Teachable moments. You know the ones–they come up out of nowhere and scare the living daylights out of you.
“Mommy, is there a bad F-word?”
My heart stumbled. I cocked my head at my first grader. “What do you mean, honey?”
“Some kids in my art class said there was a bad F-word.”
First grade?! Already? Is this what I get for sending my kids to Public School? “Can you tell me the word?”
He smiled sheepishly and whispered, “Fruck.”
Laughter bubbled up, unbidden. So he’s still a first grader. “Well, honey, there is a bad F-word, but it’s not ‘fruck’.”
“So, what is the bad F-word?” He asked, sticking his pencil in the corner of his mouth.
I paused, my heart tripping over itself once again. Is this what the Teachable Moment looks like? Wide-eyed, innocent, and 7 years old?
While my pause was calm and calculated, the tension I felt inside twisted tighter until it was a palpable ache: I wanted to preserve his innocence. I wanted to tell him, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want you to worry about bad words.”
But as much as I mentally chided myself about the “bad influence” of public school kids, I knew that was a non-issue.
Public school or not, my kids were going to hear things and learn things from others as they grew up, public school, private school, homeschool, or Sunday school. I can’t control the moments they are not with me.
But he was here with me right now. This moment, at our kitchen table, in our home, was a safe, teachable moment.
If not now, when?
He was asking me for truth. And the truth was, “asking Mom” wasn’t always going to be his first choice.
So I took a deep breath and said, “Well…yes, honey. There is a bad F-Word.”
I told him what it was. I said the word and he repeated it, making sure he heard me right. I tried not to cringe at the profanity coming out of my baby’s mouth. Instead I pushed forward, plunging down this new path.
“Sweetheart, I’m telling you this because I want you to know the truth. But with knowledge comes power and just because you know this word doesn’t mean you should say it or teach it to anyone else.
It is not your job to tell kids at school that you know this word. That’s their parent’s job, not yours. I am very serious about this. Do you understand me?”
He nodded, his eyes wide. “Yes, ma’am.”
I looked at his face, at the soft, smooth skin on his cheeks, knowing that they wouldn’t always be soft and smooth. I would be kissing stubble on my firstborn’s face before I knew it.I pulled myself back to the present, savoring his innocence and openness and the questions that he asked without fear or embarrassment. That precious door was wide open and I wanted to keep it that way.
“You know, sweetie, sometimes kids talk about stuff at school. Kids think they know stuff. But that’s not always true. But Mommy and Daddy—we do know stuff. So if you ever have questions about anything that kids talk about at school, you can come to us and we will tell you the truth.”
And then I helped him do his homework.
It was such a bittersweet conversation.
As much as I want to plant goodness into every corner of my children’s lives, the fact is that the world is full of hard, nasty, evil things. I want to shelter them from that darkness. But I also want to help my sons grow to be men who will be lights in a dark world. And if I am going to teach them to be lights, I can’t ignore the darkness.
I I have to be proactive.
So, when he asked, I taught my son the F-word.
Should I have told him that we would have this conversation when he’s older? Perhaps. Maybe it was too early.
But at 7 years old, his first instinct was to come to me. As he gets older, that instinct will fade.
The conversations we have now about language, what’s right and wrong, about light and darkness are forming his very soul.
The Teachable Moment is terrifying but, for me, being keeping the door open in order to teach my children the truth is a gift that can’t wait.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I missed these signs with my son. The reality is, I had a version of “Autism” in my head, what I thought Autism looked like. I thought that children with Autism didn’t develop speech (no words by 2-3 years old), didn’t interact with the world around them, exhibited stimming behaviors such as rocking or hand-flapping, or they developed normally for a time and then lost speech and relationship skills suddenly, usually between the ages of 2-3.
All of these things do happen and can be seen in children with Autism, but not always. Benji didn’t exhibit any of these issues or qualities.
His signs were much more subtle, but they were still there. Looking back now, I can see them.
4. Communication Issues
Benji was never diagnosed with a speech delay but he probably should have been. However, both my twins were slower to speak but I reasoned that this was due to their premature birth (36 weeks) and the fact that they were boys.
What I didn’t know then was that many children with Autism have trouble communicating, sometimes in their actual speech, but even more so in expressing their thoughts, emotions, and even sequencing their thoughts into patterns that make sense to the listener. My son struggles in these areas due to his Autism.
One “right” thing I did when my boys were babies and toddlers was introduce them to sign language. They were obsessed with Signing Time DVDs and probably learned 100-150 signs. Signing really helped us with the communication issues I wasn’t even fully aware of at the time.
