The most important investment we can make

Holding handsThe other night little L and I were playing Uno, his new favorite game. Imagine my surprise to see him calculating his way through the game after he had lost – counting whether he could finish all his cards if he played his current hand. And then his keeping track of the cards I played and teasing me for not playing my own cards better. Clearly he and I both knew the same rules, but he was on his way to playing a much better game than his mom.

In my profession we talk a lot about not wanting to reinvent the wheel. We don’t want to repeat something that has already been done; we want to learn from past experience and make change, make our product better, improve it, make it different.

But what if reinventing the wheel was the task at hand?

What if that precisely is our task?

With each new child comes a brand new iteration of life. While children are born with a genetic code, a child is not born with knowledge of all the lives and experiences that came beforehand. Children are born to learn to trust their parents, to love, to take risks . . . to make bad decisions when they’re teenagers (God help me when my kids reach their teen years, because their mom was so well-behaved during her teen years that she has no frame of reference there!).The progress we each make toward maturity cannot happen unless we experiences the consequences of our actions.

Similarly, with a newborn child comes the birth of a new parent.  It always amazed me to see every new mom comes into my office completely terrified of their child’s cold. That is, until it was my baby with the cold. My new little DS had never had a cold before and suddenly he was suffering, and all the skills I’d developed as a pediatrician were mush in my brain.

It didn’t help to remember what colds had been like for me, and to know that kids get over colds. It really took the experience of going through those difficult nights and coming out unscathed on the other side.

This is what made me think of how much we need to recognize the needs of all in the new parent-child dyads that form. Each needs tools to help the other, and it’s this precise need to reinvent the wheel with every child which reminds me why early childhood education is such a valuable investment for us to make in our modern world.

In the case of my kids — reinvention is part and parcel of each day, such as teaching my children how to manage their emotions — thank you Inside Out for making this experience so vivid! Or even helping them figure out how to handle a troublesome interaction with a friend at school. And my goodness are they absolute and utter sponges for the learning that happens. Their lovely, most plastic and pliable brains respond to knowledge in amazing ways – with my 5 year old son learning how to read and write and my 2 year old daughter learning how to get her shenanigans past her mommy.  They process and recall things so much better than I ever did.

When my son learns about ostriches in school he can tell me precise details about how fast they run, who they’d beat in a race, and give me examples of their “creature powers.” I struggle to keep up, myself! But thankfully, I have also been fortunate in my own education so can reinforce his knowledge, help him recognize if he needs to think differently, and acknowledge my own defeat when he has surpassed his mommy’s comparatively limited powers.

Compare this with an experience that I had visiting the natural history museum — I saw a lovely family going through the museum and stopping in front of a large diorama of several deer about to be attacked by a puma.  The young daughter exclaimed to her mother, “That’s a puma, it’s going to attack its predators.” And the elated mom shared this with another relative who was with them, and they continued on their trip to the museum, thrilled at how their daughter was learning. I bit my tongue – clearly this little girl was curious and learning good concepts in school, but her mom was so excited by her daughter’s knowledge that she missed an opportunity. Once we get past our own amazement, we can question the knowledge and say, “predator – that’s an awesome word! Did you mean predator, or prey?” — or something else to help her daughter clarify what she had already learned.

A lot of the fundamental knowledge that leads me comes from my earliest years — when I got to understand simple concepts of language, interaction, society, math, a zest and love for reading — the list goes on. Making learning enjoyable for those kids so that they get thrilled the next time they see a diorama at the Natural History Museum — and making sure that their parents had an awesome education and the tools to help their kids grow even more is paramount.

So it’s clear to me that we need to ensure that every child has access to a safe, play-filled, and learning-filled early education environment. It’s a clear way to even up their playing field and give them the foundation they need. But how do we bridge the gap that adults face, and make sure that both parents and kids are prepared for one another?

  • Find books – even children’s books – about what kids are reading – and read them together with your child. I certainly don’t remember all the details about ostriches I learned as a child but it is not as much about the details as it is about the dyad and the foundation for a love of learning. Enjoy your children’s learning and grow with them.
  • Find easy ways to incorporate their learning at home – when they are learning about plants and photosynthesis, find a few seeds and grab a little dirt from the yard, and plant a little seedling in the house.
  • Involve kids in all the things that you know – for me it could be I how I bake their favorite chocolate chip cookies and what happens if I change the recipe a little or alter the baking times. But if it’s your awesome soccer technique, how you use the bow on your violin, how you tend your garden, how you beat someone at chess (or Uno!) – whatever – remember your strengths and use them to help your child to grow! You may find the wheel reimagined completely.

What tip do you want to share with me and other parents to encourage your family’s learning? Please share!