What I’m reading: The Anti-Romantic Child

This review of Priscilla Gilman’s book The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy is running over at Woman in Washington.  I hope you’ll visit, and if you like reading and talking about books on motherhood in all its agony and ecstasy, I hope you’ll join the MOTHERS Book Bag group on Good Reads!

the anti-romantic child by priscilla gilmanIn her book The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, author Priscilla Gilman chronicles her experiences as the mother of a special-needs child. Though Gilman harbored suspicions that Benj was unlike other children, it was not until he was almost three that Gilman’s worries were confirmed. The director of a potential preschool delivered the upsetting news that he suspected something was amiss.  What their pediatrician had initially assured them was perfectly normal turned out to be hyperlexia, a disorder characterized by early reading and vocabulary acquisition coupled with a delay in spontaneous speech, motor dexterity, and social skills.

Gilman and her husband, Richard, quickly had Benj evaluated and started him in various therapies which ultimately helped him to achieve a relatively high level of functioning. With the help of expert educators and therapists, Benj learned skills that led him to overcome, or at least cope with, his difficulties. Gilman’s unwavering commitment to her son, her absolute conviction that he possessed unique and wonderful gifts, was undoubtedly the major force fueling his success.

A high achiever who grew up immersed in the arts, Gilman met her husband when they were both students in the Ph.D. program in English and American Literature at Yale. She brings her literary background to bear in The Anti-Romantic Child, scattering quotes from Wordsworth liberally throughout the book. She uses these works as a jumping-off point for examining the ways in which her romantic notions of love, marriage and childhood shaped her expectations and heightened her disappointment over the failure of her marriage and the struggles of her son.

Gilman’s seemingly superhuman efforts on behalf of her son are impressive, but her story left me vaguely disquieted. After all, my children are mostly healthy and high-functioning, I have a stable marriage, and my paying job is relatively undemanding, and yet sometimes I lose it. I do not “listen attentively to [my child], at every moment…to always make sure I’m giving him what he…needs.” I am a mostly attentive mother – but every moment? Gilman recounts the extraordinarily amicable divorce she negotiated with Richard and describes the ingenious therapeutic activities she concocted for Benj. What she does not do is delve into the depths of frustration, despair and loneliness that she must have felt. The story would be more authentic, and more interesting, if the reader was given a real glimpse into the inenviable struggles and failures of Gilman’s life.

Perhaps her reluctance to shine a light on her difficulties is a function of her desire “to make life just right for those [she] loved,” or perhaps she was trying to protect the privacy of her family and friends. She dances around the issue, admitting that she periodically “felt so lonely, in a disconcerting, frightening way,” that sometimes “it can be extremely exhausting and overwhelming” to be a wife (and ex-wife), a mother, an advocate, a daughter, and an employee. Yet, she is quick with the disclaimer that “the blessings…far outweigh the worry and stress and fatigue.” In this, Gilman is no different from any mother who feels the pressure of perfection and confuses isolated failings with utter failure. We are so concerned with justifying our choices and validating our parenting that we are afraid to expose our inadequacies. The brave among us couch our admissions with declarations of maternal devotion or cite fatigue or busyness in self-defense. How much more support and validation could be gained from candid and compassionate discussions of the dark moments of motherhood!

Is homeschooling illiberal? Part 2

homeschool child outdoors learning

image courtesy of flickr user spree2010

(My continued rant about Dana Goldstein’s Slate article, “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why Teaching Children at Home Violates Progressive Values”)

No one thinks that teachers or administrators are out to oppress parents or children.  It is the system that is, inherently and fundamentally, oppressive.  Public school staff are placed in an impossible situation.  They are given large groups of children who vary from each other in every imaginable way (except for chronological age) and are expected to teach these children the information they need to perform well on standardized tests created by people who know nothing of their particular students or situation.  Their schools’ funding, not to mention their jobs, depend on their ability to achieve this task.  No matter how hard they work, how much they sacrifice, they are told they are not doing enough.  Curriculum becomes increasingly standardized, laws become increasingly strict, and ultimately schools become little more than child management facilities.  No amount of vociferous debate will change this central fact.

How could it be any different?

If “government is the only institution with the power and scale to intervene in the massive undertaking of better educating American children” – the government that allows children to starve while bazillionaires drive around in private jets, that is more concerned with playing party politics than enacting legislation that will benefit its people – then we are doomed.  Perhaps other Western democracies enjoy a greater investment in public education because in other Western democracies the public enjoys greater government support.  Other countries provide guaranteed health care and paid family leave to citizens.  Other countries take food and environmental safety seriously.  Perhaps other Western democracies have earned their citizens’ trust.

