Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Little Self-Advocate

Yesterday at the playground, a younger child was eyeing Ben's hearing equipment with interest.  I could tell that his mother was a little nervous, hoping her son wasn't being rude.  So I said, "Ben, it looks like O--- is curious about your equipment.  Can you tell him what that is behind your ears?"  O---'s mother broke in with a bright, nervous, "Oh, are those hearing aids?  To help him hear?"  Ben responded, "Yes, and this" (pointing to his right ear) "is a cochlear implant, to help me hear louder."

The other mother was very impressed (and relieved that it wasn't such a big deal).  I was almost crying inside, I was so proud.

Later, Ben and O--- were running in big circles around the playground, and the other mother was again impressed by the fact that Ben could clearly hear and understand me even when running at full tilt away from me.  Not a bad advertisement for cochlear implant technology!

Monday, September 19, 2011

It finally happened.

Ben tried to pretend an ordinary toy was a gun.

It happened last Friday evening, at the math department picnic.  Ben and I were playing with his air propulsion rocket when he gleefully shouted, "Let's pretend it's a gun!!!"  (Yes, my child is very literal.)

My response:  "No, let's not do that.  I don't like guns, and I don't think they're fun things to pretend about."

Now, Ben's knowledge of guns is scant.  When they are mentioned in songs, we kinda gloss over it, as in the Rocky Raccoon lyric, "Now Rocky had come equipped with a nuuuuuuuh to huuuwuhhuh legs of his rival."  Call us cowards, but we just don't want to go there yet.  But the kids at school talk.  His preschool has an anti-gun-play policy, but I'm sure some of the kids manage to circumvent it in clever ways, and they probably make it look pretty cool.

I don't own a gun, but we have friends who do for hunting purposes, and I'm okay with that.  My parents have a longtime family friend who is a vegetarian and hunts, at least partly on the premise that he's providing counterbalance to all the folks who will eat it but aren't willing to kill it.  I'm not trying to take away anyone's guns or cast aspersions on gun owners.  But let's be honest about it:  The purpose of a gun is to tear flesh apart in a fairly violent fashion, and I'm not ready to have that conversation with Ben yet.  And until I am, I don't want him getting the idea that guns have any other purpose -- most particularly that they are cool play things.  A gun is a tool, an object, and in and of themselves they are not evil or even dangerous; they're just lumps of metal.  But as tools they have a purpose, and when that purpose is misunderstood, people misuse them, and other people get hurt.

Now, in families where gun ownership is a valued tradition and there is an expectation that children will one day use or own guns, it might make sense to have toy guns and to encourage gun play, if for no other reason than to motivate conversations about responsible gun use.  If you're a football fanatic, you're probably going to get your kid a football and hope that he or she eventually shares your enthusiasm.  I guess I'm okay with all that.  But honestly, guns freak me out.  I don't want one in my house, and I sincerely hope Ben never has one either.  At some point he will learn about death, crime, self-defense, war, hunting, life on the frontier, etc., and at that point he'll learn a lot about guns.  But until he's old enough to understand them in context, there's no reason for him to be exposed to them, and certainly not in the guise of harmless play things. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Today's Bennyisms

One of Ben's favorite books these days is called Opera Cat, a story about an opera singer in Milan whose cat turns out to be a virtuoso soprano as well and covers for her when she contracts laryngitis.  A frequent visitor to the home is the Maestro, the conductor of the opera's pit orchestra.  This morning when I was driving Ben to school, we were listening to some classical music on the radio.  At one point I asked, "Do you think the Maestro is conducting that with his baton?"  Ben responded, somewhat dismissively, "No."  After a moment he continued, "I think it's Daniel Barenboim."

[Back story on that:  A number of times we've watched this video featuring Itzhak Perlman playing the Beethoven violin concerto, with conductor Daniel Barenboim.  Ben now knows to sing along to the main theme of the third movement with the immortal lyrics, "It's by Beethoven, it's by Beethoven...."  Just as my father taught me, lo these many years ago.]

Tonight in the bath, Ben announced, "Tomorrow something exciting is going to happen right in the middle of school!"  I signed, "What?"  "Abba is going to give a concert!  And I'm going to help them sing a song!"

He's the only almost-four-year-old I know who can name all the members of Abba.  I can't name them all.  And whence this interest in Abba?  YouTube, again.  John Denver -> Olivia Newton-John -> Abba.  I bet you're never more than about six links away from an Abba video on YouTube.

We believe in a well-rounded musical education.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

One of these things just doesn't belong....

We like PBS Kids.  It's a good line-up of shows, with some fun tidbits in between featuring Miss Rosa, Hooper, and (Ben's favorite) SteveSongs.  We don't sit there and watch all morning, but we usually enjoy Curious George and some Cat in the Hat action over breakfast.

In one of the segments with Miss Rosa, she holds up picture cards featuring a snake, a whale, an elephant, and a dog, and she asks which one of these is different from the others.  We've seen this a few times now, and we never get it "right".  An obvious answer is "whale," because it lives in the ocean.  But the snake is the only non-mammal, the dog is the only domesticated animal, and, well, you can ride on an elephant.  My point is that any one of these could be the "right answer," and we never remember which one was right in Miss Rosa's eyes.

This hearkens back to the old Sesame Street song and game, "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong...."  And even when I was a kid, I found this a little bit disturbing, but I could never figure out why until recently.

Now, they're addressing an important cognitive skill, namely sorting objects according to the properties they have in common and the properties that distinguish them.  But why load on the emotional baggage of "what doesn't belong," as if something that is "different" should be excluded, removed?  You have a characteristic that others around you don't, so you shouldn't be here.

Not to make myself out as a pity case, but I spent much of my childhood feeling like I didn't belong.  For a variety of reasons, I was one of the picked-on kids.  It's always handy, in any social group, to have an example you can point to of someone who does everything wrong, who just fundamentally is wrong, and who is publicly punished for this, as a cautionary tale for others who might occasionally consider going against the grain.  I had a few good friends and I had a wonderful family, so I made out okay -- and ultimately I was grateful to have a family that values authenticity and substance, rather than conformity and appearances.  But on a day-to-day basis, it was rough.  I spent much of my time at school feeling like everyone around me would be a lot happier if I just disappeared, so I could stop offending their delicate sensibilities.

So any suggestion that something that is different should politely remove itself from the premises is naturally going to rankle with me.

I think Miss Rosa should take advantage of a teachable moment to have a more expansive discussion.  First of all, just because the snake is different in one respect from the other animals, this is cool and interesting, rather than bad.  Second of all, no two of these animals are identical; each has something about it which sets it apart from the others.  And this is cool and interesting.  Thirdly, all four of the animals have a lot in common.  In some ways, the things they have in common (they are alive, they require food, they are mobile, they are driven to reproduce, etc.) are more profound and mysterious than their differences.

Not that Miss Rosa explicitly stated that the animal which she claims is "different" from the others is "bad."  But given all the overwhelming pressures to conform that children face from the rest of society, as well as our hardwired fixation with distinguishing kin from competitor (which served us well in our evolutionary past, and perhaps today as well), it's wise to counter this with an explicit positive message whenever we can.

Of course, such a discussion would take a lot more than the thirty seconds or so that Miss Rosa has at her disposal before the next show comes on.  But I guess that's why it's important for parents to watch TV with their kids.  It's up to us to fill in the blanks.

The fact that my child will be the only one in his school with large pieces of plastic hanging off his head may add a little sense of urgency to this project.