Feb 29 2008


I wrote a little while ago about how maternal love doesn’t come immediately, all at once. It grows day by day.

The crazy thing is that it hasn’t stopped yet. I loved that baby enough to die for him months ago. I love him even more today. It staggers me. I was looking at him tonight, staggered by love, thinking: the love I have for him, per square inch, is crazy! Crazy! I love his elbows! I love the corner of his nose! I love the crease at the base of his thumb! I love every little bit of this baby, more than truffles, more than rare stamps, more than anything. When will it stop? It’s just nuts.

Feb 27 2008

I  Forgot to Add

There was one more thing I liked about The Unprocessed Child. Valerie Fitzenreiter includes an epigram for every chapter, and many of them are quite good. My favorite was from Gabriel García Márquez: “She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children, but because of the friendship formed while raising them.”

This quote made me think of something I overheard on our recent vacation. We were lucky enough to get to see both Nina and Elizabeth and also Erin and Felicia and their lovely children—for those of you following along at home, Nina is my BFF and our madrina, the maid of honor at our wedding and Robin’s godmother, and Erin is one of Sam’s best friends and stood up as a groomsman at our wedding. And Elizabeth and Felicia are both very dear to us and possessed of charms too numerous to mention. So seeing them was wonderful, and it was pretty cool for Sam and me to watch our old friends getting along like gangbusters.

What I overheard was Elizabeth asking Erin about parenting: “The things that are so annoying about other people’s children, is it different when it’s your child?” His answer was an emphatic yes, it is different, which I found tremendously reassuring as it’s something I’ve wondered myself. The Márquez quote kind of speaks to the same issue, and I like it because it suggests that it’s not just a trick of brain chemistry that makes one’s own bratty children so much more tolerable than a stranger’s brats. It’s the fact that you know them so well; and as Neil Gaiman says, it’s hard not to like someone when you know them really well.

(I should add that Aiden and Kayleigh—I hope I’ve got the spellings right—aren’t brats at all. They’re actually exceptionally charming. Kayleigh immediately made herself a big hit with the baby, and Aiden is a great conversationalist.)

Feb 27 2008

Three Book Reviews

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto
Child’s Work: Taking Children’s Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace
The Unprocessed Child by Valerie Fitzenreiter

All of these books pertain to homeschooling, and I ordered them all because we’ve become convinced that we can do Robin a lot of good by delaying his entry into the school system.

It’s well known in educational circles that children held back from entering kindergarten do better, when they do start school, than their younger classmates. They’re more ready for the work, it comes easier to them, and so they learn to think of themselves as smart and “good at school.” This early confidence seems to give them a boost throughout their academic careers:

After crunching the math and science test scores for nearly a quarter-million students across 19 countries, [Kelly] Bedard [a labor economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara] found that relatively younger students perform 4 to 12 percentiles less well in third and fourth grade and 2 to 9 percentiles worse in seventh and eighth; and, as she notes, ‘by eighth grade it’s fairly safe to say we’re looking at long-term effects.’ In British Columbia, she found that the relatively oldest students are about 10 percent more likely to be ‘university bound’ than the relatively youngest ones. In the United States, she found that the relatively oldest students are 7.7 percent more likely to take the SAT or ACT, and are 11.6 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges or universities.

The practice is known as “academic redshirting,” and it focuses on the benefits of relative age—it’s about trying to rig things so that your kid is older than his classmates. But absolute age (the number of days a child has been alive before entering school) has a beneficial effect as well, so long as the home environment is stable and nurturing. This is why Finnish children don’t even start school until age 7, and even then the first few years are mostly set aside for play.

Once I started thinking about keeping Robin home for a few years, I began reading up on homeschooling, and quickly ran across the intriguing concept of “unschooling.” It was unschooling that I really wanted to read more about, but I kept finding references to Gatto’s books on unschooling sites, so I ordered that one too.

John Taylor Gatto was a schoolteacher who was on three occasions named New York City Teacher of the Year. He became, however, deeply disillusioned with what he calls “the factory school system.” Dumbing Us Down is a collection of his essays blasting the compulsory schooling system—including the withering indictment of school that he delivered as one of his acceptance speeches for the Teacher of the Year award. The book is basically a polemic, light on statistics or developmental research, but worth reading for the insider’s perspective it offers into the educational system.

