Home Education Magazine
July-August 2000 - Articles
Differences In Common - Melissa Allen
It was one of those remarks that only seems funny in retrospect.
My five-year-old son was having his annual checkup. To my pleasant surprise, the doctor took the news that we were homeschooling quite well. She asked some friendly questions, culminating with the seemingly harmless, "So what are you learning in homeschool?"
"Well," Ben said, "I mostly learn stuff from my dad, because my mom hardly knows anything."
By an amazing effort of will I managed to keep my head up, stay seated erect in my chair, and even smile wanly, as the pediatrician looked at me in shock. I tried to explain: "He and his father have all the same interests - they're very scientifically minded - he always wants to know how everything works and I never know..."
The doctor smiled at me kindly, probably thinking it best to indulge the feebleminded. "Oh, well, I'd probably have the same problem," she said - though obviously wondering what kind of person wouldn't be able to handle a five year old's questions, no matter how far outside her area of expertise.
Little did she know that by the age of three Ben had a far greater understanding than I of almost all things mechanical, mostly as a result of paying acute attention to things it never occurred to me in my life to pay any attention to whatsoever. Before he pointed it out to me, I'd never even noticed that different cars have differently shaped headlights, let alone remembered which ones had which. And once, after I'd struggled for fifteen minutes, using all my wits and a lot of colorful language, to reassemble the blender, he sweetly took the four pieces from me and handed them back five seconds later in their proper positions.
But until this remark in the doctor's office, it had never occurred to me that, just because my automatic response to almost every question he asked was, "Go ask Daddy," my son might actually think I was not very bright. After all, I could read when I was three, while Ben at five doesn't consistently recognize most of the letters of the alphabet. I still read incessantly, just not about the stuff Ben wants to know about. Was it my fault he never asked me anything about Jane Austen, or medieval history, or Chagall? Would I forever be remembered as his dimwitted mother just because my understanding of the internal combustion engine is limited to the knowledge that gears and pistons have something to do with it?
"I'm outnumbered," I whined to my husband that night. I started fantasizing about having another child - who would, of course, be interested in all the same things I was, and want to sit around quietly listening to me reading The Chronicles of Narnia instead of building Lego models of his favorite airplanes and running around making disturbingly authentic airplane noises.
But then I had the awful thought that there was no guarantee another child would be anything like me either. It might just be another Them, and I'd be even more outnumbered.
After a few days of moping, I realized something had to be done. I had been operating for a while on the assumption that Ben and I had little or nothing in common. Our typical "preschool" days were spent mostly separately: I did chores, read, or used the computer while Ben played by himself or with friends, looked at books or watched educational TV. I never concerned myself much with what he was learning, maybe because it was clear so early on that he was leaving me in the dust in so many ways.
Also, as a staunch advocate of child-led learning, it made me uncomfortable to think about introducing ideas and activities to Ben rather than letting him generate his own. I have never been able to relate to the type of homeschooling parent who collects file folders of fun art activities to do with the kids and is always having them help her whip up something in the kitchen or heading off on a nature hike.
But I was beginning to understand that my reluctance to share my own interests and passions with Ben had left us strangers to each other in many ways. It had also left Ben relatively unexposed to large segments of the human experience - like history, art, music, and classical literature.
I felt bored and resentful; he felt ignored and unchallenged. It didn't seem like the ideal relationship for a homeschooling mother and child who'd be spending a lot of one-on-one time together in the years to come. I decided I needed to find - or create - some common ground for the two of us to meet on.
While I still was opposed to forcing him to study or learn anything he wasn't interested in, I realized I'd never even given him the opportunity to develop an interest in some areas. Or if I had, it had been on my terms, not his, and I had, I now felt, over-generalized from the results. When he didn't want to sit still to listen to Little House in the Big Woods or even "Cinderella," when he didn't use the Crayolas I tossed at him to create artistic masterpieces, when he declined the idea of attending Kindermusik, I smugly thought, Technonerd!, bought him some more Legos, and went off on my own to read.
I was motivated now to pay closer attention to Ben's cues about what he was interested in. I started seeking out those craft-project ideas I'd previously despised, choosing ones that seemed related to his other interests, like construction and transportation. We designed and built a house and farm out of construction paper, linked by a black ribbon of road for cars to drive on. We made a truck out of empty boxes, and painted scenery for a puppet theater, complete with blasting-off rocket. We even discovered pottery making together - a big, messy hit.
When I wanted to expand Ben's literary horizons, I realized that he really enjoyed listening to almost anything, provided it had copious illustrations. He didn't like Grimm's Fairy Tales because the edition we had was virtually unillustrated. He didn't care for most chapter books because they had few or no pictures.
Armed with this understanding, I was ready when his passion for space made Ben ask about the names of the planets. I pulled out the wonderfully illustrated D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Mythology and we plunged into what Ben soon began to refer to fondly as his "Greek god book." He didn't just tolerate this book; he asked for it to be read to him over and over again.
He also enjoyed the Dorling Kindersley illustrated and annotated versions of the Bible, world mythology, and fairy tales. With these books around, it stopped being a chore to read to Ben and became a positive pleasure to snuggle up with him and share these old stories I often hadn't revisited myself in years.
Then we acquired a globe, and I began tossing out historical, political, and geographical details that related to Ben's own interests - like where Cape Canaveral is and why that's a good place to launch rockets from, and what the Soviet Union was and why we thought it was so important to get to the moon before they did. To my surprise, Ben thought all these aspects of his obsessions were almost as fascinating as the technical specs for Saturn V - and he started realizing that his mother wasn't as ignorant as she had previously seemed!
I felt, though, that it was important I expand my own interests as well as Ben's. Most importantly, I stopped answering so many of his questions with, "I don't know, go ask Daddy." Instead, I either made my best effort to answer from my own knowledge, or else said, "Why don't we look it up?" With the huge, varied library we've amassed over the years, this rarely involves anything more taxing than wandering over to the living-room bookcase and leafing through an index. I felt embarrassed that I hadn't started doing it long ago.
Our "kindergarten" days are still about as free-flowing and loose as our "preschool" days were. We don't have a schedule or an agenda, other than having fun. We still spend plenty of time in separate activities - I haven't developed a passion for tractors, and I've accepted that Ben may never be much interested in listening to my stirring renditions of seventeenth-century poetry.
The difference now is that when we are doing something together, it's likely to be something we're both interested in, not something I'm doing on sufferance or something he's been forced into to please me. We're both learning more now, I think - not least, how to share our lives with others without compromising our essential personalities.
I'm hoping that at Ben's next checkup, the doctor will be pleased at how both of us are coming along.
© 2000, Melissa Allen
July-August 2000 Issue
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