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Monday, December 27, 2010

A survivor story

"An apple," my daughter responded decisively, when asked what she wanted to color.  She was two, and we were bored, and I recently subscribed to Enchanted Learning, a website that offers coloring sheets.  I hadn't realized how educational it was (okay, the title should have been a giveaway… but, in my defense, I was expecting more coloring sheets and less book reports), but we were still enjoying it.

Apples were, of course, very easy to fine.  A is for Apple, after all.  There was a whole little book of A words: Apple, Ant, Alligator.  After coloring, the child could staple it all together and make an alphabet book.  What fun!  My daughter could make her very own book.  I printed it out and handed it to her and she happily sat at her little table and began coloring and chatting about how she loved apples.  "Do you know what letter that is?" I heard myself saying.  "That's an A.  That's a big A, and that's a little a.  A says 'ah' like in 'apple.'"

And then the panic set it.  What had I just done?  I was introducing her to letters.  For two years I had shielded her from any television that might be considered educational (I do admit to a good deal of Animal Planet during the worst of my pregnancy exhaustion and morning sickness), I had read her no alphabet books.  And, obviously, nary a Leapfrog toy had passed the threshold of our house.  All of my friend's kids knew their ABC song and could identify most of the alphabet, and I sat smug in my daughter's ignorance.  She had better things to be doing than educational things.  But here I was, introducing her to letters.  I may as well have been putting her behind a desk, rapping her knuckles with a ruler, and making her memorize the Gettysburg Address.

Why was I so worried?  Well, all the usual reasons.  Nothing destroys a love of learning like pressure.  Children learn everything they need to know through play.  Let children enjoy their childhood: they have plenty of time to do adult things like reading.

And all of these are perfectly reasonable reasons.  But what do any of them have to do with giving my toddler a worksheet that says A is for Apple?  A worksheet that she asked for?  The problem is that, like so many things, many posters on MDC take a logical and just idea and bring it to its illogical and ridiculous extreme.  To go through my concerns:
Of course pressuring a child to learn things that she's not developmentally ready for is going to be counterproductive.  But is showing a preschooler the alphabet really pressuring them?  Some posters would say yes.  One poster was so offended that her son's preschool did a running "color of the week" activity, and had him sing songs that taught body parts (I assume "head, shoulders, knees and toes") that she pulled him out and has been unschooling him ever since.

And, yes, play is deeply important for children's development.  And, in early childhood, it is all that they need to learn: it's how they learn basic facts about the physical world and how they work out the social aspects of life.  But, no, a child in 21st century America does not learn everything he needs to know through Legos or dress up.  A young child, okay.  But you hear on MDC, in all seriousness, that 11 year olds learn everything they need to know through play.   I don't know exactly where the divide lies, but it exists.

And the idea that you can't be both literate and carefree is an odd MDC myth, very Waldorfian in nature.  I won't go into it here, but there are Waldorf Survivor support groups, and I'm sure there will be posts about it here.  Waldorf is a philosophy that is deeply suspicious of any knowledge of child development, and actually quite counter to a great deal of what we know about the ways that children learn.  Basically, a child is born part angel, and it takes 7 years for all of their cells to die and be regenerated as earth cells, and when they lose their baby teeth that's when they're fully earthly and can learn how to read.  Angels are illiterate, apparently, so if you teach your part angel child how to read… well, I'm not sure what happens.  But it's bad.  But When I learned to read, it didn't mean that I stopped playing with my dolls or running around the backyard.  Was that true for you?  I didn't think so.  The MDC myths about learning how to read deserve their own post here.

At the time I gave my daughter her apple coloring sheets, I was so wrapped up in the MDC theories of education that I was actually feeling guilty about introducing her to something that might vaguely be construed as being educational.

The root of this problem is that everything about MDC is anti-intellectual.  There is fostered a belief that scientists are trying to poison our children through vaccines.  That Bill Gates practices eugenics.  That a young woman giving birth alone in a closet is more qualified than any trained OB.  It's bad enough over on the discussions pertaining to science, but it's downright horrifying to see this anti-intellectualism on display in the forums about education.  Poster after poster doesn't trust teachers, but won't educate their children themselves.  Children are expected to learn from their environment, but aren't given an environment where learning is encouraged.

To anyone reading this, I would encourage finding a happy medium.  Don't force your 3 year old to do hours of worksheets: but, really, who does that?  Introduce them to everything, and see what sticks.  It won't hurt them, I promise.  Understand that a lot of the mythology about delayed academics is either based on bizarre interpretations of Christianity, or a deep anti-intellectualism that looks down on education or training, or is based on some deeply flawed conceptions about the history of education.  Recognize that children are little sponges, that they'll absorb what they want to when they want to… but you have to give them material to absorb.   


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