Monday, August 28, 2017

Learning and loving

Benjamin had his kindergarten assessment on Thursday and the results were...interesting. He already had an assessment in Durham and they seemed satisfied with the level he was at—he can use scissors and stack LEGO and while he is by no means an expert, he is familiar with letters, numbers, colours, and shapes. They gave him a little book about starting kindergarten and sent him home excited to return at the beginning of the school year (although at that point we were 99% sure we wouldn't be there anymore).

This time the assessment was more academically rigorous: basic math, phonetics, and so forth.

He really didn't perform well. In fact, he performed fairly abysmally.

In his defense, he was highly distracted. What he really wanted to do was explore the kindergarten playground and he found the classroom itself really focus on any task he was given (I could see his little head bobbing around, trying to take everything in). On one facet of the assessment (dealing with the alphabet) he scored a 2/26. He knows more than two sounds, I assure you. And he can identify every letter, though for some (understandable) reason he often mixes up S and Z and a few other pairs like that.

He can't count to twenty without skipping around in the teens.

He can't, he can't, he can't...

I was told a whole lot about what he "can't" and then I was told a whole bunch of things that we need to be doing at home to help get him to where he needs to be. I suppose that's the downside of half-day kindergarten.

How can we expect half-day kindergarten children to be prepared for the rigours of grade one in half the time (2.5 hours, really) as their full-day kindergarten peers? Easy: lots and lots of homework.

We were given workbooks for math and flashcards for literacy and pages and pages of instructions.

A small consolation is that every child was given the same resources, so it isn't as if he's so behind that he needs special help catching up. They're just feeling like he's behind because they have way too high of expectations for grade one these days (in my opinion).

After dealing with Miriam's kindergarten year, Benjamin feels a bit like a bucket of cold water being dumped over me. She was reading at a sixth grade reading level when they tested her to see if they should advance her to grade one. He's not reading at all...but...that's fairly normal for incoming kindergarten students. Rachel didn't learn to read until the end of her kindergarten year and she's just fine. It also took her a little while to earn her place of honour on the "Hundred Board," for successfully counting to 100 without skipping any numbers.

Benjamin, I think, will do fine.

Miriam, our October baby, had the benefit of an extra year at home. Benjamin is still a rather green five-year-old and has the whole year ahead of him to learn and grow.

We started up on reading lessons again this week and while they might not be his favourite thing to do, they're obviously much easier for him this time around and he's feeling more successful and excited about reading. But, oh, how I sometimes wish he wasn't filled with so much sass and energy.

On Thursday, for example, when I suggested that we sit down to review the alphabet chart his teacher gave us, Benjamin said, "Wait! Wait! I have to go poop!"

Of course he would have to do that right at that moment; his whole life is one grand distraction.

From the bathroom he called out to me, "Don't worry, Mom! I know poop starts with P!"

On Friday I reintroduced the alphabet song we love so dearly at our house because it teaches phonetics well. We sang it all the way to the doctor's office, with me encouraging him to come up with new words each time through it.

"A is for...what?" I'll ask.

"A...a...alligator!" he'll say (instead of "apple," which is what the song really says).

And then we'll sing about alligators instead, and so forth through the alphabet.

When we were walking up to the doctor's office, Benjamin stopped short and said, "Oh, man!"

"What?" I asked.

"We will have to sing that song again because,'s office! I really want to sing about the doctor's office!"

So we sang that song all the way home as well (including a verse about the doctor's office). When we got home I opened the garage but Benjamin wanted to go through the front door, which can be rather difficult to open. I told him that I didn't want to try to force the door because my bum was sore from my shot (and ramming a door with my hip was the last thing I wanted to do).

"We could always knock," he said. "N is for knock! N...n...knock!"

"It sounds like that," I said. "Knock is kind of a crazy word, but it certainly starts with a /n/ sound!"

So clearly he's grasping the concepts and is finally showing an interest in the alphabet...finally. He never really showed any interest in the alphabet or numbers at all as a toddler, which I always found a little strange because all of his sisters have been interested in such things. Rachel loved alphabet games as a toddler, Miriam wanted to do everything Rachel was doing (which is why she read at age three (because Rachel learned when she was five)) and already Zoë is quite interested in what Benjamin's learning. She loves reading lessons.

He was always more interested in...running around and jumping off of stuff.

I figured that was probably good for his development, too (and I don't think I'm wrong yet), but it may mean we need to buckle down a little bit this school year.

