities in different areas at her own speed, but not if that risks making her unhappy.

    You are letting your daughter grow her capabilites at her own preferred speed! That’s exactly what you are doing, and you’re doing a fantastic job of it!

    Listening when she defines her speed, and helping her to progress at the speed she defines, is a mandatory part of that process, and this is a story of her defining her speed and you helping her achieve it.

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    • Yeah, allowing one’s daughter to have agency in the books she reads is not even close to helicoptering.

      Though took advantage of the public library; let the kids browse and find what interests them. Let them take as many as they wanted / allowed. Maybe occasionally remind them to look at a few pages to make sure that its something they want to read.

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  4. Vikram,

    “Becoming That Parent” is another way to say you adapted to fit your child’s needs. And yes, not thinking themselves the worst kid in the class is a “need”. So ideology lost out to good parenting.

    Well done.

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  5. It sounds like this isn’t “school is absolutely judging” her as a miniature adult, since the teacher is saying she’s on level and recognizes her development in social and emotional areas. What this sounds like is her wanting to be able to read the same things as most of her peers and in the process of undertaking a plan to reach that goal, discovering a love of reading.

    You helped her do that, so you have done a good job as a parent!

    Reading will open so many doors for her, not just in terms of academic achievement, but in expanding her imagination and range of ideas.

    And btw, my kids started kindergarten reading at 3rd grade level, bit it wasn’t because of intensive parenting pushing them to achieve. It’s for the same reason that I started at roughly that level way back in the 70s when no one (certainly no one in our socioeconomic class) cared about pushing academic skills for pre-K – I was read to by people who loved reading. (Used to joke that I learned to read early out of self-defense. A typical evening at home was my mom is on the couch with a book, my dad in a recliner with a book, and my grandmother in another chair with a book).

    Learning to read early was not a burden that took away from my experience of childhood. It was gift that enhanced my life then and now – one I am glad I could pass on.

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