Serene beaches, ocean cruises and cosmopolitan cities come to mind when conversation turns to vacations. To me, a vacation is a break from the office, and these days, it’s often that and nothing more. My vacation requests are calculated so that the days are spread out for my sanity. As I learned this year, it’s working-mother protocol to allot days for the school Valentine’s Day party, class field trips and doctor checkups. Of course, I still lump together days for our few-and-far-between family trips.
Last winter, though, I was lucky enough to score an entire week alone with my two sons. It struck me as a heavenly opportunity. I could have rushed my kids from exhibit to exhibit at local children’s museums, scheduled the play dates I regrettably don’t often arrange or taken them to visit their grandparents. Instead, I decided to stay in. During that one week, I was determined to teach my 3-year-old to read and my 9-month-old to talk.
Now you’re thinking that I’m one of those annoyingly ambitious parents, the type to adorn the nursery in crimson. Oh, no. The closest connection our family will likely have with Harvard is that it’s the street on which my sons will attend elementary school. My motivation comes from my teacher background. The name of my master’s program was Psychological Foundations of Reading, which doesn’t leave much guesswork about what I studied.
I’m not a fanatic. I just felt that I was due to apply some expertise to my job as a parent. I shifted into lesson-planning mode and gathered my materials, hand picking learning games and strategy books from my attic stash. These were for my older son, who will henceforth be called “my boy,” as to spare him embarrassment on the playground.
For my younger son, or “my baby,” I didn’t think I needed much. To be safe, I pulled out some puppets and board books. I also scoured the shelves for appropriate art supplies. Next, I set my objectives.
A. My boy will be able to read a simple book on his own.
B. My baby will be able to say recognizable words other than “da-da” and “hat” — the extent of his current vocabulary.
My husband left for work and my baby was soon set for his morning nap. Let the lessons begin, I thought. “Want to play a game?” I said to my boy, having already laid out a notebook and two file-folders full of games on the dining room table. “No, I want to watch something,” he replied. “Oh, you’ve already watched a DVD this morning. It’s time for the TV to stay off. Mommy’s home, and I want to play games with you.” “But I want to watch one show.” “No TV, not now.”
You can see where the conversation was headed. It spiraled into requests for juice and buddies (stuffed animals) before we, at last, sat down. Slow going, it was. For warm-up, I chose a game I had once used in my classroom. It has little icecream cone pieces with upper-case letters and scoops with lower-case letters. With a simple goal of matching like letters, I gave the game 15 minutes. Unfortunately, its premise just didn’t interest my son.
Instead, he sorted the pieces by flavor (well, color) and by size. He counted them and arranged them in rows. I looked on. When I suggested that we work on paper (“work” being a positive here), I ran into the same sort of resistance. “Look at what I can do,” I said, showing him how to replicate a capital ‘A’ in the upper-left box of a a sheet of grid paper I had prepared. My boy was flatly unimpressed. No matter how kindly or teacher-firmly I asked, he just wouldn’t do it. Wrestling the paper from me, he went on to practice the letter of his choice. He filled the page with the first letter of his name. He must have written 100 M’s.
By about this time, my baby woke up. After a snack and tickle time, we were primed for a speech lesson. The three of us sat on the rug for a game of “chief.” I introduced a clapping pattern, and the boys were to echo me. I added language, clapping to the syllables in Mommy, doggy and such. My baby clapped once, then opted for his own pattern: pull up, drink from sippy cup, take a step, sit down. Each day that week followed much like the morning of the first. I would present a concept, and my boys would deflect it. The puppets never emerged from the pile and activity books lay unchristened in my bag.
The more I pushed, the more my kids backed off. We spent more time snacking, cuddling, whining, battling, racing Hot Wheels cars and impersonating super heroes than explicitly speaking or reading. My boy couldn’t read a sentence, let alone a book by week’s end, and my baby continued to make the same sweet yet undecipherable sounds. Frankly, I was disappointed. My boy had been exhibiting as many emergent-reader tendencies as many of my former first graders had. My baby, I was sure, was on the verge of a language explosion. I truly believed that all they needed was some motherly direction.
What I didn’t do on my vacation is as relevant to my parental perspective as what I could have done. My new—albeit unoriginal— tack is not to hurry. My boy may be far from reading independently, but he loves telling stories. His own are filled with twists that would make an O. Henry tale seem predictable. And my baby will doubtless be ordering me around any day now. Until then, I intend to leave the direct lessons to my children’s pre-K teachers. My sons need me to be their mom first, and perhaps more importantly, their student.
Nicole Iorio taught elementary school for a few years before becoming an editor. When she’s not at the beck and call of her two not-so-little-anymore boys, she’s writing and editing articles for children and their teachers.