On Saturday while we were out driving, I was trying to get Benjamin to pay attention to all the signs we were passing but he was more interested in talking about the mountains (he was so excited to "go into the mountains" for the first time; he's been begging for weeks). When we were stopped by a big, obvious sign, I said, "Benjamin, what letters do you see on that sign?"

"All of them," he answered simply.

So we know his eyes work. And I'm sure he'll get this. It may take a lot of effort on his part (and a lot of deep breathing on my part), but he'll get this.

When I contrasted Benjamin's kindergarten year—"Poop starts with P!"—with Miriam's kindergarten year—reading at a sixth grade reading level—I was cautioned on Facebook to not compare my children. That advice is...difficult to follow. I've been comparing my children since birth. Seriously. And I don't know how to stop. And I don't know if I ever will stop because I think comparison can be innocent, healthy, even...helpful.

I know my children's birth weights:

Rachel was 7 lbs. 7 oz., Miriam was 7 lbs. 2 oz., Benjamin was 4 lbs. 13 oz., Zoë was 7 lbs. 1 oz.

I know when my children started to walk:

Rachel was 9 months old, Miriam was 12 months old, Benjamin was 14 months old, Zoë was 12 months old.

I know when my children started to read:

Rachel was five, at the end of her kindergarten year. Miriam was three, before she even started preschool. Benjamin and Zoë are still working on gaining this skill—and that's fine.

Knowing these things doesn't make me love any of them less or more. I don't love Rachel the most because she walked earliest. I don't love Benjamin the most because he was the smallest. I don't love Miriam the most because she was my youngest reader. I don't love Zoë the most because she is finally sleeping like a normal human being (for real, guys, it's been, like, a week and, truthfully, my ability to love her deeply probably has grown because she's sleeping now, which means I'm sleeping now (more or less (no thanks to you, Alexander)) but I wouldn't say I love her the most).

These things are simply the way things are—and when I list them all in a row, I suppose it might seem like I'm comparing them...because I suppose I am—but they don't affect my love.

In his talk about pride and the priesthood, Elder Uchtdorf explained that "at its core, pride is a sin of comparison." He didn't say that comparison is a sin—simply that it can be a sin (as can a lot of things). Later he goes on to clarify that "pride is the great sin of self-elevation." So it isn't comparison that is necessarily bad; it's the "therefore I'm better than you" attitude.

Comparison doesn't have to be a sin, however. It can be helpful for figuring out a child has special needs that could use early interventions (I'm thinking of our nephew Kayl, who was diagnosed with autism and has made great strides in becoming verbal, thanks to the help he got early on in his life when we (and I mean a general, large, familial "we" not a "me-we") noticed he wasn't quite reaching his milestones like Rachel was (Rachel is just a few months older than he is)). I think it was healthy and good to compare the two of them so we could figure that out.

Comparison can be good when you look back to see what you were doing when you were first starting out at something—ukulele, comes to mind—and then see where you are a short while (days, weeks, years) later. You can see how your confidence has grown, how your skills have improved, how much you've learned. (On the flip side you can also realize you haven't practiced at all since moving and get a little nervous that everyone's skills are getting thoroughly rusty).

Comparison can be helpful for deciphering how best to approach a child. When Rachel was learning to ride her bike, she was unstoppable. She'd fall over and pick herself right back up again without prompting. I was astounded by the number of scrapes she ignored while she mastered The Bike. She had decided she wanted to learn and—by golly—she was going to learn! And I learned that if I just backed off she'd figure it out.

Miriam needed a gentler approach. One spill would put her off bike riding for months. I would have to coax her and bribe her to end each bike riding session with a positive experience (or to get back up on her bike at all). She's finally starting to enjoy riding her bike and has learned to pick herself up and try again. When she took a spill in the church parking lot last week (Rachel was trying to teach her how to wave while riding...oi vey) she got rather upset. She parked her bike and stormed away from it and I was worried it was going to take every ounce of patience left in my body to get her back on that bike, but when she was halfway to me she stopped and said, "I don't want to ride my bike anymore but I want to end today with a success so I'll do one more loop and then I want to go home."

It's taken her quite a while longer to learn to ride her bike than it took Rachel, but she's doing it her way and that's great. And if she doesn't ever entirely fall in love with bike riding like Rachel has, that's fine. It won't ever change how much I love her, or Rachel, or Benjamin, or Zoë. I just love them because they're my kids. The love of a mother is a sort of divine love, I think—a term I prefer over "unconditional love."