There are a few points he makes that seem very basic in hindsight, but that I had never really thought about before. One is that the structure of the school day, with its bells and its inflexible routine, is essentially teaching children that their studies do not matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a sentence in a story you’re reading: if the bell rings, then it’s time to put away your English book and open your math book. The real, unspoken lesson is that following the schedule is more important than satisfying any genuine curiosity or thirst for knowledge.

The other great lesson of schooling is submission to authority. Children have no say in determining their own curricula. They must raise their hand and be called on before they are permitted to speak, or to go to the toilet. They cannot announce that they are ready for a change in their environment, that today they would like to learn about dinosaurs, or to go to the zoo. They are forced to be passive receivers of information rather than active scholars seeking out knowledge. They are taught every moment of every school day that their lives are absolutely controlled by a higher authority. They are denied all autonomy.

And this is crazy, because there is nothing children want to do more than to learn, and to seek out experiences for themselves. You have to really, really get in a kid’s way before you can stifle that thirst for knowledge. “Why? Why? Why? Why?” is the constant refrain of childhood.

And this leads us to unschooling. Unschooling is basically homeschooling without a set curriculum. It’s about letting the kids follow their own interests. The idea is that they want to learn to read, they want to learn about the world, they want the math skills to handle money and so forth: all you have to do as a teacher is show them how to teach themselves, and they will.

I’ll say up front that I think unschooling is really interesting but I’m not totally sold on the concept. Since both my parents are professors, I have too much respect for the academic endeavor to believe that formal frameworks of knowledge are wholly unnecessary. But I wanted to read more about the experiences of parents who had done unschooling.

Child’s Work is a deeply personal account of a mom who was basically forced into homeschooling by the unique needs of her son, a musical prodigy. Ishmael was “a smart kid” but one with decidedly lopsided aptitudes, and such an idiosyncratic way of learning that he simply could not adapt to the classroom and the workbooks. Nancy Wallace decided that the school’s inflexible approach was doing her son great harm. For instance, Ishmael could read when he entered school, but the teachers wanted to force him to learn all over again using the “right” (a phonetic) method. Wallace quotes from a school report suggesting that Ishmael be held back:

Ishmael seems more comfortable at a third grade reading level; he still makes some mistakes in phonics and vocabulary skills. Testing should be continued before considering a higher level. The testing should be only for reading skills, as I already know that he can read adult materials.

This is clearly insane. A child who can read adult materials should spend his time reading, reading whatever he wants to read, not working with phonemes and flashcards and endless tests and watered-down Dick-and-Jane-type books just so the adults in his life can be satisfied that he is reading in the authority-approved way.

Taking Ishmael out of school was obviously the right thing to do, and he thrived at home, as did his little sister Vita—the Wallaces had such a traumatic experience attempting to put Ishmael in school that they never even tried it with Vita. I suspect Vita would have had much less difficulty than Ishmael, but then she never would have developed her “doll work”—and it is extremely touching to read about how seriously her older brother Ishmael regarded Vita’s dolls, helping her to develop the intricate social customs and succession struggles and even the wars that apparently plagued the doll kingdoms. It’s Wallace’s argument that none of this constitutes “mere play.” It was their work, and she took it as seriously as she took their music lessons and their essays.

Nancy Wallace is very honest about the challenges of unschooling. She fretted about how her children would learn algebra without being forced to study it. She fretted about socialization.

Vita and Ishmael did eventually develop an interest in mathematics on their own, but skeptics would find some ammunition in Wallace’s frank answer to the socialization question. Vita and Ishmael were so different from their agemates that they did not, by and large, enjoy playing with the neighborhood kids. They developed strong friendships with other adults, and with a few other homeschooled children, but they probably came off as weird, precocious kids. Nancy Wallace’s assertion is simply that that’s not so bad. They weren’t perfectly “normal,” but they were happy, confident, smart, talented kids and they were quite comfortable in adult society, if not very comfortable in kid society. So they were badly socialized from one perspective, but very well socialized from another. I would be curious to know if Vita or Ishmael themselves, now that they are grown, perceive this as a loss.