5. Won’t respond to verbal instructions
A few weeks ago, I unearthed a 30 second video of when my twins were 2. In the video I asked Micah, “What’s your name?”
“Micah!” he chirped happily.
“How old are you?”
I then turned the camera to Benji and asked him “What’s your name, little dude?”
He didn’t respond or look at me. I asked him over and over again, “What’s your name, little dude?”
Nothing. I laughed in the video and I remembered how I felt perplexed because I knew he could tell me his name. He had done it before.
I then asked, “How old are you?” and Benji suddenly looked at the camera and said, “Two!”
I remember being pleased, and asked him again, “What’s your name? Can you tell me your name?”
But again, he didn’t respond.
At the time, I though Benji was being silly or stubborn because he had answered these questions before. I just wanted to get his cute little voice on video.
But as I look back at this memory, his selective communication, his lack of understanding of one question vs. another, and his detachment from me and my efforts to communicate with him, I now see as evidence of his Autism.
Even now, at times, Benji struggles to understand directions, questions, and instructions. I often have to word things differently and encourage others to do the same, such as when we were at the eye doctor last week and the attendant asked him to “read the letters.” He was silent and I knew he didn’t understand (how could I “read” the letters? Those letters don’t make words!). So I asked, “Benji, can you name each letter on the screen?”
Struggling to interpret and then respond appropriately to the verbal world is a battle for many people on the spectrum.
6. Not “checking in” while playing
A few months ago, this video (What Autism looks like in toddlers) popped up on my facebook feed. One part that really suck out to me was when babies, playing near their mothers, would look back at their moms to “check in” as if to say, “Mommy? Do you see me? Are you still there?”
The mom would smile at her baby and the baby would smile back and go back to playing.
This is normal, typical development for babies and toddlers. They gain independence through crawling and walking but they still want to be connected to Mom and share experiences with her. “Checking in” through a glance, coo, or laugh during play is a way to share a personal connection.
As a baby and toddler, Benji never did this. We had a connection and a relationship but, as I said yesterday, most of his awake time was spent wrestling with his brother or running at parks. When he was playing he was in his own “world” and he didn’t try to share his experiences with me or “check in” during his play time.
When I first saw this video, I wondered, Is this “checking in” thing for real? I decided to observe my baby, Eli, who was about 9 months old at the time.
I watched him crawl away. Hmm! Blocks! These look fun! He started to chew on one.
My phone rang and I answered it.
Eli turned toward the noise. Then he put the block to his own ear, smiling and babbling.
He glanced up and caught my eye, and said “Dada!” See, mommy? Look! I talk to daddy on the phone just like you.
And there it was: “Checking in” (plus pretending. See #7).
It brings me so much joy to see my baby interact with me and the world around him. But realizing that I didn’t have these precious moments with Benji hurts sometimes.
7. Not Pretending
Many people with Autism are concrete, black and white thinkers. Pretending, imagining, or taking the perspective of another person are often very difficult concepts to grasp.
For example, in a recent therapy session, Benji’s therapist had to reword all her questions to him because they began with “Pretend you are–”
“I don’t do that,” he bluntly interrupted. “I don’t pretend.”
And it’s true. He doesn’t pretend. A yellow block is always a yellow block. It will never be a banana or cheese for a stuffed mouse to nibble.
Pretending or imaginative play is part of normal development for neurotypical babies and toddlers. I see this type of development in my younger two sons (3 and 15 months) as they pretend that a string is a snake or as they feed themselves “peas” from a green Lego.
But when Benji was a baby and toddler, he didn’t play pretend. Honestly, he didn’t play with toys much at all, except for certain types (more on that tomorrow).
If he does make up a story or play out an imaginative game, the game or story is directly related to something he has seen in a movie or read in a book. His brain builds upon what he already knows; creating a new world, game, or perspective simply out of his imagination doesn’t fit in his black and white paradigm.
Did you know that the word “Autism” is taken from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self”?
People with Autism typically relate to the world as it fits into the paradigm of what they already know through personal experience (which can look very different from the experiences of a neurotypical person, especially if an Autistic person has sensory integration challenges).
In order to understand another person’s perspective, to understand different situations, feelings, or even cultures, you have to employ the imagination.
This is why personal relationships are often a struggle for people on the spectrum because taking the perspectives of other people requires the use of imagination.
Fortunately for Benji, he relates very well to stories and especially movies. By relating to the characters in his favorite books or movies, I can often help him see the perspectives and feeling of other people, or even help him understand himself more fully too.
All of the signs I discussed today were very subtle. They were there but I didn’t know what I was looking for…
I was homeschooled and I loved it. My mother was passionate about homeschooling and viewed it as her chosen vocation when my siblings and I were growing up.