I've been thinking a lot lately about what unconditional love is. I love what Elder Christofferson offered in his October 2016 General Conference address:
There are many ways to describe and speak of divine love. One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is “unconditional.” While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as “great and wonderful love,” “perfect love,” “redeeming love,” and “everlasting love.” These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional. God’s love is infinite and it will endure forever, but what it means for each of us depends on how we respond to His love.
I will always love my children, naturally, with the sort of divine love that a mother's love is. But I also believe that the relationship we will have when my children are adults will depend on how we treat each other through the years. If we are going to be friends when we're adults, then we're going to have to treat each other with love and respect now and in the future. We'll have to invest time in our relationship, doing things together and learning how to enjoy each other's company. Because if we are disrespectful to each other or don't invest time in each other now and in the future, our relationship will likely end up being rather strained.

That's simple math, isn't it?

It wouldn't mean that I would love a child who was kind and sweet and caring more than a child who was belligerent and rude and hurtful. It would simply mean that the relationship with the former child would come easier than the relationship with the latter child.

The phrase "unconditional love" is too easily manipulated into a power move. It's too easy for someone to accuse someone of not loving them "unconditionally" when expectations are involved, but I've yet to see any kind of relationship completely free of expectations and I've yet to see any sort of relationship thrive when expectations are not met.

I hope my children will always love me—simply because I'm their mother—but I'm pretty sure my children expect me to do several things for them. Like, I know they enjoy eating every day. They want story time and lullabies and back rubs. They want help with things that are hard for them. They expect me to sit through soccer games and dance recitals and so forth. And, frankly, doing those things makes it easier for them to love me.

Similarly, I expect my children to do things as well. I want them to unload the dishwasher and practice the piano and not fight like cats and dogs constantly and sleep through the flippity-flappity night, and so forth. And when they do all those things it magically makes it easier for me to love them. Or to express my love—to shower them with privileges and treats and hugs and kisses and happiness. Because if they don't unload the dishwasher and don't practice the piano and fight all the live, long day, and refuse to go to bed then I, uh, get a little grumpy and start nagging and taking away privileges and stuff like that.

Not because in that moment I love them less. Not at all. It just makes it more difficult for me to express my love in a way that they interpret as "love."

But really a reprimand—a chastisement, a correction—is also a form of love, even if it doesn't feel like it.

So much in live is conditional that saying that love isn't is confusing, especially when—or because—love is so easily misinterpreted.

If child A practices the piano and gets to go play with friends after school, while child B neglected to practice the piano and is held home to get that done instead of playing with friends, it would be easy for child B to interpret that as "Mom loves child A more than me" or they could think, "Mom only loves me when I fulfil her expectations," which might cause them to throw out the manipulative phrase, "You don't love me unconditionally."

I'm completely rambling now, but my point is that unconditional love is so easily misunderstood and manipulated that I prefer the scriptural phrases describing God's love: great, wonderful, perfect, redeeming, everlasting. God's love is divine and eternal but...I also need to show God that I love him (by, you know, doing my best to live up to His expectations of me) so that he can express his love to me in a way that feels like warm, fuzzy love (rather than a reprimand, which, as I mentioned is still love).

So, those are the ramblings in my brain the past few days. I'm sure my understanding of loving and learning is fairly naive, but I'm still figuring life out so I'll allow it.


  1. The "knock" starts with N reminds me of when Zach was going around the house spelling out words. "Poppy, can I have your f-o-n?" he greeted my dad one day when Zach wanted to do Pokémon on the phone. I also seem to recall my older nephew (15 now) talking of "Arnold" starting with R back when he was learning about letters and sounds.

    Since I don't have children, I tend to compare my nephews and niece. Michael and Zach were early, clear talkers. Sophie not so much; she spoke her own language. Michael was the child walking at ten months while his cousins were around 14 months. And so forth.

    I enjoyed your thoughts about unconditional love, and better terms for God's love.

    I hope Benjamin has a great school year!

    1. Yes! Rachel once wrote a letter to her Aunt Emily and spelled her name M-U-L-E because *clearly* that says Em-uh-lee. :D

      Watching kids grow sure is fun!

  2. Thoughtful post. Right now I'm thinking a lot about how Sterling doesn't draw or color nearly as much or as well as his sisters did. It stresses me out if I think about it too much. Sigh.