One of the things I like about Child’s Work, in retrospect, is that it is not really a book about unschooling. It is a book about raising Vita and Ishmael. Their needs and aptitudes were so specific that very few of the Wallace family’s experiences are likely to be replicated in any other homeschooled family. The only “lesson” Nancy Wallace really has to impart is the basic one about giving children freedom to pursue their own interests.

The same, sadly, is not true of Valerie Fitzenreiter’s The Unprocessed Child. One good thing about this book is that Valerie’s daughter Laurie is grown now, with her own blog, so it’s possible to see “how she turned out.” She turned out, by all indications, really well. Valerie Fiztenreiter did a good job raising Laurie. What Valerie doesn’t seem to realize, though, is that what worked for Laurie might not work for all kids.

Valerie is a pretty radical even for an unschooler. Where Nancy Wallace talks about the active role she played in her children’s education, despite the absence of lesson plans—”I cannot simply back away from Vita and Ishmael,” she writes, “I have to let them know that I am still with them, ready to respond in any capacity that might be useful”—Valerie Fitzenreiter advocates more disengagement:

It’s so difficult at times to remain silent when you see her doing something that she will have to redo later but if you remain steadfast and allow her to make the ‘mistake’ she will learn from it and try something different next time…I found that when Laurie was trying to figure out the answer to a question but did not specifically ask me, then it was best to keep quiet.

Valerie, furthermore, does not believe that children should have bedtimes (“the dreaded forced bedtime was another reminder that I was not in charge of my own life”), be expected to do chores (“Why should the child have any of the responsibility of taking care of the mundane chores required? The child will become an adult soon enough and be taking care of her own place”), be disciplined for sassing back (“Sometimes Laurie ‘talked back’ to me in anger. I took this as a sign that I was not listening and would make an effort to tune in to what she was saying”), or in fact be disciplined at all (“Discipline is scarcely disguised control…There were no threats, no spankings, no withholding of favors if she did not do something she had been asked to do.”)

All of this seems to have worked fine for Valerie and Laurie. I found the book’s tone, however, to be gratingly arrogant and presumptive. It honestly seems never to have occurred to Valerie Fitzereiter that different children may require different levels of structure and discipline. Her book is filled with anecdotes about other parents, which she oddly refers to as her “friends,” although the point of the anecdote is always to criticize the other parent’s skills while bragging about the success of her own methods. She never hesitates to make sweeping pronouncements about The One Right Way to Raise a Child, and she is very quick to condemn all other parenting techniques as abusive.

It is, for example, abusive to potty train a young child. It is abusive to refer to a child’s behavior as “bad.” It is “outrageous” to ask children to remove their shoes before entering the house, and in fact on this issue Valerie is as didactic as she is on every other one:

Maybe having a clean floor is of the utmost importance to you? You have to ask yourself if it is more significant than the emotional well being of your children and the overall harmony of your household. Constant nagging about the floor creates tension in you and in everyone else. If you cannot let go of your aversion to a less than perfectly clean floor then it would be better for you to be ever ready with a mop as opposed to making everyone else miserable with perpetual carping.

There are many more passages in The Unprocessed Child that equal the one above for condescension and judgmentalism. For someone who so stridently defended her own right to raise her child the way she saw fit, Valerie Fitzenreiter is awfully unwilling to extend the same courtesy to others.

For myself, I am still reading and thinking about educational strategies. Right now, I expect we’ll keep Robin at home for at least the first few years of grade school, and I’d like to try and capture some of the benefits of unschooling, but I also want to provide some kind of overarching intellectual framework in which his own interests and discoveries can be contextualized. So I imagine conducting formal lessons for a couple of hours a day, and allowing him to set the agenda for the rest of the day (with me present and engaged to provide help and guidance). My evolving thoughts on pedagogy, socialization, and homeschooling will definitely require another post.

Feb 25 2008


When Robin makes his funny little baby noises, the natural tendency of any adult in the room is to make them right back at him. He finds this interesting, and amusing, and the game can be kept up indefinitely.

Today he was blowing raspberries, and I was imitating him, and then something changed—he would make a noise, and wait, never breaking eye contact, for me to make it back to him. There was an intent and an understanding that I haven’t seen in previous iterations of this game. He wasn’t just being amused by adults making funny noises. He understood that I was doing the same thing he was, that we were taking turns doing it, and that something was being communicated thereby. The noise was meaningful. It meant “I see you, I recognize you, I acknowledge you.”

