Learning to fall down

Japanese children ride unicycles without helmets or kneepads.  Photo: Ko Sasaki/New York Times

Japanese elementary schools supply “unicycles, bamboo stilts, hula hoops and other equipment that promotes balance and core strength,” reports the New York Times. Kids play, fall and get back up without protective gear or adult supervision.

During a recent morning recess at Kyuden Elementary School in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, children raced to a rack of more than 80 unicycles with brightly colored wheels and began riding around the sand and gravel playground.

Some children were just learning, clinging to monkey bars or the shoulders of friends. Others sped fluidly across the playground for more than 20 yards at a time. Pairs of girls twirled around, arm in arm and perfectly balanced. Several girls rode unicycles close to four and a half feet tall.

Children learn on their own or to teach one another to ride unicycles, says the vice principal.

Riding unicycles is part of a culture that urges elementary school-age children to do things on their own, including taking the subway or walking around city neighborhoods.

“I see kids being challenged and encouraged to do things that I have never seen kids encouraged to do in the U.S.,” said Matthew Thibeault, an American who teaches at a middle school affiliated with Toyama University on the west coast of Japan, “and a lot of equipment that would be considered risky.”

Via Ann Althouse who quotes Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid— about being an American kid the 1950s:

In such a world, injuries and other physical setbacks were actually welcomed. If you got a splinter you could pass an afternoon, and attract a small devoted audience, seeing how far you could insert a needle under your skin—how close you could get to actual surgery. If you got sunburned you looked forward to the moment when you could peel off a sheet of translucent epidermis that was essentially the size of your body. Scabs in Kid World were cultivated the way older people cultivate orchids. I had knee scabs that I kept for up to four years, that were an inch and three-quarters thick and into which you could press thumbtacks without rousing my attention.

In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, a 1930 book set in England’s Lake District, children ranging in age from seven to (maybe) 11 or 12 want to sail to an island and camp out for several weeks. Their father, a Naval or Merchant Marine officer, telegraphs his permission: “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown.”

Bilingual ed: Will parents get to choose?

Alice Callaghan runs an English-only preschool at Las Familias Del Pueblos in Los Angeles. Photo:  Morgan Walker/NPR

California voters are expected to “bring back” bilingual education, nearly two decades after the “English for the Children” initiative, Proposition 227, won in a landslide.

Proposition 58 has flown completely under the radar. Because of the ballot language says the goal is English proficiency (everybody likes that!), voters may not realize their voting for teaching English by teaching Spanish and other languages.

California never banned bilingual ed, but Proposition 227 required that parents sign a waiver each year if they want their child taught in a language other than English. Most immigrant parents did not.

As a result, schools had to dump low-quality, dumbed-down bilingual ed and design programs that parents would choose. Double-immersion programs are very popular with middle-class, English-speaking parents who want their kids to be multilingual.

If Proposition 58 passes, will educators try to force Latino kids into Spanish-language classes without parental consent? Will they try to teach with aides — very, very common in the old days — when they can’t find enough bilingual teachers? (Bilingual teachers remain in short supply.) They’d be crazy to go back to the old system. I think they’re smarter than that. I hope.

In Mike’s playborhood, kids take risks

Children jump from the playhouse roof to the trampoline in Mike Lanza’s backyard in Menlo Park, CA. Photo: Holly Andres/New York Times.

As the “anti-helicopter parent,” Mike Lanza has turned his Silicon Valley home into a not-very-safe play zone, writes Melanie Thernstrom in the New York Times Magazine. He wants his three “boys to have a normal childhood, while complaining that his idea of normal is no longer normal.”

Kids need a chance to play outdoors, their own way, Lanza believes. Neighborhood kids are welcome to play in his yard at any time — without an adult to supervise.

“His free-time-is-for-goofing-around ethos is particularly anomalous in Silicon Valley,” writes Thernstrom, whose kids were preschool classmates of Lanza’s youngest boy. The area is full of “former engineers, executives and other highly educated women who have renounced work in favor of what they call uber-parenting.”

