by Raju Peddada
Aristotle: "Alexander, isn't this map of Asia interesting... where is your mind?"
A twelve-year-old Alexander: "I am sorry... I am thinking how I can redraw the map to my liking."
"Why is the Bermuda Triangle so dangerous? Why is it so ominous and treacherous... why is it so weird there?"
—Butch (at eight years old, while reading The War of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells)
(Swans - June 20, 2011) As the date of the parent and teacher conference crept closer, my discomfort level rose. By that evening, Friday, the 20th of November 2009, it felt like I was scheduled for the guillotine. Why did I feel this way? Did I not have any confidence in my boy? We, like most parents do, often ratchet up the expectations and start believing that our children will fly through school with exceptional grades. In our delusions about their progress, we waltz around in complete ignorance of the micro and macro interaction dynamics that govern and affect our young ones at school. And when we start getting the complaint reports from their teachers, our helium Zeppelin of fantasies comes burning and crashing down to terrestrial reality. We were on that same dirigible, like a few other parents, early in September when the first note arrived to our attention from his second grade teacher, Ms. GS.
Our son is a kinetically creative boy of seven. His German aunt, a Kindergarten teacher herself, had acknowledged Butch's advanced state, in the holding of a pencil, and in the articulation of the line, when he was a toddler. He possessed a deft command of the line and what he wanted the line to do for him. He was the same with words. The great modernist Mr. Paul Klee had once said: "A line is a dot that went for a walk." By this tantalizing abstract, our son had had hundreds of walks, as evidenced by his output, by the time he was three. His graphic perambulations, incidentally, had ended up in many a magazine, from the Urals to the U.S. Even The Chicago Tribune splashed him in their largest edition ever: the 2007 Super Bowl Sunday paper on February 4th. So, when we got this first note from Ms. GS, we got derailed. What possibly could have precipitated this note? What was the root of the problem?
It was a long note. Ms. GS notified us in detail that Butch was not listening nor following any directions in class. The timeouts, and the humiliating tasks, like emptying the class garbage as punishment, had no effect on him. She claimed he even went about his punishments with an impudent aplomb. This remorselessness in him affected us. What was this transformation? At 6:40 pm, as scheduled, I walked in and said "where do we start?" She gave a sympathetic smile as I settled in front of her. She had been very sensitive in giving me the last appointment, as our discussion warranted. She managed reciprocal humor at the end of a long day, counseling and guiding a stream of parents. It takes a resolutely patient person to deal with children, who like the raptors in Jurassic Park test the frontiers of behavior every minute, like Butch had been doing.
She allowed how frustrating it was to see a smart boy not listen or follow directions, as she pursued solutions in addressing his enigmatic behavior. She was inclusive, and assuaged my fears about his total retardation in class. We both recognized that he was a little advanced, and full of ideas, but we also worried about his flights of fancy that rendered him behind in class assignments. Perhaps the intuitive knowledge of his mother's impending departure to Morocco had affected him; we could not place our finger on the problem. We were desperately trying to find his positive buttons that could extricate him from his rut. She ruefully explained how it would be a quantum leap in independence and abating guidance for assignments in the third grade. Third grade was all about individual initiative, organization, and following directions to get assignments done in time. Hearing this made me cringe with anxiety, if Butch involuntarily followed the same course.
Ms. GS had Butch audited and evaluated in the class by an assistant to gauge the amount of attention he paid in class. Their findings: he was 60% inattentive, while only 40% attentive, and he was not the only one. According to her, 7 out of 21 kids were having problems in different degrees, with listening or attention in the class. That was 33% of the kids. This did not in any way assuage my fear. I was still worried listening to her. If this was a prevailing problem in schools, it certainly revealed a larger issue and pattern about which to worry. Is this what they clinically call Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? It was a baffling conundrum. We were seemingly doing the right things at home: like no TV and computer from Monday through Friday, daily workouts of reading and writing, words games and rhyme creation, linear math and drawing, where his concentration was excellent. So, what had gone wrong?
It is not that students with C, D, or F grades are unintelligent, dull, or dumb, it is just that they are not listening, or paying attention to the happenings in the class. It could be the internal issues they are reticent about, or just plain external distractions. I remember stumbling on a similar path in my own school days, decades ago, as I could never listen to the teacher for more than ten minutes, and this was without ingesting growth hormones. Perhaps the subject matter was tedious and required memorizing with rote recitation or parroting. I was only recently able to decipher my classroom maladies. Regardless of the subject, listening and paying attention or taking direction are often overlooked by the parents, which must be attended to assiduously by parents at home, as they have an enormous impact later on in life and career.
