Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mostly Unstructured

What I really should be blogging about is the thing that's on my mind most, which is all of the guilt and frustration I've been going through lately and the sneaking suspicion that I'm not that good at this job and it's a pretty good thing that we've only got one kid or I might end up either divorced or in jail.

But gah, who has the energy for that kind of self-loathing on a Sunday night?

So the other thing I've been thinking about is structure. Since the boy was a wee lad of less than two years, we've occasionally attempted library story time. The first one we went to was a moderate success, until I realized that it was intended for kids under 1, and he was stomping around among the crawlers like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. He enjoyed himself and participated in the activities, but, despite another dad's reassurance that the age ranges listed for the several story times were merely suggestions, I felt socially awkward and we didn't return to that age group's story time again.

Instead, we tried his own age group's story time, and it was, each and every time, a complete failure. He refused to participate. When everyone stood to sing and gesture and pantomime along to the songs ("down came the rain and washed the spider out!") he would sit in my lap, sucking his thumb and eying everyone else suspiciously. When everyone else sat still while Ms. Jane read, he would stand up and wander and talk to me as loudly as a teenager with headphones on ("I WANT MY SNACK, DADDY!"). The more we went, the shorter his attention span was ("I WANT TO GO PLAY PUZZLES, DADDY!")

So we kind of gave up on structured group participation activities for awhile, until we decided to try a gymnastics class at the YMCA. It was titled something completely non-descriptive, like "Buddy and Me" or something like that, and I signed up thinking it would be a mild introduction to structured group activities, with instructors at least suggesting specific activities for the various pieces of equipment.

Instead, it was 45 minutes a week of free play time in the gymnastics room, with no instructor participation except reminding us that the "TumblTrak" was a one-way street and the high balance beams were off-limits. Otherwise, it was Daddy and Thumper playing, much like we do any other day, except on gymnastics equipment instead of playground equipment. It was fun, but by week six, he was more interested in exploring the thermostat and electrical outlets than he was in playing on the equipment again.

In the meantime, my mother and several of the members of the moms' groups expressed the opinion that a Mother's Day Out program was an essential step in his preparation for a classroom setting someday. I felt like paying someone to watch him while I did something else was sort of like cheating, and pretty much what we'd tried to avoid by having me stay home with him full-time in the first place, but I also didn't want to deny him an advantage that would ultimately help him get ready for school. So I priced the YMCA's Mother's Day Out program, was a little shocked, and immediately tabled the idea for reconsideration at a later date.

So time went on, he turned three, he was potty-trained and eligible for the next level of YMCA classes, and I signed up for gymnastics again. This one was "Intro to Tumbling" or "Toddler Tumbling" or something like that, and definitely had instructors and group activities, and the whole thing. I was certain it would be a complete disaster.

And it wasn't! At his first class, every other kid sat in a circle listening to the teacher and participating in a toddler stretching routine ("Pretend your hands are a butterfly. Now land your butterfly on your toes; now fly your butterfly way up in the sky!"), Thumper ran 'round and 'round the outside of the circle. The teacher suggested he sit down and join them; he just kept right on running.

But after a few minutes, he did sit down. He did participate. He followed instructions. He joined in the group activities. I was stunned. I was proud. And I realized: one of the keys to his success in group activities is peer pressure. With other kids staring at him like he's a nut, he starts to reel in his behavior a bit. The other key: I was not allowed in the room with him. On the last of the six weekly classes, the instructors declared that it was "Parents' Day" and we were allowed to sit in the room, and lo and behold, it was utter chaos. Not only my kid, but almost every other kid in the room, went nuts. If I'd been able to watch Library Story Time through a window, he probably would have been just fine.

So the kid who wouldn't participate in group activities was finally participating. The kid who wouldn't jump off of anything more than an inch high if he weren't holding my hands was suddenly jumping and tumbling and rolling and balancing and hanging and swinging. When the six-week program was over, I asked him if he wanted to sign up again, and he said no. The only other class for his age group was "Tap Dance and Ballet," and when I asked him if he wanted to do that, he said, "No, that's just for girls." I'm not sure where the kid who loves to dance and who has the dad in the alternative gender role gets the idea that something is "just for girls," but there you go. Cultural inculcation starts early, I guess.

With structure a success, but with no structure on the near horizon, I thought again about pre-school. Aerie took Thumper to a "Fall Fest" with pony rides that turned out to be a marketing ploy by a local pre-school. She gave them my phone number on Saturday, and by 9 a.m. on Monday, the owner called me. I had no doubt it would be more expensive than the Y, but I also figured with that kind of response time, he was probably not going to leave me alone, so I took him up on his offer for a tour that afternoon.

It was impressive. The teachers seemed patient and kind, and the owner was too. Thumper started out clinging to me like a baby chimp. I wasn't sure why he was so anxious, but after awhile, when he said, "You said school when I'm five!" it became clear that when I told him we were going to "tour a school," he thought I was going to take him there and leave him. The owner captured his interest with a collection of Melissa & Doug puzzles and then let him wander into each of the different classrooms while we watched and talked in the hall. By the end, Thumper didn't want to leave.

It was state-of-the-art, with a security system that uses two keypads and a thumbprint scanner. When he pointed out some kind of interactive touch-screen wall projector and proudly declared that "we're the only school in the state of Texas that has one," I was even more certain the program would be out of our price range. And I was right. It was twice the cost of the YMCA Mother's Day Out.

So there you go: a whole bunch of words to say, "We tried structure, we liked it, and we're not doing it anymore."

The End.

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