As a counterpoint to Betsy Blanchette, I proffer the story of my friend F. whose son has Down syndrome.  At the time he was required to enter school in order to continue to receive special services, he was non-verbal.  He did, however, have an extensive sign language vocabulary; unfortunately, that did not do him any good.  You see, his school district refused to hire an aide who was fluent in sign language, saying that it was not necessary for this three-year-old boy who could not chew or reliably use the toilet to have the ability to efficiently communicate with a responsible adult.  Despite his parents’ retaining counsel and entering into litigation with the district, exercising their legal recourse, the school would not budge.  I have heard similar stories from other parents of special-needs children.

Are you f*&%ing kidding me?

Luckily, his parents had the means to move to a different school district, one more in touch with its “expertise, resources, and legal responsibility” with respect to this child.  But what if they hadn’t?

Broad scale buy in followed by kicking and screaming at school board meetings is unlikely to cause any meaningful shift in the behemoth that is American public education, at least not any time soon.  On the other hand, is it possible that the best way for education reformers to be heard is to homeschool – boycott if you will?  Gandhi, King, Chavez…need I go on?

Frankly Ms. Goldstein, your judgement regarding social values practiced versus preached is offensive.  Your accusation that I either enroll my children in public school or practice piecemeal philanthropy is disrespectful.  I want my children to grow up to be kind, compassionate, honest, generous, courageous, self-disciplined, wise and principled individuals who are motivated and passionate about making this world a better place.  After my daughter’s short time in our public school (in one of the top-rated districts in our state) it is clear to me that although lip service is paid to these qualities, they are not really valued.  Obedience, academic performance, and conformity are most highly prized.  In order to be taught, they must first be subdued.

If you can convince me that children who are trained to obey, conform, and be people-pleasers are well situated to bring about broad social change, then I am willing to reconsider the whole public school thing.

Good luck with that.

Is homeschooling illiberal?


is public school or homeschool more liberal, progressive

image courtesy of flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography

Dana Goldstein’s Slate article contending that homeschooling is antithetical to progressive social values has hit a nerve.  Homeschooling supporters Astra Taylor, Conor Friedersdorf, and Stephanie Baselice have offered rebuttals.  Since we are leaning toward homeschooling Bess and Harry, I am eyeing the debate with interest.

Goldstein’s thesis is this: Truly community-minded, liberal, progressive parents enroll their children in public school, become involved in the PTO and/or school board, and work to make things better.  I used to see her point.  I have come to understand that no amount of money or parent involvement is going to make public education anything other than what it is: too big and dysfunctional to be fixed.  I believe with every fiber of my being that each human being on this planet deserves an education.  American schools contain children but, unfortunately, fail to educate them in fundamental ways.

For what it’s worth, here are my two cents:

  • The number of homeschooling families who fail to support public education with their children’s presence (an estimated 1 – 2 million children) represents only a fraction of the children not enrolled in public school.  There are 5.5 million children enrolled in private schools, yet the focus of Goldstein’s argument is on homeschoolers.  Why should this be? Is there some fundamental difference between withdrawing from the public school system and placing your resources in a privately funded school as opposed to no school at all?  Is her gripe really about taking resources (i.e., children) out of public school, or out of school altogether?
  • Homeschooling parents will be the first to tell you that it is hard work and it isn’t for everyone, but that even single parents and families who struggle financially can make it work.  This does not stop Goldstein from accusing  homeschoolers of exercising class privilege “rooted…in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large”.  Does having money make it easier?  Of course it does.  But wealth or unemployment are not requisite.
  • Molesters in schools are bad for PR, but they aren’t driving people to homeschool.  Parents are afraid of school violence and bullying.  These things are not rare.
  • Homeschooling is about teaching children to respect and trust themselves.  If that means having a distrust of public institutions, maybe that lack of trust is justified.  When children starve and go without medical care in the richest country in the world, when lies are used to justify sending people to war to kill other people, such trust is hard to defend.
  • Low income children attending middle-class schools may earn higher test scores, but correlation does not imply causation (Statistics 101).  Is this a peer effect as Goldstein argues?  Or is it that middle-class schools have more money, resources, and good teachers?  If you created a school with identical conditions and filled it with disadvantaged children, would they perform just as well?  And what of those low-income kids, anyway?  Their test scores may be higher if they go to school with middle-class kids – but what does that mean for them in real life?  Anything?  Nothing?  Just because school is capable of addressing poverty doesn’t mean it actually does.
  • Goldstein declares that public school makes children better people.  As evidence, she cites research suggesting that “adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating ‘the humanness of individuals across racial lines.’”  Though I did not read the research, I think it is safe to assume that the comparison is between individuals who attended integrated high schools and those who attended homogeneous high schools. I wonder what such research would find if they compared either (or both) of these groups to homeschooled children.

