A Note From Noah

My little Jonah suddenly turned three last week. He’s right in that sweet spot, constantly referred to by me and Shira as “our little baby” and “our big boy.” Talk about confusing! I think about these two phrases a lot recently.
In my roles as an educator, a parent, and a doctoral student, I’ve come to hone in on one constant thread: children respond according to our treatment of them. When we treat them as competent, they display competencies; when we infantilize them, their maturity shrinks. The words we use (little baby vs. big boy) and the opportunities we give our children (let them figure out how to climb onto the adult chair or hoist them up ourselves?) matter in their development.
A recent example with Jonah drove this point home for me. Since we moved apartments earlier this year, Jonah has enjoyed working with me to settle in to our new place – building furniture, moving boxes, opening packages. At first, I encouraged him to use his own set of plastic toy tools to bang alongside me, or his training scissors to attempt to open a package. He would have none of it – he saw me using a real hammer and real scissors, and he wanted the real deal. As a result, he’s become surprisingly proficient with a pair of adult scissors and an actual screwdriver. 
Fast forward a few months, and Jonah’s zaydie taught him how to cut off the bottom of a disposable straw, in order to fit neatly into his tiny Danimals yogurt drink (a trick he absolutely loves). This is now part of Jonah’s morning routine – he asks for “my yogurt drink, straw, scissors” and then “measure and cut” the straw “like zaydie teached me.” With time and practice, he does this fluidly. Fast forward again, and I am dropping Jonah off in his daycare class earlier this week. Jonah had (shockingly) not drank his yogurt at home, so brought it to daycare that morning. When we enter the classroom, he asks his wonderful teacher (who I absolutely adore, he has known her since he was six months old) for “straw and scissors” so he could “measure and cut”. The teacher, of course, hands Jonah a pair of child scissors, with a dull protected blade. Using the small scissors, Jonah struggles to cut the tough plastic of the straw – in fact he mangles the straw and cannot cut it. His teacher warmly says don’t worry, she’ll get him a new straw, and then cuts it for him.
I think 9 out of 10 early childhood teachers would have done the same. It is, by all accounts, what a teacher is “supposed” to do – it is developmentally appropriate to give a young child small, dull scissors. But having seen Jonah do this countless times with a sharp blade at home, I was struck by how we as adults – teachers, parents, caregivers (society, really) – often interfere with the child’s actual capabilities by making broad assumptions about what children of a certain age “can do”. The notion of “developmentally appropriate practice” and standardized norms of development, while offering numerous beneficial learning opportunities to children, often wind up homogenizing children. We begin to believe “three year olds can do this” and “four year olds can do this” without actually stopping to look, at the individual level, what this person in front of us is capable of doing.
Here at our nursery school, a child asking for help with a task (buttoning their jacket, opening a Ziploc bag, etc) will be met with a three-tiered response (you might remember this from your admissions tour – but then again you might have had a lot on your mind!): (1) Did you try it yourself? If yes and you couldn’t do it, (2) Did you ask a friend/classmate? If yes and s/he couldn’t do it, then, (3) Here, let’s do it together.
When we push children to try new things in this fashion, they show us in amazing ways just what young children are capable of.
Five years ago, my last year as a teacher here, I remember a three and a half year old student approaching me with a piece of yarn from the craft area and asking me to tie it to a ring, almost like a leash. I asked if she had tried it herself. I showed her how I tied knots with other pieces of string, but did not tie hers. I then watched as she struggled and fiddled with the string for a while, and then, quite proudly, came back to show me her successful knot. She had really done it. She became known as our “knot expert”, and her classmates would call on her to help whenever they needed a knot for their project.
My point is, if I had seen this student as “a little girl” she never would have had the opportunity to tie the knot herself. Simply by re-orienting our perspective on children we can contribute to their growth and development. When we children as competent, they become competent – not every time, and not in lockstep fashion, but enough that this avenue is worth pursuing. There is a small but significant field of literature around this, referred to as critical or deconstructive developmental psychology, producing literature that makes the claim that normative developmental theories can be “oppressive” (Erica Burman) or “belittling” (Allison James). Erika Christakis writes, “We have to try harder to see the power in little children that is hiding in plain sight.”
I think she is right. If I have learned anything from children after spending nine years with them in our nursery school, after studying child development through a masters program and now a doctoral program, and watching my own two boys figure out this world, it is that when we respect children’s competencies rather than seeking to overly-infantilize them, they will consistently amaze and impress the adults around them.
I invite you to reflect on your own parenting: When do you give your child time and space to try things for himself? When do you do things for her, assuming she’s not ready to do it on her own? How do these decisions impact your child?
Shabbat shalom,

Postscript - I feel compelled to write, in today's NYC parenting/schooling environment, I am not championing teaching our young ones how to read, write, and do math at a young age. I am speaking more to allowing their natural proclivities to emerge in ways that are individual and unique. I am urging us to believe our young ones are each different, that they each develop differently and at different times, and that is what makes them special and powerful. I am not claiming that children should be rushed our hurried to hit "developmental milestones"; in fact just the opposite - let your particular child guide your sense of what his or her particular milestones are, rather then compare them to a homogenized norm.
Sunday, April 23, 4:00pm: We are happy to invite you to join us for an informal chat with James and Lynne Heckman (grandparents to Emma Heckman, Room 8 PM). Their work on the economics of human capital is beyond much of the current groundswell around the push to expand access to early childhood education. James is the name behind the “Heckman Equation”, the notion that for every dollar society invests in a child’s early education, it will be repaid thirteen times over the course of that child’s adult life. James is a former Nobel Prize winner, heads the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago, and is the principal investigator in an ongoing study of the longitudinal impact of the nursery schools in Reggio Emilio, Italy. Put simply, he is a giant in the field. We will send out a more formal invitation to this event shortly but wanted to flag this date for you. Thank you to Jonathan, James’ son and Emma’s father, for helping to coordinate this event for us!
Gender survey: A group of our teachers are exploring how gender is constructed in the early years, and have developed a survey they would love you to fill out for their work. We sent this link a while back, but wanted to include again here in case you missed it the first time around. Please see the survey here.

Coffee Chat: Friday, March 17, in my office, see you there! (it was not the first Friday of the month due to our admissions event this morning).

Around the JCC - Exploring How the Brain Learns with Barbara Allen-Lyall, Ph.D. – March 8, 2017, 7:15PM - 8:45PM: We learn every day of our lives, but what is the process, exactly? How do we know when we have been successful in this endeavor? This interactive workshop engages participants in the use of various learning pathways and looks at the research behind why learners of varying ages access different pathways at different times. Understanding the learning process helps us make better sense of our own lives. Register here.