Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kindergarten: The Sequel

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Leo couldn't do anything right. He couldn't read. He couldn't write. He couldn't draw. He was a sloppy eater. And, he never said a word.

Leo is a late bloomer. As luck would have it, he's also fictional. He lives in the pages of Robert Kraus's classic children's book. But we live his story for real at our house. Our six-year-old is a late bloomer, too. He crawled late; he walked late; now he'll be going to first grade late. So I take offense at the New York Times' description of Leo as "underachieving." According to Merriam Webster, underachieving means that one fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected. Late blooming, on the other hand, is all a matter of timing—they get to the party with bells on; they're just fashionably late.

This is also why I took such offense at the interrogation I suffered at the hands of miniature Barbara Walters on the playground yesterday. Oh, she had all the hard-hitting questions: Why is he in kindergarten again? Well if he's six, shouldn't he be in first grade? I'm six and I'm in first grade. Will he EVER be in first grade?

I had a few questions of my own: Is your mother deaf? Does she not realize this may well be hurting my child's feelings? Are you always such a precocious little piss ant?

The instinct to swaddle my child in bubble wrap is unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy. But it's there nonetheless. It's filed right next to the instinct to inflict minor yet memorable pain on any child thoughtless or cruel enough to hurt him. Nothing serious, nothing that would leave a mark. (Especially on anyone under the age of eight. I'm going for vengeance, not a felony.) We're expected to shield our children from adult language; isn't it just as valid to shield them from the hurtful words of kids? This, after all, was the very kid I'd been worrying about all summer. Except I imagined her ugly, and a boy.

I admit it, my brain had some work to do when his teacher first brought up the subject. A parent doesn't just say, "Oh, awesome! My kid is failing kindergarten! Vo-Tech, here we come!" For starters, I had to politely ask the word fail to leave the room. Who needs the word fail any way? Then I packed embarrassment's bags and showed him the door, too. There's no room here for your kind, mister. Suddenly, things were getting roomy. There was space for words like opportunity and maturity.

Which brings us back to timing. Our son's birthday is August 13th, so he turned five about twenty minutes before kindergarten started. Other kids in his class turned five in, say, February, giving them eons of extra time to develop and mature. And everybody knows six months equals about ten years in little kid time. Malcolm Gladwell knows it. In Outliers, he says, "Most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. . . . It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years." If a kindergartner is struggling to keep up with classmates who had the developmental windfall of earlier birthdays, it can be a big mistake to assume he'll naturally catch up later. The struggle can cost the child his education, his self-esteem, even his life. Gladwell suggests that suicide is sometimes the ultimate price of this mistake. After reading that, I could clearly see another year of kindergarten for what it is—an opportunity, not a failure. And I thank both his kindergarten teachers for giving it to him.

About five minutes before our impromptu playground interview, our son's new teacher pulled me aside to tell me that everybody's noticing how much better he's doing this go 'round—his reading, his writing, his drawing. We see it, too. He's blooming.
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Gramma Judy said...

Susan Ann....I've never been prouder of you...or of Daniel, our dear little late bloomer. And bloom he will with the wonderful parenting he's been gifted with in you and Dan.

I've read this through my gramma tears, and will share it with everyone who will read it.

Damn! Such a brilliant teacher, mom, daughter.

Jomama said...

What a beautiful post! I wish we could get around this age thing--even had your son had the same number of months as his peers, he might still have needed that extra time.

Good for you for sticking with what is right for your child!

I was in Kindergarten at age 6 as well--I was adopted from Korea, and arrived speaking not a word of English, so Kindergarten seemed like a MUCH better idea than dumping me into first grade.

Sure, there were times when it felt a little funny to be the oldest in my class--but now 25 years after graduating high school--who cares? I had a great educational career.

I've not read Outliers yet, but I now I think I will.

Anonymous said...

We all know that there is nobody brighter than Daniel! He may not follow "their" guidelines, but he is a bright and articulate little boy. Nuttin wrong wit dad kid!

Aunt Becky

Amy B. said...

Thanks for this. We may very well be in the same boat this year, and it's good to hear about your experience.