To be continued…

(This post has been featured on the front page of BlogHer Family, and is part of the Seasonal Celebration Sunday Linky Party at Natural Mothers Network.  If you’re visiting from one of those places, WELCOME to Ahimsa Mama!)

Why I don’t shop at Amazon.com

Reading, good. Amazon, bad. image courtesy of flickr user Derrick Coetzee

I recently learned that Eileen Straiton, Valarie Budayr and Joy Blaser have created a virtual book club.  The innaugural read is Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto.

I like books.  I especially like books about education.  I especially especially like books about alternative education.  And I LOVE discussing books with other smart, insightful, and interesting people.  So,I  joined the Facebook page.

If you head over there you will see that discussion has begun.  But last week most people were still in the book-obtainment stage.  There was a lot of “I ordered from Amazon today” and “My library doesn’t carry it so I’m going to get it from Amazon right now”.  I a little bit wanted to scream and rend garments.

Admittedly, that may be a touch dramatic.  But seriously – I wanted to comment on everyone’s status updates with something like, “Don’t you people KNOW that Amazon is evil?”  Since that might constitute harassment and get me kicked out of the group, I am going to write about it here instead.  Because it’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to.

My own book buying habits are as follows, for what it’s worth:  I rarely buy actual books.  I love my public library, and if there is a book I can’t get or want to own I buy it from Better World Books.  BWB is an amazing organization that sells used and new books and donates the proceeds to literacy projects.  However, at least 95% of my reading is on my Nook.  In fact, if I can’t get a book on my Nook I am not likely to read it.  I have significantly increased my reading since having gotten it – the conveniences are numerous, and a topic for another post.

Certainly, Barnes & Noble is a far cry from a local, independent bookseller.  But my rationalization thinking is that I am supporting authors and no trees had to die on my behalf.

And….it’s not Amazon.

People LOVE Amazon.  You can get anything – out of print books, vacuums, gluten-free bread, patio furniture – at rock bottom prices and often with free shipping.  It’s convenient.  Good for consumers.

But HOW do they do this?  Possibly by using their size to negotiate low prices from suppliers and absorb losses that smaller businesses cannot sustain.  Given that they have tried to get out of charging sales tax and have offered discounts to customers who scanned products in stores with their smart phones, it is not difficult to see that forcing local businesses to close is part of their strategy.

But here’s my bottom line:  The circulation of books, and by extension of ideas, is vital to our development, maybe even our survival, as a species.  The growth of self-publishing has made it fast and easy to get books to market, which is mostly good except insofar as a flooded makes it more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Of course, the Internet has reduced the importance of books as a vehicle for sharing and developing ideas, but they are still an element of the equation.

But Amazon is using its considerable weight to gain increasingly more control over book publishing and distribution.  They have opened their own publishing house, and it doesn’t take a Harvard-educated economist to know that they will market their own books at the expense of other worthwhile titles.  They have demanded that print on demand (POD) publishers use Amazon’s service, called Create Space (formerly Book Surge), and many POD publishers succumbed to the pressure.  The word “monopoly” has been bandied about.

And from where I sit, any time one company has that much control over the distribution of ideas and information – that’s bad.  Very, very bad.

Helicopter? Tiger? Just a plain old worried mom

I miss this smile

Bess is still having some difficulties in school.  The problem, in a nutshell, is this: we have raised her to be respectful and kind in her dealings with others, and to resolve conflicts by seeking compromise and taking everyone’s needs into consideration.

As it turns out, not all children are raised this way.  My daughter is finding it very difficult to deal with people whose interpersonal skills are, shall we say, less evolved.

