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more like a labyrinth

2012 February 7
by Rachel Turiel

Sometimes I see my kids’ lives as these orderly timelines, where say, potty training is a neat little check mark somewhere between ages 2 and 3. But really it’s more like climbing a mountain called Potty Peak. There you are, your backpack full of extra clothes and plastic bags. You’ve finally reached the alpine zone, that breathtaking treeless expanse from where you can look back on your trail, which includes 2,867 or so diaper changes. You’re so close you can touch the peak, except—whoops!—as a customer at a local cafe announced, loudly, 4 years ago: “soggy bottomed boy in the train room.” Yes, that would be my soggy bottomed boy.

And you know we’re golden with potty training now, but the mountains of childhood keep rising up. And I’m realizing that what looks like a mountain to be climbed is more like a labyrinth to be walked. Labyrinths, unlike mazes, have no dead ends, just a single path leading to the center.

Which is to say that while many things come easily to Col (building traps and drawing sea serpents and caring for his avocado plant), reading and writing do not, which is okay, this is our labyrinth.

Last week the kids were making valentines for their cousin Peter, and Col said, “I’m just going to draw a little picture before I write some words,” which is like cuing the scary music that foreshadows the ream of crayoned-on paper enveloping the house, smothering the mother who is wondering aloud, from underneath an tsunami of paper, “are you ready to write some words now, honey?”

And really what happened is Col made this amazing dragon with 3 sheets of paper that he cut and taped and colored, scissoring a spiky little tail and a mouth full of sharp teeth, and then requested that we hang it from the ceiling.

And part of me is like, “you go on with your artistic self, little guy.” And another part is like, “wow, that was an elaborate undertaking to get out of writing a few sentences.”

And this is how it is right now. Col finds it incredibly frustrating that the double o’s in book are pronounced one way, whereas the double o’s in hoop are pronounced entirely differently. He gets sort of narcoleptic when you put a book to read in front of him, rubbing his eyes and careening into my lap. But, he can build a perfectly accurate and symmetrical lego helicopter without ever referencing a picture. If you gave him 5 random objects from your junk drawer, chances are he could fabricate 10 different things, half of which could be useful, at least to him and his sister. I can’t recall him ever being bored.

I think sometimes homeschooling, or perhaps “unschooling,” is depicted in this way where kids are given complete free reign on their education and thus learn everything they need to know. I pictured Col delving into geometry at 14 while I hung another batch of curds in a cheesecloth and the orchestra played: if it’s not fun, why do it? 

But you know, sometimes the orchestra plays: language arts are stepping stones to entire worlds of learning. Other times the tune is: children bloom in their own time. And both are true. Childhood is not something to rush through, and the joy of discovering new skills has an equally sweet taste as the joy of mastery.

And so, Col works on reading and writing in some form everyday, while I work on relaxing and trusting; and there’s always plenty of time for legos and art.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. February 22, 2012

    Legos & art are awesome! Don’t even get me started on teaching the “rules” of phonics. Uff-da. Do you remember what I shared about our youngest girl reading? it was awhile ago….
    I find myself revisiting it when the youngest shows NO interest in letters as of yet. But then he counts to twenty without missing a single number and builds me a lego forklift. All in good time, I suppose…. all in good time.

  2. February 22, 2012

    You just described my eldest, to a T. It takes a lot of effort not to panic at times, especially with a school breathing down your neck.

  3. February 22, 2012

    Makes me think of the last article I read about the difference between freedom from and freedom to . . .

  4. February 22, 2012

    I have always been a reader. I took to it as soon as I was allowed (which, in 1972, was when I was in first grade – I think we put to much emphasis on it too early now). That said, I can totally relate to the double o thing. I was a very logical kid. I hated the lack of consistent rules in the English language. And I never could spell (still struggle with it at 45 – it’s consistEnt, not consistAnt, just now). Reasonable written communication really didn’t happen until college (and the ability to use a computer and spew out ideas on the page with no outline, and then rearrange them. I’m a much better editor than an originator).