All my best friends were homeschooled by women who were as passionate and dedicated as my mother.
Although I don’t remember it being said in so many words, I somehow gleaned this message in my growing up years, a message about motherhood and truly loving your children.
It went something like this: Good mothers homeschool their children. If you really love your children, you will homeschool them.
After all, my mother really loved us and she really loved to homeschool. And I loved being homeschooled. It was just logical.
I loved to learn and I loved everything “school.”
My children would too.
But my twins were not like me.
I had to bribe them to sit and listen to me read; they hated coloring, and could not care less about the “Letter O” worksheet. Trying to teach them to write their names usually ended with somebody crying. They struggled to hold scissors and were bored with clay and play dough.
Frustration and impatience ruled my days.
But I was determined. I would be a good mother. I Just needed to be more creative.
I made crafts for them, sewing, pasting, and folding unique and educational toys. But it was almost laughable how quickly they lost interest or ripped apart (usually accidentally) all my carefully planned projects.
I grew a thicker skin but deep down I doubted my abilities to teach them. So, I dug down even deeper and tried harder, harder.
But it didn’t work.
They resisted me at every turn.
I finally gave up. I reached an all-time educational low and I was so fed up that I didn’t even care: I resorted to a DVD to teach them phonics (LeapFrog Letter Factory) and what do you know? They loved it–and it worked.
All I could do was shake my head and say, “Whatever. Whatever.”
But it hurt because I realized a DVD was doing a better job than I was.
The year they turned 5 I reached a terrifying crossroad: Homeschool or public school?
The pressure was crushing:
Good mothers homeschool their children. If you want the best education for your children, you will homeschool. If you really love your children, you would want to homeschool.
They loved public school. It was a good fit and we were blessed with amazing teachers.
Maybe my boys learn better from other people, I conceded.
The summer before first grade I was determined that Kindergarten would not fall out of their brains so I made them practice their new-found reading, math, and hand writing skills each day.
And most days, it was awful. Sure, we had some good moments, but overall, the frustration, head-butting, and fights over those stupid summer lessons, chip, chip, chipped away at my mother-worth.
Pretty soon, the thought that I would ever be “that mom” was laughable. I can’t even do summer worksheets with my kids without losing my mind–homeschool?! Bahahaha!
I felt like I wasn’t enough. If I was, then I would homeschool, because that is what good, dedicated, passionate, creative mothers did. And I knew–I knew–I was all of those things but the disconnect between myself and my sons infuriated and baffled me.
The first week of first grade, my wounded soul came pouring out at a ladies church group.
I burst into tears. It was the angst of back to school, of doubting the public school decision again, and the fact that 9/10 of my personal friends homeschooled their kids: why couldn’t I?
“I don’t feel like a good mom…because I don’t even want to homeschool!” I wiped my cheeks and shrugged. “But, I mean, really. If I homeschooled my boys, I would kill them!” A laugh bubbled out and everyone at the table joined me.
A wise, older woman–a mother, grandmother, and teacher–quickly quipped, “Well, then–there you have it. You love your kids enough not to homeschool.”
I laughed at her cleverness but the truth of her words shocked me. A peace slowly began to sooth that long-forged wound.
Slowly and suddenly, all our struggles from all those years just made sense.
My sons’ needs are complex, both as individuals and twins, but their needs are being met in their separate classrooms with their great teachers and support staff at their public school. Someday, our situation may change, and another schooling option may be best. But for now, public school is exactly what they need.
It’s exactly what I need.
I have finally accepted the truth:
I love my children, but I don’t need to homeschool to prove it to them…or myself.
I sat on a blanket in my friend’s yard watching my 6 year old twins run and climb with ten other children on an unseasonably warm fall day.
The other moms and I sipped coffee and started chatting.
“So, where do your older ones go to school?” I asked.
“We homeschool,” she smiled.
“We do too,” another mom stated, with more of a look of resignation on her tired face. It was 4pm on a Wednesday, after all.
We talked and laughed and commiserated together. A few minutes later, I realized that out of the 4-5 women present, I was the only public school mom at our play date. I listened to their discussions about curriculum and homeschool groups and contributed to the conversation where I could.
But I felt an emotional twinge, like I was an outsider.
I inwardly laughed: Me, feeling like an outsider for being a public school mom after I spent my entire childhood and adolescence feeling like an outsider because I was home schooled.
It really was funny…and so, so ironic.
I watched my kids climb into the treehouse and play good guys and bad guys, wielding sticks and plastic swords with their friends.
Then, my smile faded as a realization struck me. My kids are the “public school kids.” My kids are now the kids that, as a homeschooler, I used to judge… …the kids I thought weren’t smart enough, good enough, or Christian enough.
My friends and I even whispered about “wayward” home schoolers, saying “Look at her! She’s acting so…public schooled!”
It was the worst insult we could slap on a person.
Although I have long come to the realization that my prejudices as a child and teen were unwarranted and flat out wrong, it wasn’t until this moment that I felt the tragedy of my own hateful judgement toward others.
What if these sweet home schooled children think my boys are “less than” because they go to public school? What if they think that my twins aren’t smart because they aren’t home schooled?
What if they shake their heads in pity, thinking my boys can’t possibly learn to love Jesus because, don’t you know? God isn’t allowed in public school. As I watched the children play, I saw no discrimination, no judging thoughts, no distinction whatsoever. Only play and fun and equality.
It was only my own mind that was tortured by the demons of my past.
Wave after wave of guilt and shame hammered my soul as I watched the kids play so freely and so free of judgment and I thought:
Why did I think this way?!My parents never taught me to think I was better than other people. They taught us to love and serve others. But somehow this attitude crept in. Maybe it was that first generation homeschoolers felt like they had something to prove. Homeschooling was new and uncharted waters, after all. Society questioned, doubted. So we homeschool students were taught to prove our worth, defend our education: Our education was just as good as a public school education. No, it could be it was even better!
Or maybe it was because I heard about the “evils” of public school at homeschool conferences in or in overheard discussions from parents.
While I was growing up, comics like the one above scared me yet also created a smug sense of security and self-importance. Those pieced, spiked, belly-showing, long-haired “creatures” could not be my friends. Oh, I should love them, but from afar, at arms length, as people that should be witnessed to because if they went to public school, they obviously did not know Jesus. But I had to be careful because their bad influence might rub off on me.
I even treated the kids I interacted with at church like this. We were the only homeschooling family in our large church and, to be honest, I was really weird. I mean, I wore a pinafore with 4 inch lace frills (that I sewed myself!) to church…when I was in 8th grade.
I was low on the social totem pole.
But there were sweet, kind girls that invited me to their birthday parties and for sleepovers.
I went but I never reciprocated. I judged them in my heart because they wore knee length skirts, gushed over Justin Timberlake, and talked about (gasp) hickies! I was horrified and I judged those good Christian girls like the bow-wearing, pink-clad homeschool girl judges her public school peers in the comic above.
My attitude toward public schooled students was like the comic above. I was the happy fish, swimming freely, while public schooled students were “locked up” in “government” classrooms, being “taught to be robots,” and were basically brain-dead by the time they graduated, like poor sardines in a can, begging for help!
But it was me that was locked up in a world of prejudice and judgement, shunning people who could have been my friends and who could have opened my eyes to new thoughts and ideas. (Thank God for this awesome public-schooled boy I met in college named Aaron…)
I know that the “us vs. them” attitude of homeschooelers is not dead. I wish it was. Everything I put in quotes in the paragraph under the comic are things I have heard from people I grew up with or from current blogs I have read (usually in the comments section under a controversial homeschooling article).
My kids are not locked in their classrooms or shackled to their desks (imagine that). They are not robots, nor are they being taught to be robots (I have a son who constantly reminds me that he has a mind-of-his-own on a daily basis) They love school and are taught by wonderful teachers who love them. And, most importantly…
People are people. Not public school kids. Not homeschool kids. Heck, not even private school kids!
No more stereotypes and judgment.
People are people who deserve to be loved and respected for who they are, not judged or discriminated against for the school they attend.
Today we started our great Reading and Writing Adventure!
I wanted to keep the boys’ school skills fresh this summer and in order to encourage them (hey, who am I kidding? I need to encourage ME!) to do reading and writing every day, we made this super cool chart/game today. It kinda looks like CandyLand! (right?)
Anywho, here is how the game works. For each book we read out loud together (because I am not above bribing my kids to read with me) they get a sticker (one sticker per boy/book per day. The number of books we read is unlimited).
For each worksheet they complete, they get a sticker too!
I made copies of this number and letter workbook we have so they can practice their writing throughout the summer.
Today they worked on some coloring.
Coloring isn’t their favorite thing in the world but I am just glad they actually completed the sheet!
And they got a sticker!
We did some reading this afternoon so now there are 4 stickers on our chart.
There are 102 squares on our chart (I decided to go for a nice round number….just kidding. That’s just how many squares it took to fill in my squiggly line on the poster board.
My math major husband reminded me that 102 is not divisible by 4).
When we get to 102, we get to go to TOYS R US to pick out a new toy! The boys can’t wait.