Her teacher is an amazing like-minded woman (I first met her when she joined my Attachment Parenting group a few years ago), and I know that she is supporting my daughter’s efforts to affably relate to her classmates.  But there is only so much that can be done.  After all, it’s half-day kindergarten ; they are only there for 2 1/2 hours a day.  She can’t control what her students learn in the other 21 1/2 hours.  Plus weekends.  Plus the previous five years of their lives, give or take.  Not to mention the bus.  Ugh, the bus.

Since September, there has been a marked difference in Bess.  She is becoming increasingly withdrawn and socially anxious, and is electing (begging) to forego many of her favorite activities in favor of staying home with us.  And this, with a gentle and devoted teacher, in a kindergarten classroom.  It is difficult to imagine the situation improving very much in the coming years.

And thus…we are seriously thinking of homeschooling Bess next year, and for the foreseeable future.  I was apprehensive about public school to start with, and I am underwhelmed by the outcome to date.  Bess has always loved being around lots of other people, and was thrilled with the prospect of having lots of new potential friends, all of whom live close enough for impromptu playdates (as opposed to her friends at her previous school, who all lived at least 45 minutes away).  Even she is coming to see homeschooling as a viable, even desirable, alternative.

But am I being “that mom”?

Am I being overprotective, sheltering her ?

Is this about me not wanting my daughter to grow up and go out into the world without me?

Are the changes I am seeing just part of normal growing up, or something more?

What are the risks of allowing things to go on this way, and are those risks acceptable to me?

By permitting her to stay in an environment that is not working for her, am I implying that I think what goes on there is okay?

Is there anything wrong with giving her more time to be a child, to grow up a little more before she has to learn to function in the cold, cruel world?

Wouldn’t she benefit from a little more time spent learning the values and interpersonal skills I want her to have?

Doesn’t my daughter deserve to live in a world where she is treated with respect and kindness, at least most of the time?

Is it fair for me to expect her to treat other people with consideration, and then send her out into a world where she will not be treated in kind?

Won’t she better be able to cope with the range of personalities that exists in the world when she is a little older, more mature, more confident, stronger?

Would I be depriving her of the opportunity to learn how to deal with all sorts of other people by picking and choosing the people with whom she spends time?

 Is it so bad that I have a different vision of the world I want for my child than most of the rest of the world seems to have?

Isn’t it my right as her mother – my prerogative, indeed my responsibility – to do everything I can to create the kind of world in which I want her to live?

Am I even asking the right questions?  Do these questions even have answers?

Twinkle, my little star! (a thinly veiled excuse to brag about my daughter)

She is posing for a picture here, this is not proper violin posture!

When I was in graduate school working on my M.Ed., I had a professor who was enchanted with the Suzuki Method.  Briefly: Shinichi Suzuki was a Japanese violinist who developed a unique approach to teaching children to play violin, and the technique has since been expanded and is now used to teach a number of other instruments as well.  You can read all about this amazing teacher and humanitarian in his book Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education.

The element of the Suzuki Method that appealed so much to my teacher was his emphasis on encouragement.  Dr. Suzuki believed that by giving attention to what you want to nurture in a child, those parts of the child will naturally grow and unwanted behaviors, ignored, will wither.

She liked to tell the story of how Dr. Suzuki’s students would observe him working with a particularly difficult or unskilled student and would wonder what positive feedback he would offer.  One time, he was instructing a young child who wasn’t doing anything right – the child had bad tone, had bad tempo, a bad bow hold, the whole nine yards.  The students laughed among themselves, convinced that this time, the Master would not be able to find a single positive thing to say.  But he did.  He told the child, “I really like the way you held your left foot.”  The child was positively aglow.  “Really?!?!?!  That’s exactly what I’ve been working on all week!”

(I must admit that before we started violin lessons, this story made little sense to me.  WHY on Earth would anyone care about someone’s left foot?  But now I know that posture is an important element of playing the violin, so this makes perfect sense.)

Dr. Suzuki called his method the “mother-tongue approach”.  Children learn to talk at their own pace by hearing people use language around them; similarly, the best way to learn music is not by reading music or being drilled on isolated skills.  Children taught using the Suzuki Method learn by listening to music and then playing the songs they hear, learning the technical skills required to play the instrument within that context.  Parents attend lessons and group classes (social learning is another important element of the method) and act as home teachers, guiding the child’s practice and maintaining a fun learning environment.

So, all this to say that my daughter, who has been studying violin for just under a year, had her first recital this past weekend, and she did great!  In case you want to see how she did – and you know you do – here is the video.  It’s short, just a minute.  Surely you can spare a minute, can’t you?