The Present Tense: Letting our Children Enjoy Today

"When should I tell my young child that we're pregnant?" was one of the questions I ran across today on the Mamaworldforum. An excited mom of a three year old was wondering when it would be most helpful to share the news with her son, and wanted advice on helping him transition. Good for her for asking.

I typed in my own story and opinion: I was nannying for two families when I became pregnant, and I'd asked the parents not to share the good news until the kids began to ask questions. A part of this was informed by past disappointments, because I do think we need to keep kids lives easier, and for young children, miscarriage and death can be very confusing. A larger part, though, was out of respect for our present situations and relationships. For one family, I'd nannied since their eldest was 4 months old. She was then entering kindergarten, but I'd always been around as her nanny. For the other, I'd come on to work with their youngest when she was nine months old and had become pregnant the summer before she turned three. Nonetheless, they were my Special Ones, in their eyes as well as mine. Through September and October, and even most of November, I kept quiet about the baby to the children, until one day one of them asked why I was "looking fat", the way kids will.

"Oh, well, I'm growing a baby in there." I explained. Over the next month, the children began to occasionally ask questions to remind themselves of the upcoming baby, although some small part of me began to suspect the older ones just liked to ask why I was fat, because it was a safe situation to ask that question in. But we didn't tell the children I was leaving as their nanny until about a week or so before it happened. I began to get things in order for the other nannies who would be coming into their lives, and reminded the children that I would still see them from time to time. This was true: one family lives in my neighborhood; and the little girl who was nearly three, I would provide aftercare for once she'd started preschool, when Kiddo was 5 months old. Even in this short amount of time, the children wanted a lot of reassurance and asked the same question repeatedly, as if they were trying to take it all in: When was I leaving?

It took me a day or two before I realized that they wanted the waiting period to be over, for me to go already, to not be in anticipation of my leaving, but for me to have gone already so that they could get on with processing this. And more importantly, so they could just get on with things.

I'm glad, now, that I had waited so long to share the baby news, because those children didn't have to share me with the new baby until I had nearly actually left. Their attention wasn't distracted from our time together, and they got to feel like the special ones in my life for a little longer. I realized through that experience that by choosing not to tell them I was leaving, by not choosing to focus on my anxieties about their transitions regarding my going, I had saved them from a lot of anxiousness and worry about the future. Instead of having our interactions colored with preparing the children for this change, even as significant as it was, I let them be in their own present tense space and honored our time in the here and now with attending to what they needed, not what I was worried about.

It's been over five years since then, and I'm still convinced I made the correct decision. What has been brought to my attention, over time, is that those of us "present tense" parents are in a minority of sorts. It seems to fly in the face of the more popular parenting practices and isn't considered savvy. Just as our current educational model, the Common Core Standards, picks a certain standard of education to be attained by the senior year of high school and is working backward to achieve that goal (throwing all we know about developmental levels of readiness in learning to the wind), I discover that we parents are sometimes following this very example. We worry so much about our children doing well later that we forget to let them enjoy the here and now.

We are good parents, and we are concerned about the big transitions our children must face. We worry that when the time comes, our children will be woefully unprepared. That they will be upset, or not know how to face the next challenge that comes up, be it that first weekend staying with Grandma or starting kindergarten. We warn our kids for weeks that 'pretty soon, no more binky' or 'in three more days, no more diapers. You'll be a big kid in underwear!' In our adult minds, we love a long heads-up before changes happen, and to an adult mind which understands Past, Present and Future, forewarning allows us to collect our ducks, get them in a row, and quack them into the upcoming situation, ha ha. For kids who don't even have all the names for their days of the week, though, too much warning can be simply confusing or anxiety-inducing.

