On our way to his friend's house this morning Bean asked if I knew the way.
"Not really," I said. (I have this thing called an iPhone. It makes me navigationally lazy.)
"Don't worry, mama. You don't need to know the way. You can count on me. I'll show you," he said confidently.
It's true of course. For more than driving directions. This boy is my teacher. This in-two-weeks-third-grader. This coltish legged boy with a missing-tooth grin. I've fallen in love with him all over again this summer. He's just so tender and thoughtful lately. So full of a new awareness that everyone around him has emotions and thoughts and secret goals and dreams.
I often notice him watching me subtly: for a furrowed brow, or a lightness in my voice. He wants to know, "Are you happy mama?" It matters now, differently than it ever did before.
I can feel the importance of how I am in each moment with him now. The way it's making something indelible. A blueprint of the emotional topography of woman.
It's no small thing, this. Raising boys.
Sprout gets to be the only child at dinner tonight. We sit around the butcher block counter together eating soup with grilled bread and talk about numbers. We consider "How many, and then one more?" Then we make a game of writing the numbers out, each one with their own special characteristic--5 with it's baseball cap, 3 with it's two bouncy balls.
It might seem odd that I haven't taught him numbers before: he's 4.5, headed for preschool, and I'm a certified elementary teacher.
But the thing is: the meaning of the word "readiness" is debatable in my book. In the school system, readiness is knowing your numbers and letters so that you can be ready to learn mathematical operations, write sentences, and read about Spot and Jane. Then of course, those skills are learned, because they are readiness indicators for later academic skills, and so on, each skill set building to the next level until ... what? We reach the end of school, and have a bunch of skills that prepared us for more school. Hmmm. Is that really the goal?
If, instead you think about readiness from the standpoint of developmental capabilities, then things like learning numbers and letters and reading and writing are naturally, and almost inevitably a part of the process of learning to function meaningfully in the world. Academic skills are acquired when they're needed and appropriate to problem solve and recognize patterns; to make connections and navigate complex social situations; to make order from chaos, and chaos from order. Learning is about understanding the process of innovation and excavation; leading and following, taking note and being of note.
And at the end of the day, if children are submerged in a culture of learning, with real, tangible opportunities to make meaning of their world, then things like numbers--both knowing them, and writing them--are easily acquired when they're most appropriate.
Like now. Sprout's just ready. He's known how to count to 10 and farther for a year or so (although he gets creative in the teens.) And he knows how to do simple calculations: 7 and one more is 8; if there are two cookies and four of us, we'll have to break each in half to make fair shares. He even knows how to write the number 4--which is the most important number to him, of course, since that's his age. But tonight when I teach him how to write the other digits, I wish you could his chortles of delight!
With each new number, he lets out the most triumphant laugh when he masters it. Pure gusto! Complete ease. And in ten minutes he knows and is using all the digits easily. Right timing. They're useful to him now.
Of course, it's way more just this, and has everything to do with a household where learning happens all the time. A house that is literary rich, and scientifically minded. A house where T and I both engage our kids in problem solving while doing real-world tasks rewiring an outlet, making quiche, filling the gas tank, calculating change for the parking meter, programming a website, or mapping directions. (And we're blessed with kids who are typically functioning and healthy, which makes everything simpler without a doubt.)
But I've been thinking lately about the rush that we have as a culture--to get ahead. To prepare. To be productive above all else; at the front of the pack, and ahead of schedule--and how that affects me as a creative (often leaving me exhausted). And then I've been wondering if it's not something we're tacitly teaching our children, instead of showing hem that real learning means exploration and going at your own pace, prototyping and practicing and narratively mapping meaning. For that's how children are hardwired--to learn: iteratively, intuitively, and instinctively from real-world experience.
But if we dialed it back just a we bit and rested into the truth of this:
"Don't worry, mama. You don't need to know the way. You can count on me. I'll show you." I think they'd turn out just fine.
More than fine, actually.