. . . .  parents think they should be producing model kids, optimized kids, kids with extra capacity and cool features: kids who have start-ups (or at least work at one); do environmental work in the Galápagos; speak multiple languages; demonstrate a repeatable golf swing; or sing arias. To a comical extent, parents here justify the perverted ambition through appeals to research (enlarging the language center of the brain and so forth) while ignoring research on the negative effects on children of being micromanaged.

A high-tech entrepreneur, Lanza is the author of Playborhood and writes a blog on turning neighborhoods into communities where kids can play outside.

I’ve walked past the Lanza house, which is in a lovely, expensive neighborhood near Stanford. I also did some freelance editing for his wife (who is not that happy about her kids playing on the roof) years ago.

Teachers, parents say kids are disrespectful

Fifty-eight percent of teachers and 67 percent of parents say most children are disrespectful, according to a Sesame Workshop survey.

In addition, 70 percent of parents worry that the world is “an unkind place for my child,” reports USA Today.

Sesame Workshop’s Jennifer Kotler Clarke is unhappy that 58 percent of parents think “manners” are more important than “empathy.”

“We really need to talk about the deepness that comes with behaviors around kindness,” she said. “It’s not just the surface, smiling around people and opening a door, saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,’ all of which are important. But it doesn’t end there. It needs to be even deeper than that. In fact, sociopaths and bullies can have very good manners and be polite.”

As a parent, I taught manners first. Behave properly, whatever you think of others. Kids may develop empathy over time. In some cases, it’s very difficult.  They can learn manners at a very young age.

“Sesame plans to offer online tools to parents and educators to teach kindness, including a new website on the topic and a YouTube playlist of clips,” reports USA Today. “It’ll also build the upcoming season of Sesame Street around themes of kindness and empathy.”

As kids grow, low-income parents lose hope

When children start elementary school, their parents have high hopes. But low-income parents lower their expectations for their kids as they go through elementary school, writes Peter DeWitt on Ed Week‘s Finding Common Ground blog.

Educators need to “drop the educational lingo and acronyms,”  he suggests or teach parents “the language of learning.”

Not everyone can master Buzzword Bingo.

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Help ‘first teachers’ do better

Parents are children’s first teachers, says everyone. But engaging low-income, poorly educated parents in their children’s learning has proven to be difficult, writes Bellwether’s Sara Mead. We don’t know what works. Until now.

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ParentCorps, which trains preschool parents and teachers, is producing long-term results, concludes a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“By 2nd grade, children who participated in ParentCorps had fewer mental health problems and better academic achievement” than non-participants, writes Mead.

Most children came from low-income, black families in New York City.

ParentCorps build children’s academic abilities and supports their “social, emotional, and behavioral regulation skills.” It’s not either/or.

Los Angeles Unified is expanding on-campus parent centers that provide a place for parents to learn English, discuss school issues and do projects for teachers. Engaging parents improves student attendance, school officials believe.

Parents spend more time with kids

Michaela Fox at home in Box Hill, Melbourne, with daughters Amber, Holly ... ‘They are just weaving their own na...

Michaela Fox with her daughters in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: David Geraghty/News Limited

Parents are spending a lot more time with their children, according to a study that compares parenting from 1965 to 2012. In 10 of 11 Western nations (France is the outlier), mothers and fathers have increased their parenting time significantly.

“When a parent spends more time with a child, it has been shown to improve his or her language skills, brain development, social behavior, and more,” writes Megan Scudellari in the Boston Globe.

In 1965, mothers spent an average of 54 minutes per day on activities with their children: feeding them, reading to them, putting them to bed. Moms in 2012, however, averaged almost twice that, spending 104 minutes per day with their offspring. Fathers had an even more dramatic increase: Their time with kiddos nearly quadrupled, from a daily average of just 16 minutes in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012.

Educated parents were more involved with their children, the study found.

College-educated moms averaged 123 minutes daily on child care, compared with 94 minutes spent by less educated mothers. Fathers with a college degree spent about 74 minutes a day with their kids, while less educated dads averaged 50 minutes.

The “intensive parenting” trend is spreading from well-educated to less-educated parents, said co-author Judith Treas, a UC-Irvine sociology professor. “The time parents spend with children is regarded as critical for positive cognitive, behavioral and academic outcomes.”

Intensive parenting can be exhausting, warns Scary Mommy.

Autistic or shy?