Preparations: When Less is More

The kindergartener I cared for, too, was another good example of why too much transition time can be too much of a good thing. Everyone talked up this Big New Change of Kindergarten to her, and the fall-out was that we spent most of her summer at home. She began declining playdate invitations with friends, and even refused outings to  her favorite places like the park or the library. So much had been made of what was happening in September that by July she was more or less a quivering mass when she had to leave the house to go anywhere. The anxiety became so great that when September finally rolled around, starting school was traumatic for her. She'd invested so much emotional energy all summer into being focused on this unfamiliar new teacher and school-- and so much time had gone by before it actually would start--that the well-meant discussions which were supposed to help reassure her and prepare her for this transition ended up compounding her own sense of fear. The adults had been so concerned about preparing her for a smooth transition that she's sensed their own underlying fears that she might not accept this change easily and internalized it into her own fear for herself.

This sort of response, of quasi-agorophobia, is very common with many to-be kindergarteners, I've come to discover. They see a big change coming down the pike and retreat.

There's a fine balance between over-preparing children for change, and not preparing them enough. As a caregiver, I always spent at least one or two visits with a family to play with the children before coming on as their all-day nanny. I shadowed their caregivers for a day, just to see how things were done, to get a sense of the rhythms of their day and how things were. While we always had a transition time of a few months, just as preschools do, I knew we couldn't do the work of making it perfect ahead of time. It had to be done in the present, with the children, in the moment. These adjustments sometimes looked messy; sometimes we had hard days just getting used to each other in all the ways children and adults do. But there's no way to do it in advance, because kids are in the present, and what's required of them during times of change is just too abstract for them to understand until they are in that present space and doing it.

As a preschool teacher, I have noticed a trend over the past few years that I hadn't previously, when several parents I interviewed were looking for a program that would make their child "kindergarten ready"*. By this, they wanted a reassurance that I would teach their child to read and write and do many, many other things that kindergarteners learn to do in kindergarten. There's a mistaken belief that a child must be prepared to be in a large group of children, in an academic setting, so that kindergarten will somehow be a failsafe adventure for their children. Never mind that most of us in my age went to kindergarten with hardly any preschool experience, and that we might have just come from a smaller family home, and still excelled because we had teachers who taught us materials that were appropriate to our level of learning and development. I wonder if it's our overwhelming cultural message of "prepare, prepare, prepare so that our child can't help but succeed" is actually keeping parents distracted from the iniquities of schools who push children too young to know material that is too old for their natural inclinations and capacities for learning, and I think this has produced the overly-concerned "helicopter parenting" phenomenon of recent years.

Instead of pushing back at  legislators who craft these faulty educational standards and demanding a program of accelerated learning at the right stages and ages of our children's development, we push our children to perform to an increasingly-higher bar.

All of this seems crazymaking to me. There are better ways for our kids. This is one very real reason the homeschooling movement is taking off. Enough parents are saying "enough". They want their kids to learn, and they want them to have a childhood too.

Living, Here and Now

My sister Amanda gave me a great Present Tense tip once. She was planning a drive into Portland with her three boys, and was hoping to take them to OMSI.

"Are the boys excited?" I'd asked.

"Oh, I'm not telling them until we get there." she replied, and then told me why she decided to keep outings like these as surprises. Suppose a child got sick on the way there, or the boys were tired or feeling disagreeable, or she thought better of taking three grumpy wiggle-worms out to a crowded, stimulating public place? Better to keep it a surprise than for the children to have to spend the next day or two upset and disappointed. She's a great mom who doesn't need to make not going to OMSI the punishment for being tired.... kids get tired and disagreeable sometimes, and it's not always something within their control. Knowing that the trip into town would already be a stretch for the boys, she did a gracious thing as a parent and let them have their experience without the distractions of possible outings or obligations to 'be good'. She just let them be.

*None of them enrolled, by the way. The thought of a play-based preschool was counter to their academic goals for their children. I still don't know if this is because they had no trust in my as a teacher when I explained the value of play-based learning, or if they had so much anxiety regarding readiness and felt their children didn't need to play, they needed to learn.


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