Thbbbbt! “I see you, Mommy!”

Thbbbt! “I see you, Robin!”

Thhhbbbbt! “Yes! You see me!”

Thbbt! “That’s right! I sure do!”

It was a really exciting moment! He doesn’t know a single word, but I feel certain that we’ve had our first conversation.

Feb 19 2008


“Spatilomancy” is the use of feces to divine the future, and all parents quickly become practitioners in this black art. It’s hard to tell exactly what a breast-fed baby is taking in, after all, except by studying his output. So new parents are instructed to scrutinize their baby’s poops, judging on both quantity and quality. We were provided by the hospital with a booklet that allowed us to chart the daily poops, and in the first weeks I filled it out religiously. The first few days’ diapers are tarry black and sticky, but the substance soon changes to something mustard-yellow and seedy, and then to copious amounts of liquidy brown goop.

A breast-fed baby’s shit doesn’t stink. Really. The smell reminds me most of buttered popcorn.

Breast-fed babies also don’t get constipated. The pediatrician—I’d better call him by his name, Dr. Simons, as I cannot seem to shake a tendency to refer to him as “the vet”—assured us of this during our visit the other day. Robin hadn’t crapped in three days, which made me nervous, but Dr. Simons told us this was perfectly normal. The difference between “constipation” and “not crapping in days” is that in the former case the poops will be hard when they do came, and the baby is in discomfort. In the second case, however, the baby can be perfectly happy and healthy, and the poop remains soft.

Dr. Simons said that in a clinic where he used to work, the interns used to keep track of the longest periods that breast-fed babies could go without pooping. By the time he left, the record stood at three and a half weeks. For a perfectly healthy baby! “Sometimes they just use up every bit of the milk,” he shrugged. “There’s just nothing left over.”

Robin delivered himself of a vast poopsplosion mere hours after returning home from the doctor’s office, by the way. I just thought that was a pretty interesting story!

Feb 14 2008

Breaking Breaking This Just In

If you look close you can see the very tip of Robin’s first tooth breaking through his lower gum!

Other things we learned at the doc today: Robin is 27 inches long, and he weighs 16 pounds and 11 ounces. We love Robin’s doctor because he is always quick to praise our baby and compare him favorably to all the other babies. Today he opened with “Well! That’s definitely the brightest baby I’ve seen all day.” Later he commented that he had never seen a more lively child of Robin’s age. He also said, judging from the baby’s vigorous kicks, that he expects Robin will be early to crawl.

After being flattered by the pediatrician, we all went to the park and had a nice Valentine’s Day picnic.

Happy Valentine’s day, everybody! And special congratulations to Robin’s Pappy and Nonna, who are celebrating their 32nd anniversary. Inspiring!

Feb 13 2008

A Boy and His Dog

Feb 12 2008

Six Months

Robin is six months old today!  We took a long walk this afternoon, enjoying the sunshine.  Robin doesn’t tend to attract quite as much attention in the stroller as he did when he was in the sling, but still there were three separate people who stopped to tell me what a handsome baby I have.

His next doctor’s visit is scheduled for Thursday, so I’ll post then with all his updated vitals.

Feb 11 2008

A Turn for the Better

Robin’s been able to flip himself from front to back for a while now, but yesterday I saw him roll from back to front for the first time!

In other news, our rainy season has ended, or at least paused: we’ve been having gorgeous warm sunny weather, and I’ve been feeling really chipper. I don’t know how much those two things have to do with each other, but they are probably not unrelated.

Feb 8 2008

Foundations of Healthy Eating

The other day I was sitting on the couch with Robin in one arm and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk in the other. Robin was showing some interest in the spoon as it passed by his face, so I scooped up the teensiest little bit of ice cream—a sliver about the size of a fingernail clipping—and dabbed it in his mouth. He got really serious as he processed the new sensation, the sweetness, the cold. I got myself another spoonful while I watched him. As I did so Robin grabbed at the spoon with both hands and jammed it decisively into his mouth! Hilarity. The baby books say the first solid food should be rice cereal, but we’ll always be able to tell the story about Robin’s first food being ice cream.

This is how the Phillips family feels about ice cream: