The birthday boy sat down beside my daughter as she opened a book, "The truck is yellow," he read smoothly. My brain started in on the comparisons; he's only two weeks older than her, why can he read and she can't? Is she behind? Should I worry?
Oh right. She's in Kindergarten.
It is easy to get caught up in the testing craze that is sweeping the nation -- to put stock in standardized assessments of children who were never meant to be good listeners at the age of five. At a time when we were playing in the sandbox and running imaginary restaurants, she is expected to be reading.
I've never been concerned about my daughter learning to read -- until now. She comes from a family that takes the written word very seriously. I moonlight as a blogger, my father is an author, my sister a librarian, and my mom's purse lost 20 pounds with the invention of the e-reader. Reading is woven into the fabric of her life.
Instead of slowly, gracefully letting literacy come to her, it is being shoved in her face. Every night she is supposed to practice reading and writing, and it's painful to watch. She balks at being pushed to do something that she is not quite ready for, digging in her heels and shutting down. I'm torn between helping her keep up and letting it come naturally. This early push for literacy is coming at a cost -- and my kid is paying the price.
I've seen people say they are eschewing kindergarten homework, and it's so tempting to go that route. The reality is that she has inherited my anxious habit of dodging work that overwhelms her, so the last thing I need to teach her is that assignments are optional. The catch-22 is that I worry she will resent reading as a result. I want reading to be magic. I want her to be so engrossed in a book that she hides under the covers with a flashlight.
I was not reading in Kindergarten, yet by the third grade I was reading The Babysitters Club books while walking down the school halls. During our long recesses - between games of dodge ball and foursquare - I stretched lazily in the sun with a book shading my eyes. Each month I begged my mom to take me to the bookstore to get the newest adventures of Kristy and the gang. I participated in every reading challenge that came my way -- not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Today reading gets me out of my own thoughts for a few hours, providing momentary escape from noise in my brain.
I know that she is her own person, and maybe books will not hold the same meaning for her as they do for me, but I want to stack the card catalogue in her favor. I want to set a positive foundation, not create frustration and tears. I'm scared that learning to read is sucking the fun out of reading. I can see the cracks in her self-esteem. She can sense that she should be sitting still and paying attention, that she should be sounding out words easily, that she should be eager. One morning she begged not to go to class, crying "I just don't think I'm very good at school."
This is a kid who loves to listen to us read, who makes up improv songs daily, and who is eager to learn when she is ready. She can tell you all about Mt.Vesuvius and Pompeii. She came home from a field trip excited to make butter. At night my husband watches science videos on YouTube with her snuggled under his arm. She's not inherently lazy. I never expected kindergarten to be so hard on our entire family, as we try to find the balance between teaching her to play by the one-size-fits-all rules and letting her stretch out in the sun, gleaning knowledge as it comes to her.
I've read all the articles and information about the ways our government is ruining childhood education: the lack of recess, the assessments, the low teacher pay. And yet, even knowing what I know, it is still hard to navigate the murky water between the arbitrarily-created expectations and the individual needs of my child.
For now I am holding tight to the assurance that she will eventually learn to read the old-fashioned way; a desperate need to know the words I'm spelling out loud. I can't wait until I have to start hiding the c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e.
Adapted from an essay originally written for Today Parenting Team.