    When you think about it, how long has written language existed, maybe 10,000 years? And how long have humans existed? Maybe 200,000 or more, depending on the reference. Written language, and the hard wiring that allows us to accomplish it, is a relatively recent addition to our brains, and I really believe that for about 90% of us, it isn’t easy. There is some interesting research on this. Read a statistic that something like 75% of people never read a book cover to cover again after leaving high school. They say you switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in about third grade. For Cory, my step-son, it was in sixth grade. And needing to read video game instructions and cheat codes was what finally put him over the top. And we read for at least 30 minutes EVERY DAY for years. The hardest part was just believing that he WOULD get there. But we knew him well enough to know he would. Col will get there in his own sweet time. And he may never love reading the way you do. But I want him in my corner when I need to MaGyver my way out of a tricky situation. XO

  5. February 22, 2012

    Just this morning my almost four year old got her watercolors out of the drawer, got the paper, and sat down to paint independently. She sat there with her paints for a loooong time, telling a detailed story as she carefully dabbed blue paint stroke by stroke across every inch of paper. Reading your words about arriving at the top of the mountain perfectly describes the feeling in my chest watching her do something I’ve been trying to get her to do (and enjoy…) since she was ridiculously small. She just wasn’t that into it. And then all of a sudden, here we are.
    I like the image of the labyrinth because when you are traveling it sometimes you get really close to destination, only to move away again, and in and out.

  6. Kathy permalink
    February 22, 2012

    “I work on relaxing and trusting”

    Exactly the right thing for you! Wait and trust. Wait until he is ready. More boys would have done better in school (my husband, who can engineer anything and fix anything, and my ex who can do the same, that McGyver thing) needed more time and more young experimental engineering (for lack of a better word) before they learned to read. Reading is learned like walking… your child has to be ready. Reading operates best from a natural progression of need, want, and doing, just like cutting with scissors. In the meatime, show him all the words that mean something to him. You are already doing that: antler, microscopic, cerulean, fungus and fungi, and every other valuable word he knows in his head. All the greek and latin roots (share your flowers and medical terms) and their meanings and uses will attach themselves to words and one day you can give him the Childs Spelling System: The Rules and he will understand, because he has such good logic and reasoning. I would send you my Childs but I sent it on to my daughter already! You’re doing the right thing by allowing him to express his understanding through art. He is so good visually and words will look right to him soon enough! The books you give him might be too advanced, but he’ll rise to the reading once he wants to express those words himself. And mistakes never count. I applaud your sensitivity to his particular learning abilities!!!

  7. February 23, 2012

    My infant’s pediatrician recommended therapy for when she wasn’t swallowing her solids at 6 months, and it seemed a little too extreme to me. I ignored it and sure enough Thumper decided to eat one day, about six weeks later, and now she can’t have enough of it. I suppose I’m trying to say that everyone’s different with their milestones because there are so many factors involved – readiness, willingness, passion, personality, experience.

    Col will get there. Just in his own time.

  8. Kathy permalink
    February 24, 2012

    I forgot to mention writing can be recorded too. Have Col tell you stories. You can write them or he can tell the story on the recorder. You can teach him the elements of fiction and non-fiction this way. Then he will feel accomplishment, real writing. And of course, books on tape. Later, you and he can transcribe and he can illustrate. It works. What a miracle to see your own words on paper!

  9. February 24, 2012

    I don’t know of a mother who hasn’t faced this at some level. I don’t want to have an agenda for my kids…but I can’t help it. “If my daughter doesn’t learn how to make friends,” I imagaine, “she’s going to have a horrid life.” “If my son doesn’t learn to read well enough to score well on the ACT,” (this is my present struggle) “will he be able to get into the college of his choice?”

    Why do I do this to myself?

    I married a man who got through high school on naps and gym class because, like your son, he was super interested in everything outdoors and could build anything. 13 years later, when he was interested enough, he went to a very prestigious graduate school and never got anything less than an “A”.

    I often ask myself which husband do I value more? The husband who ran around in the woods or the scholar? I know which husband the world rewards more, but I also know who my heart fell in love with.

    These agendas. I want to banish them from my brain. But they won’t go away. So, I ask, “What are you trying to do to help me?” That question softens me.

    Thanks for helping me think about this. You are very dear.

    And I ADORE labyrinths.