When her twins missed their growth milestones — sitting, standing, walking and speaking — parents, teachers, doctors and others suggested they were autistic, Paula Lynn Johnson writes on Ricochet.

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Her “lifeline to sanity” was Thomas Sowell’s book, Late Talking Children. Sowell’s son, who didn’t start talking till he was 4, grew up to be a successful, non-autistic adult.

After speech therapy, Johnson’s kids began talking. But her son showed “red flags” of autism in preschool, teachers said. He didn’t want to stop building Legos and go on to the art station.

His kindergarten teacher also complained about her son’s Lego obsession.

Moreover, my son lived too much in his head, preferring to build and tinker rather than playing tag or ball with the other boys. He was clumsy. He was autistic-ish.

The school’s Child Study Team wanted to do an evaluation for autism, but the parents passed. Elementary school was tough, but he came into himself in middle school.

Academically, there were less worksheets and rote work. A lot of his teachers not only allowed, but welcomed discussion (suddenly, he was no longer “argumentative”, but “thoughtful”). He started enjoying his classes. And socially, the transition to a bigger pond with more potential friends was just what he needed. He found his tribe.

. . . they’re on the debate team and in robotics club. They like to play Risk and Magic the card game. They follow politics and like tossing around obscure movie quotes and references. You know the type. Would I call any of them socially smooth or sophisticated? No. But I wouldn’t call them autistic, either — and that includes my son. He’s empathetic and funny and engaging. He’s just taken longer than most to grow comfortable in his own skin.

“Go to a doctor, preferably a pediatric neurologist or psychiatrist who specializes in autism” for a diagnosis, rather than a special-ed teacher, Johnson advises.

She adds that shyness can be confused with autism.

For example, autistic kids often have trouble making direct eye contact and come across as socially stiff. Well, unfortunately, so do shy kids

“Professionals working for the public school system have built-in incentives to label children and put them into special programs, which often get the school system more money from the government,” she writes.

. . .  if you fear the costs of “doing nothing”, consider the costs of labeling your kid with a serious neurological condition that he just doesn’t have. Read I Had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly, in which the author recounts how his mother — an “expert” in Asperger’s! — not only diagnosed him with the disorder but had him participate in an educational video about it.

As a baby, my daughter missed the major developmental milestones — by miles. Other babies were walking before she could roll over. It turned out she was developmentally weird.

Japan’s independent kids aren’t really alone

A young girl rides on the Tokyo subway. Photo: Tokyoform

While anxious American parents ferry their children to and from school, Japanese children as young as 6 or 7 walk or take mass transit on their own, writes Selena Hoy in The Atlantic.

“Group reliance” makes it safe, writes cultural anthropologist Dwayne Dixon in his dissertation. Japanese children are taught that “any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others.”

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties.

. . . Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership . . .

In a Japanese city, a child is never really alone.

Of course, Japan’s very low crime rate creates a perception of safety that reassures parents, writes Hoy.

“A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family,” writes Hoy. Here’s an episode with English subtitles.

Condoms, contraceptives and kindergarten

The school readiness gap between children from affluent nad lower-income families is narrowing, researchers report. Poor kids are starting with better reading and math skills.

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It could be condoms and contraceptives, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.

Teen pregnancy is way down in recent years: The teen birth rate has fallen almost by half since 1990, Thompson writes. Adolescents aren’t having less sex, but they’re much more likely to use contraceptives.

As a result, fewer children are being born to young, single, low-income girls and women.

In the 1970s, most mothers — rich or poor — had children in their early 20s, writes Thompson. That’s changed, writes sociologist Robert Putnam in Our Kids. College graduates are marrying and having children in their late 20s and early 30s, “while moms with just a high-school education or less become moms at the average age of 19.”

An astonishing 65 percent of all mothers with no more than a high-school degree are unmarried at the time of their child’s birth; that figure has tripled since 1980. (By comparison, 90 percent of new moms who finished college are married.) Too often, rich kids have two intentional parents armed with childrearing books and newfangled toys for infants, while poor kids have one accidental parent armed with none of that.

Children born to poor single mothers get less parental attention, writes Thompson. Often the mother is working and the father is absent. The kids miss out on what Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon time.”