Tuesday, July 16, 2002

July 16-20, 2002

JULY 16, 2002

My husband and son were taking a walk round a nearby park last week when they came upon two or three boys and their dads. Without hesitation, the kids and one of the men said hello to my son, calling him by name. My boy looked puzzled and said, "Do I know you?" And, cheerfully, they all said no. But they sure enough knew him. So did the woman at the playground, who hadn't seen us in years but remembered my son by name from seeing him in the cry room of the church we used to attend.

Everyone knows my guy, it seems. Kids shout hello, adults reach for their keys as they see him coming, knowing he'll want to examine them and ask about their cars. He's a memorable fellow, well-known in his community, and warmly regarded by most. Different, certainly, but in a friendly, talkative, engaging way.

I don't know if this will last, if he'll be as enchanting when he's not such a little elf, but for now I'm going to enjoy it. Certainly I feel enough mortification when he misbehaves in public and I feel like every condemning eye is on us. It's nice to know that the memories folks are forming of him are generally good ones after all. Apparently, it's me they're not sure about.

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JULY 17, 2002

My daughter has always been clear with her fears. In this she differs from her brother, who is so wrapped up in his own complex world view that you have to guess from his reactions what he might be feeling; jumpiness, perseveration, silliness, refusal to cooperate, absorption in a different activity, rocking, misbehavior guaranteed to result in time out -- all can be his way of telling us he's afraid of something in the environment or in our demands. You have to be a regular detective to figure out what's at the bottom of his behavior. But my daughter will tell you: I Don't Like That. I'm Afraid. I Don't Want to Do That. Don't Make Me. Please.

And it's hard not to feel all protective. One of the most difficult things to do as a parent is to make your kids face their fears. Sometimes, I suppose, it's not so important. My daughter is terrified of thunder to the point of cowering behind me last week when we were caught outside in an approaching storm, and although I wish she'd outgrow her fear and trembling, it's kind of nice to be needed and able to comfort. She likes me around when it's thundering outside, while at other times she's just as glad for me to leave her alone.

But in other situations, the fear has to be conquered. And the one we're dealing with right now is swimming. I've never thought of her as afraid of the water; she's cavorted in the kiddie pool plenty of times on vacations, and used to go in our above-ground pool as a little girl without much hesitation. But she was young then, and supported by a wide variety of flotation devicess and loving grown-ups. Now, as a very large 12-year-old, she has to learn to go it alone. And she's terrified. She started one-on-one lessons at a local pool a couple of weeks ago, and after one lesson announced that she knew how to swim and didn't need to go anymore. She regularly panics in the pool, even though she can stand with head and shoulders well out of the water in the shallow end, and flat-out refuses to jump in, even holding the teacher's hand. She doesn't like it. She's afraid. She doesn't want to do that. Don't make her. Please.

But learning how to swim is a safety issue, at her age more than ever, and also a social issue, since her class will be getting swimming lessons next year in fifth grade and she doesn't want everyone to see her trembling at the thought of going into the water. So I have to force the issue. She has to learn. It's hard to explain to her without saying things like "You could drown if you don't learn how to swim," which, of course, only makes matters worse. She's afraid to learn to swim, but I'm afraid of what will happen if she doesn't. And I'm not easily turned from my own fears either.

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JULY 19, 2002

It's sort of ironic, in a stomach-churning way, that during the same week that sees the debut of "Refrigerator Mothers" -- a PBS documentary detailing the effects and the deep wrongness of the long-repudiated theory that autism was caused by cold, unloving mothers -- comes news on a study blaming moms for their children's learning problems. Somehow or other, it's always about mom, isn't it?

The study found that three-year-olds whose mothers went back to work before they were nine months old were less likely to be found school-ready than three-year-olds who had mom hanging around for anything over that. To quote the Intelihealth report: "Children whose mothers worked by the time the babies were 9 months old, and had insensitive mothers and poor-quality child care, had scores in the 37th percentile. The 3-year-olds who did best on the test, scoring at the 56th percentile, were those who had sensitive mothers who were not employed by the ninth month, and good-quality child care."

And there it is: insensitive mothers vs. sensitive mothers. What, one wonders, qualifies someone as an insensitive mother in this case? Does going back to work and dumping your kid in bad day care alone qualify as insensitivity? Did they follow these women around and gauge their sensitivity to their offspring, or calculate it out from a questionnaire? And, come to think of it, exactly how "school ready" does a three-year-old have to be? Maybe it's those kids with oversensitive mothers who've left their high-powered big business careers to stay home and stuff them full of Baby Mozart CDs are the ones who will have the harder time in the long run.

It's hard not to feel sarcastic and defensive about reports like this. Both my kids were in the ultimate day care -- a Russian orphanage -- from birth until well past their ninth month, and I can't deny that group care did nothing for their school readiness skills. Having good, loving, one-on-one parent involvement throughout one's growing up period is obviously the best option for child development in all areas. But unless our society is willing to make changes to deliver that option to all children -- longer maternity leaves, more telecommuting and split shifts, quality child care available to everybody, subsidies for stay-at-home moms -- all studies like this are good for is making moms feel guilty. Well, sensitive moms, anyway.

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