  10. Carrie permalink
    February 27, 2012

    Totally agree that kids get there when they get there. A couple of things you can do while you’re relaxing and trusting, from a teacher and mom of kids the same age/gender as yours:
    1-I second the poster above who suggested having him dictate to you while you write. Very powerful for him to see what his own thoughts look like on paper.
    2-I’m sure you’re doing this anyway, but reading out loud NEVER stops being useful, not to mention fun. He is not too old for picture books and probably still loves them. Reading aloud stuff that’s just a bit harder than what he can read on his own is good–builds vocabulary, helps him recognize words when he sees them on his own, helps him think what an unfamiliar word COULD be. Read aloud even when he doesn’t seem to be listening–when he’s building with Legos, for example. My son is really interested in history, and the really good kid books on the subject tend to be aimed at third grade or above–so we read those out loud–he gets the information he wants so much, and I still get to cuddle and read with him.
    3-If you haven’t already done it, have his eyes checked by a proper eye doctor, not just the quick chart they use at the pediatrician. Actually AVOIDING reading can be a sign of a tracking problem or other visual issue that can be easily fixed.

  11. Zoe permalink
    March 1, 2012

    We spent a few years home/un-schooling our kids. The daughter showed no interest in reading until her younger brother started doing it. At 22-this-month (GAH!!) she’s one of the most thoughtful and articulate people I know. Funny too.
    The boy was reading at a college level at 9. He was doing a lot of stuff at a college level by 12. In fact, yay for Grace Llewellyn, he left school at 15, started college at 16, and got himself accepted to University of Michigan at 18. Not bad for a kid who completely failed his one year of high school.
    We’re currently staying with a family in which the younger child (14 this month… same day as my daughter turns 22) who didn’t speak until the age of 4, and didn’t read a. single. word. until the age of 10. He’s reading high level stuff, and is several years above his grade level now. He was ready, he got interested, he’s unstoppable.
    But oh! Those intervening years when it’s so hard to evaluate where they are, are they learning, what are they learning, will they be, yes, illiterate Lego savants can be hardhardhard, and generate tremendous doubt. It would rock if there were dump trucks of trust that could be ordered up…
    But, kids learn. Kids grow, and they learn, and they learn what they need to know. Your kids are clearly amazing! They are learning way more important (and cool!!) stuff than doing worksheets and waiting in line.
    Just this week I wrote a note to Connor’s teacher (by the way, we have him back, and probably for good… now to find a place to live again. Jeez, the things we’ve sacrificed for our girl’s decision-making (or lack thereof)) informing him that we’re not going to do the homework packets. They bore him, he has the skills, they’re uninspiring, and we do so much stuff that they’re redundant at best. So hoping that when we find where we’re going to be, and are out of our friend’s basement in Spokane, that we’ll be able to unschool Connor too. He’s wanting it so much, as are we.
    So, ya’ know… keep the faith. You are raising lovely, bright, hilarious, competent kids. They’re gonna kick ass all over kids who’ve been told how and what to think, and can’t tie their own damn shoes.

  12. Zoe permalink
    March 1, 2012

    Oh, and, that was accepted as a JUNIOR at age 18. He’s holding a 3.9. Overall.

  13. March 17, 2012

    Oy vey. Ok, I ain’t a mama, but I can relate to this in a wee way. My niece had such a hard time learning to read and write. She went to public schools, where the teachers were just too overwhelmed to really help her and there were lots of “threats” that she would be held back. Her confidence was totally shot. My heart ached for the kid. So, I took it on as a personal mission to teach her to read and write well (or at least at “grade level,” whatever that means). I have never felt like such an utter failure in all my life! I tried every trick I could think of. Eventually, I decided to throw all the crazy ideas I had together. We painted letters and pictures that went went the letters (“a” is for apple and what not) and then created a song and dance around it. Each letter of the alphabet took forever to get through. But by god, she got it! It was working! And then? They moved and I couldn’t help her as frequently. Naturally, she did just fine on her own and would have without my help, I’m sure. It’s 12 years later and now I have a whole new set of things to worry about over her. I’ve still not learned to trust that all will be well and that she’ll find her way. Sometimes I think it’s really me who needs the education.

    Pardon that novel of a comment. I will try to shut up now.

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