Factors imputed to the problem of inattention include excessive television viewing and computer games, which can and have drastically shortened a child's concentration span. Peter Jensen of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) concluded: "Extensive exposure to television and video games promote brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention."
2. Food also plays an important part in their development. Processed foods, sugars, and chemicals boost their already energetic bodies to hyperkinetic levels. It would take a law and chemical degree to decipher the chemicals they add to the processed foods that have nothing to do with nutrition. Imagine, if you can, how a tiny constitution, removed from the womb by only a few years, copes with these manufactured toxins, without getting affected in behavior, speech, and listening, besides retarding their senses.
Home atmosphere also plays an important part in the development of their psyche. Children from broken and dysfunctional homes often become immune to any sense of order or discipline. They often daydream or become preoccupied with issues they are utterly reluctant to discuss with anybody outside of their circle of influence. It may be an instinctive survival mechanism, where a child tunes out all the noise and escapes into a comfort zone.
Robert Frost was dropped from school for excessive daydreaming.
Thomas Edison was said to be "addled" because of his relentless fidgeting in class.
Frank Lloyd Wright daydreamed so intensely, he required people shouting at him.
Selective Sense of Hearing is a pervasive problem at schools that actually begins at home. Interestingly, these very symptoms have plagued highly-recognized creative individuals and inventors. Some early warning signs:
** Regularly missing directions and needs them reiterated.
** Will not hear you the first time.
** Difficulty paying attention when precept or parent speaks.
** Constantly forgets things by claiming "I can't remember" or "you never told me."
** Cannot follow more than one instruction at a given time.
** Frequently and easily distracted or constantly restless.
** Has no inclination to read class material, but other "interesting" material.
Children are classified into three categories of learners: auditory learners, physical learners, and visual learners. The most difficult one is the auditory learning; in fact, many adults are also deficient in the listening skills, and this practice will not only fortify our listening skills, but our child's listening skills as well. Here are some engaging activities to promote the listening skills: 1. Talk to your child all the time, giving them little projects with specific goals, whether in the garage or the kitchen. 2. Make reading an interactive activity, like asking what took place on the previous page by having them describe it. 3. Ask your child how a story might end and have them elaborate it by letting their imagination go. 4. Revisit an old favorite and change the details of the story by letting them correct you, a great way to gauge whether your child was paying attention. 5. Listen to stories together and share details of the story, having fun discussing it. 6. Make up word plays and rhymes with them, like "the fat rat ate the cat's hat" or play with alliterations. These and activities like these can indeed spur our child's focus, if done regularly.
Children learn faster and better by watching their role models, which is you, the parent at home. A child can see through when an adult is not paying attention or listening. As a parent we must focus and listen honestly if we want our child to follow through. Professor Alison Gopnik of the University of California at Berkeley says that even 2-3-year-old kids are very good at telling pretense from reality. One of the most crucial aspects of learning is the display of patience. Don't expect your offspring to be patient and listen carefully when you cannot muster it. We must understand that it takes children a longer time to articulate their thoughts and present them in a cohesive manner, hence patience is an imperative for the parents.
I am certain that most alert and erudite parents are on top of this information for their broods. However, this reiteration is more of an affirmation and acknowledgment of the problems that plague our kinetic society and what we must do to resolve them. An interesting reading excursion could be TIME magazine's January 18, 2010 edition, which carries this article entitled "Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny," followed by this subhead: "The new science of Epigenetics reveal how the choices you make can change your genes and those of your kids," by John Cloud. Arming ourselves with information is the least we can do.
Sometimes, after watching the Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel, I am chagrined to accede that animals in the wild do a better job of raising their offspring, than we do -- the so-called superior beings. Animals never do anything "half-assed" but we do it all the time, particularly in raising our own. Animals arduously and assiduously equip their young to face the brutal reality out there, where the alternative to survival is getting eaten alive, not that much different from our reality. However, the human spirit is a resurgent force, it is calibrated by natural instincts for survival and overcoming adversities, and that is what most kids do. They cope gloriously under our very own blindness, induced by our self-destructive and narcissistic tendencies.
(In Part II, I will look at history and see how great individuals, afflicted with such maladies, transcended their handicaps and soared as paradigm shifters and great achievers.)
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)