Resisting the End of Childhood

Saturday, November 21, 2009
As I read the story in Friday's New York Times, my belly twisted with the sharp movements of the nearly 9-month-old fetus inside. My daughter's little hand punched forward when I came to this line: "Children often have to be trained to listen to questions from strangers and to sit still for about an hour, the time it takes to complete the two tests."

It's ok, I found myself whispering to her (out loud): I won't let this happen to you.

But can I really protect Annie from the world outside, a world in which New York City toddlers are being raised by parents willing to spend $90 a session to prep their children for tests used to determine admission to KINDERGARTEN? When my highly-educated counterparts are willing to go this far to secure early education that's a 'step up in caliber,' what kind of mama am I if I resist? Am I giving up the ability to have educational choices which could improve the lives of my little boy and my girl-to-be?

Thankfully every single bit of me -- my brain, my heart, my gut -- answers this question with a resounding "NO." In fact, I'm awfully confident (too confident?) that my resistance bodes quite well for my kids. My instincts stem from a fairly robust research literature indicating that socioeconomically advantaged children like mine will thrive in virtually any school environment. As I've said to many friends when defending my choice of preschool (Waldorf), elementary and secondary schools (public), and my planned choice of college (again public, perhaps even a community college to start)-- you could put my son in a virtual "box" for years and he'd still be exceptionally bright. (For those of you getting concerned please note: by "box" I mean a less-than-stimulating classroom environment with a less-than-highly qualified teacher-- not the cardboard apparatus my Amazon deliveries arrive in.)

On a daily basis I find myself actively resisting what researchers identify as normative behavior for my social class group, what Annette Lareau calls the "concerted cultivation" of children. Instead of signing my kid up for a preschool where ABCs are taught at 3 and children are offered music and language electives and ported from one classroom to another, I chose a school based on feelings of warmth and kinship. That's right-- I put my son in a classroom because I liked its pink walls, filmy scarves hanging on hooks, and the rocking chairs in corners. And because the woman in charge, the glowing, smiley "Miss Itzel," serves Conor peach tea and makes sure he gets to spend at least an hour each day playing outside. You got it--that's what's most important to this professor of education.

In fact, I feel much more kinship with what Lareau deems a working-class approach-- the "accomplishment of natural growth." What I want is for my son to play, to laugh, and to interact with other kids based on what they find fun-- not how many numbers or words they know. Of course I found this other article from the New York Times comforting, since it said my instincts are supported by good research on child development. But the truth is, whether or not research affirms it my husband I aren't going to change what we plan to do.

Given that it seems my mind's made up, I have to wonder--why did this week's article on admissions tests freak me out at all? Perhaps because of the tone of inevitability it expressed- a sense that those in power have decided (affirmatively) that this is the new order. An unethical order perhaps (thankfully, the article at least acknowledged that possibility), but one that's here to stay. Witness the New York City schools expert who purports to have no evidence that test prep is on the rise-- while citing an increase in average test scores accompanying an increase in test-takers. She's turning a blind eye; normally expansions in test-taking are accompanied by declines in overall scores, not the other way around. Something else is going on. And it's being described as "normal."

Well, consider me mad and not going to take it anymore. I want to see a widespread protest in response, the formation of a group of powerful people intentionally not signing up for prep classes. A cadre of folks working to make sure their 3 year olds refuse to sit still for an hour, and actively discourage them from taking questions from strangers (whatever that means). Those are the people I plan to surround myself and my kids with, and we'll fight to protect childhood, at whatever cost. That, I think, is what being the "adult" is all about.