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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

First Day of School

In about two weeks, I will be walking Hugh to his first day of junior kindergarten. Some careful research in our area located an alternative school program within walking distance which encourages a lot of direct parental involvement, named SAGE, an acronym for Science, Arts, and Globalism Education. Hugh will experience half days in a large classroom space shared by a senior kindergarten, and be able to do crafts or play in a fairly unstructured way while the elder group begins simple scholastic tasks like learning to print their name. 

When he is interested, he will be able to drift in and out of those activities with them. This seems like a fairly elegant scenario, barring a few potential obstacles. This classroom situation seems to merit a minimum of two adults -- one with each group.  But political realities of education under the regime of our current government limit us to one -- a brave woman who must share her attention between both sets of children. 

Hugh is highly intelligent with significant knowledge and a profound interest in science, but he is accustomed to a fairly self directed approach with lots of one-on-one time from a highly involved adult: me. He is certainly clever enough to master the nuances of social interactions that I hope the experience will encourage, but I dread the possibility that the transition may negatively influence his innate interest in learning. Frankly, I'd very much like to home school him, but it's not financially viable for us.  Besides, his brother is in the public school system, and I find myself painfully aware of the vast number of things I don't know well enough to teach him, such as languages.

Today, Hugh is comfortable and confident in his familiar domain. He can fetch some of his own snacks, clean up his own spills, and bake with me (everything but the oven). He uses the toilet himself without prompting and wipes and washes at least 95% of the time, although he telegraphs that he's done so by the fact that he leaves his pants behind in the bathroom every time. Likewise, if he spills on his shirt, off it comes, and he's spent, I'm guessing, two thirds of the last six months at least half naked, and another quarter fully naked. At home, this has never been a problem. Heck, what three or four-year-old doesn't love to be naked? He's able to stay clothed for outings and when easily embarrassed guests are around with no argument, so I know he'll get by, but doubtless there will be moments that this comes up in JK. I hope they're handled gracefully.

Hugh will also be served and disadvantaged by his confidence with skills like cutting -- before age two, he began cutting his own bananas and other soft fruit with a steak knife he'd meticulously selected from the cutlery drawer, while I stood nearby and watched. At this point he's got an excellent grasp of the crucial concepts of sharp, hot and yucky and how to safely approach them. He helps me pour and flip pancakes, uses the same screwdrivers I do, asks whether unfamiliar snacks contain corn (which he is allergic to), and I swelled with pride the other day on a nature walk when he pointed out the nightshade berries to his cousin as poisonous and not for eating. 

He still needs reminding to be careful, as when he's excited about something he's trying to construct and runs to the table with the scissors, but as long as there's a gentle reminder and a nearby adult, I want him to be able to continue gaining these skills. He also wants to help the adults when they're performing these tasks, and feels hurt if he's rebuffed. Somehow, I suspect that when he bangs two rocks together on the playground because he's interested in flint knapping and pretending to make himself a stone tool, he won't get quite the opportunity he is accustomed to to explain what he's doing and why.

I can't really fault the school for this -- as I said, I have empathy for the teacher whose going to be juggling these kids -- but it will have to be handled with a very soft touch. Hugh has a long memory, and there's been a couple of other adults we know who've picked him up without asking him or barked at him to stop him doing something, and his attitude towards them has been forever colored by it. At least I can pass on our universal methodology for resolving such moments at home. If he's being stubborn about something, or using bad manners, I tell him what I need him to do, such as "Please give me the ___", and I will slowly count to five. "Daddy says one…Daddy says two…Daddy says three…" He gets a few beats while I count to think about what he's being told to do. Hugh knows that if we reach five I will lift him away from the situation, or take the tool from his hand, or some other unpleasantness, and normally capitulates by four. Rarely, we get to five, and I intervene, and he is desperate to go back and do it himself, demonstrating that he can be a helper. I will allow this if I can. 

I like the fact that Hugh wants to feel he's learned and demonstrated a necessary social skill, rather than feeling that when he pushes a boundary it means he loses his free will in punishment. If he's doing something dangerous, there's no need to count. We tell him "Hugh, that's a danger!" and explain why before asking him not to do it. Normally, that's quite enough. Hugh is determined, vocal, rambunctious and persistent, but not by nature in any way malicious.

What he is, though, is bold. He's got areas of real expertise, and likes to show off what he knows. A great scholastic scenario, right? Keen to learn, eager to demonstrate the knowledge? The down side is when we go to the museum and encounter tourists who don't want him to play tour guide and tell them about the dinosaur skeleton before them. We've been lucky to encounter a number of accommodating souls in situations like that, and Hugh invariably charms them with his highly practiced Discovery Channel persona. He doesn't require a particularly persistent audience, but he gets frustrated if he can't at least get out that the T Rex was probably a scavenger, or that Mars has Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system, or some other neat fact that makes the subject come alive to his eager mind. If he's trying to show me some neat experiment and I 'm only giving him half my attention, he'll take my chin in his hand and physically turn me to face him. I can be gracious about that, but it's a little startling to a visiting acquaintance, and I shudder to think of the kind of reaction he may get from it on the playground. 

If there's a problem scenario for Hugh's introduction to a school environment, it'll be a moment where he's saying "No, listen to me!" because he genuinely wants to share something he thinks is an exciting and pertinent fact, and another child responds aggressively to what they perceive as aggression.

As a result of his interest in paleontology, Hugh's seen a lot of images of predation, and has played his fair share of hunting-slashing-eating dinosaur games. On his third birthday, I made him a foam tipped spear and he 'hunted' the stag shaped pińata for the grab bag goodies to go home with his guests. He also thanks the prey animal for its meat and gives it a kiss to bring it back to life, signaling me to begin the game again. I've been very careful to limit his exposure to videos or stories which feature people hurting other people, simplistic good guy/bad guy games, or the mean spiritedness that seems to permeate so much of our popular culture. I can only strive to be optimistic that the children he shares the classroom with won't overly speed his introduction to the revenge minded cartoon world that he is starting to become ever more aware of. I mean, sure, he knows today who Darth Vader and the Green Goblin are, but in play they still remember their manners, help out people in trouble, share, and do kind things for their friends. I want to cling to that beautiful civility as long as we are able, because ultimately, it's keeping that alive in our children that brings our world hope for the future.

It will be a challenging, fun, trying, and illuminating adventure that first day that he gives me my hug and kiss and I leave him at school without me, much like the rest of parenting has been. I can sit in the park across the street and write for those brief hours. Eventually I'll be walking home during them to get things done around the house and pursue my writing career more determinedly. While he is adjusting, I expect he will need the couple of hours of one-on-one time available between the end of his school day and the end of his brother's more than ever. As always, I will be grateful for the opportunity to share it. Sometimes he will be eager to go, and shining with stories when he returns, and some days he will tell me it is hard. On those days, I'll remind myself that we've given him the best tools to handle it that we can, and there will be no doubt in my mind when I tell him "You can do it. I believe in you."


Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe.  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


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