Really. They wanted to go today.
I reminded them 7 times that this chart is going to take lots of hard work and patience.
So, while we wait to get to TOYS R US, we have some Star incentives along the way. There are 11 stars (I just asked the boys where we should put the stars and we ended up with 11. Go figure).
At each star we will pick a Star Card and do something fun like “Play the Wii” or “get a slush from Sonic.” Hopefully the Star Cards will keep the boys motivated this summer until we get to Square one-oh-two.
I really have no idea how long it will take us to complete the chart. We may need to make another chart before the summer is over. (fingers crossed…maybe that is just wishful thinking…)
I am hoping that our great Summer Reading and Writing Adventure Game will keep us all motivated to keep practicing those skool skillz…
What do you do to keep your kids’ academics fresh over the summer?
Scene: Walking home from dropping the boys off at school. I stopped to chat with a fellow mom.
Other mom: Hey there! Are you on Facebook? Me: (thinking, Who isn’t??? I LOVE FACEBOOK!) Yes! OM: You should join our new group, the Perrymont Parent. It has the picture of the school as the profile pic. Me: Awesome! I’ll join. OM: Great! By the way, we are looking for parents to write a brief note about their child’s teacher, what you like about them, or whatever, to put in the school newsletter. Me: I love my kids’ teachers! I’ll be sure to write a little something.
And I did. I joined the FB group and I spent 7 minutes composing a short love note for each Pre-K teacher for my twins. Because I DO love their teachers. I love their school!
I love their Public School.
And the fact that I love their Public School is a little surprising to me. Here’s why:
As a former homeschool student, the prevailing thought was that all public schools were “bad.” Public school students were only “a number” in the classroom, would get lost in the crowd, and would therefore get a “bad” education. Public school kids were a “bad” influence because of their “worldliness” and bad attitudes. All the teachers were some combination of atheist/evolutionist/Marxist/liberal/lesbian/tree hugger and that was “very bad.”
Growing up, I was deathly afraid of public school.
Fast forward 20+ years and I am much smarter, wiser, more logical, and less silly.
I also have twin boys who are school age.
Last year when I launched my blog series about Adult Homeschoolers, the drive behind the project was my overwhelming, agonizing, paralyzing decision about whether or not to homeschool or send my kids to public school (private school wasn’t an option).
All those fears from my childhood were blunging my brain, making my stomach cramp, and keeping me awake at night.
So I dove into exploring my educational past, and the educational experiences of so many other homeschool students.
I talked the ears off my husband (who went to public school) and my best friend (who went to private school).
I accosted to every mom I came in contact with (friends, strangers–whatever!) who happened to mention that she had school age children and threw out that loaded question: “So, public school?….how do you like it? Have you had a good experience?”
And, amazingly(!), all of those moms who sent their kids to public school answered, “YES!”
I had to face my fears with Truth:
My husband, a product of that “bad” public school system, turned out perfectly fine. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, way better than “fine.”
Through writing my homeschool series, I realized that I, as my children’s parent, will still be the #1 influence in their lives. I could still have a great relationship with my boys. I could still teach them about God and having a relationship with Him. I could still raise them to be respectful, grateful, loving men.
Even if I choose not to homeschool.
Even if I sent them to Public School.
So, we enrolled them in the small neighborhood Public School that is literally right across the street from us.
I nervously asked my husband, “So, what is registration?” and then filled out all the forms, crossed all the T’s, dotted all the i’s.
And they started school in August.
My “photogenic” twins on their first day of school
They loved it.
A few weeks later, I nervously asked my husband, “So, what is a ‘parent/teacher conference’? What do I say? What do they say?” and then went to have a one-on-one with my sons’ Public School teachers.
And I loved them.
They are wonderful women: kind, patient, creative, loving, and darn good educators. My children are learning so much in a loving, creative environment. My husband and I are constantly saying that each teacher is perfect for the personality and learning style of each of our sons.
During one of our parent/teacher conferences, I told one teacher that she had been an “answer to my prayers.” She then shared about her relationship with the Lord. Yep, the PUBLIC school teacher.
The uncharted waters of Public School have been far from “bad.” They have been good, so good for our family.
I do know that all the stereotypes that I encountered as a homeschool student were probably not completely unfounded. Many parents have had justifiably bad experiences with public school classrooms, teachers, and their child’s peers.
However, stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. They are not true in every instance, or even most cases. And after our experience in the Public School system, I now take those stereotypes with a healthy grain of salt.
As a former homeschooler, I am more than happy to shed my fears and add “Public School” to the list of viable options for my children as my husband and I continue to make conscience decisions about what is best for their education.