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competitive child development

Some time back—almost a year ago now—I was helping out in Harvey's kids church classroom and I couldn't help but notice that some of the other 4-year-olds could write their names on their artwork in a beautiful hand, while my own son was still working on figuring out how to hold a pencil. (Not to mention the fact that these other kids' drawings were representational while Harvey's were mostly abstract shapes and squiggles!) I was sorely tempted, in the moment, to offer some direct instruction in pencil-gripping—but I resisted. It was tough, though, thanks to the mix of my own natural competitiveness and the cultural ideal that there are things that every kids should be able to do at a particular age.

Of course, that's nonsense. Kids all develop at radically different speeds: not only are some quicker-maturing across the board than others, invariably they'll take varying lengths of time to figure out things in different domains. So while one may have a perfect pencil grip at 4, another may be able to climb to the top of the climbing structure at the same age, or ride a bike without training wheels. Harvey couldn't do any of those things—but he could memorize large parts of books and songs after only two or three hearings, and easily generate long lists of words related by rhyme or consonance. Which makes sense: if you're spending all your time working on one thing you won't make as much progress in another area.

Though maybe "working" isn't the right word. Kids who can do the climbing structure just love climbing, and as a result they get better at it. And when a kid can hold a crayon with a proper grip it isn't usually thanks to deliberate practice and work with parents or teachers, it's because they want to be able to draw more precisely and discover—in most cases—that the approved grip offers the best way to to that (because, you know, it's not like holding a pencil that way was invented by a committee of educators and artists who studied the question; it's just how our hands work). As it happens, by this past winter Harvey decided he wanted to draw with some more detail and there you go, he knew how to hold a pencil.

Whew. Because, as I mentioned above, I can be competitive. And the problem is intensified by the fact that we're planning to home-school, because homeschooling automatically puts you on the defensive: oh, is your kid really going to be able to learn anything? Will he ever read? What about proper socialization?! To compensate, it's tempting to go all-out with the parental pushiness: teach em to read before they're five, make em memorize poems, do elocution lessons... you know. That way, the offspring will be a paragon of education, simultaneously justifying the parents' decision to homeschool and advertising their excellent genetic material. It's tempting!

Intellectually, though, I pull the other way. I actively resisted teaching Harvey how to hold a pencil last summer because I knew that, developmentally, there were other things that were more important for him to figure out. And as much as he'd love to do more reading instruction now, I'm trying to hold off because I want to make sure he gets all the time he needs for imaginative play and running around outside. Theoretically, I'd be happy to follow a Waldorf schedule and not see him reading until he's seven or so.

But that's not going to happen. It's not that I'm going to bow to cultural pressure and push reading instruction early, it's because Harvey has a strong interest in language and is curious about how words are represented with symbols. And maybe a little bit because the cultural pressure makes it hard to hold the line in the other direction. But if Harvey learns to read later than the rest of his cohort, I won't mind. In fact, I might be able to be able to harness my competitiveness in the other direction: never mind that he can't read, our education is more play-based than yours!

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