Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Is School for Learning or For Socialization?

I had 16 years of academically rigorous Catholic education. In high school we read all of Shakespeare's major plays, many of the classics of world and English literature. Our history teachers expected us to read a daily newspaper; ignorance of what was happening in the world was not acceptable. I had six years of language study, three in Latin, three in French. There were no electives; everyone had four years of math, four of science. In grade school we had superb instruction in English grammar and surprising good lessons in American history.

I did not appreciate my good fortune. I was obsessed with the conformity imposed, with the nun's puritanism about makeup, hair decorations, hemlines. My high school uniform was designed to remove all secondary sexual characteristics. I led a crusade against uniforms and fought for the right to wear political buttons. However, in grade school I was a good girl who did all the homework and was various teachers' pets. My first grade and second grade teachers pasted gold stars on our foreheads and our papers.

At Fordham everyone had to take 21 credits in philosophy and 16 credits of theology, no matter what their major. So we all had a major and three minors. We didn't have electives.

High school graduates, never mind college graduates, of Catholic schools, were expected to have a broad general education. They understand the Constitution; they woud have enlightened voters if they hadn't had to wait three years or more to vote. They could quote many excellent poems and Shakespeare's most famous sonnets.

The teachers didn't give a damn about our social skills. Their one concern was that we didn't fall into the clutches of a bad crowd of kids. Living up to your intellectual potential was their priority. Underachieving was how you got in trouble with Sister, and it was extremely difficult to bullshit them about that.  Cheaters and plagiarists faced dire consequences.

Going back three generations in my family, people are very intelligent, but socially shy and awkward. Boredom in school has been a persisting problem. Being the oldest in the class just exacerbates the boredom. School is for learning. Catholic schools were known for intellectual challenge, not social remediation.

Looking back, I simply cannot understand how the nuns did it. Could the habit be that powerful? Do they bewitch us? In postwar suburbia Catholics schools could not be built fast enough. I never went to school in my hometown. For the first two years I went to a split session. The teacher had to teach 60 kids in each session. That is 120 students.Yet our first grade teacher taught us all how to read, to print, cursive writing. She worked with me separately. Now her brother owned a candy factory, but this does not seem humanly possible. Can wearing uniforms make such a difference?

My evaluation of my Catholic education as changed as I have grown older, and students have become less educated. I never would have sent my kids to Catholic school--too strict, regimented, hostile to creativity and individuality. But my cousin's children have gotten excellent educations in Catholic schools, and my stereotypes are outdated.

My high school had an extremely active speech and debate club. Many of the top students belonged. Debate devoured your time as much as varsity sports does know. Extemporaneous speech was exalted. There was one debate topic annually. Debaters spent ten hours a week in the library. I was more knowledgeable than most members of the Senate are now. Twice a month we went to debate tournaments, mostly in Queens and Brooklyn, sometimes in Manhattan. It was the most academically challenging and competitive activity I have ever undertaken.

What about socialization? That word didn't exist. Socialization was what happened at recess, after school, on weekends with neighborhood friends and siblings. It was not in the teachers' job description. The nuns didn't care if we liked school or had friends.  They cared about how hard we worked, whether we were lazy and not living up to our intellectual potential.

Most of our classmates  had three, four, five siblings and dozens of cousins. Older brothers and sisters are excellent socializers. You weren't allowed to play board games or sports unless you could handle losing repeatedly. There were no handicaps. Younger kids would do anything to be included. My third brother recently quipped: "I don't understand all the emphasis on coping with bullies. You learn to stand up to bullies from your older siblings."

Most of us spent thousands of hours in the backyards or basements of our neighborhood with only the bare minimum of adult supervision. Now kids are almost never that free. Their lives are cregimented. I never knew anyone who had planned afterschool activities until they went to high school. Our parents, raising large families on one income, didn't have money to spend on such luxuries.

In grade school we went outside and played after school--baseball, basketball, football, badminton, ping pong, knock hockey. We biked everywhere without helmets. By 7 you were given free rein of the neigborhood. By 8 my best friend and I walked 2 miles to the nearest big town, disappearing for the day. We had to come home by dark. Our parents didn't drive us places. We biked or took buses.
At 12 I was babysitting at least ten hours a week. That financed the trips into Manhattan to see Broadway shows once or twice a month. This is why parents handled having 6 children better than people now handle having 1. We were all expected to figure out some way of earning money by the time we were 12. For my brothers, it was paper routes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"When I Whisper, Everyone Listens"

Machiavelli, the Whisperer

For years I thanked God that Michelle, my second daughter, was so much easier than her sister, two years older. . But she had carefully observed Anne and realized charm worked much better than confrontation. When asking for something, Michelle would preface it with so many appreciative compliments that I was eager to do what she asked.

Michelle was almost grown before I realized that she had gotten her way much more than Anne had. She is the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove. I was in awe how she handled doctors and nurses whenever my mom was hospitalized.  Once, when her dad and I were squabbling, teenage Michelle suggested, "Mom, you should wear more perfume." 

My favorite Michelle story occurred when she had just turned 3. She fell in the playground and needed ten stitches in her head. The ER was a horror as I had to fight tooth and nail to stay with her. Right after the accident we went on vacation with my parents, my brother Joe, his wife, and their three kids from Kansas City. Michelle was very close to my parents and had no experience sharing them with anyone but Anne. Immediately upon arriving , my chatterbox ceased talking. After a day of absolute silence, she deigned to whisper, but only to me and my mom.

Her absolute command was terrifying. Even after she woke up from a nightmare, she remembered to whisper. When I was playing with her in the water, I could coax her to make sounds, but she refused to utter sounds that were words. I was frantic, convinced that her fall had caused brain damage or a lasting emotional trauma. Was she upset that I was pregnant with Rose?

When her grandma asked why she wouldn't talk, Michelle whispered. "With my cousins here, when I talk, nobody listens. But when I whisper, everyone listens." Her ingenious scheme worked wonders. Everyone spent the entire ten days trying to trick Michelle into talking. I had just gotten a tape recorder, and the impact of Michelle's silence is documented. The main topic of conversations recorded was the strange silence of a certain three year old. The minute Joe and his family drove away, Michelle started talking and has never stopped. 

Michelle told this story on her college applications. "It is rather funny to think that in my large family of overachievers, a three-year-old's decision not to speak in one of our fondest and most memorable stories. To this day, I cannot speak a word to my Uncle Joe without receiving the loud surprised reaction, "She talks." All colleges eagerly accepted her.

Have you ever tried not talking for an hour at an immediate family gathering of 11 people? 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Parental Anxiety and Children's Wings

 My mother's combination of fearlessness, faith in God, and experience with 5 younger brothers made her wonderful mother of 5 boys. She didn't worry; she didn't clip any wings. She didn't let little things like sons on the roof or a son out of touch hiking the Appalachian trail for months upset her.   Her shy, timid, anxious daughter was a mystery to my mom.  I am a  lifelong worrier. From early childhood, I frequently told my parents, "I'm scared."

What my mom did effortlessly, I have had to struggle with every day of my 42  years as a mother. All my daugters are braver and more adventurous than I am. For the most part, my anxieties have not infected them. They respect my fears.  I have decided to concentrate my worries when their planes are in the air, not when they  are on the ground for days or years in Kosovo, Rwanda, Niger, Sydney, Shanghai, Istanbul, Sydney, etc.They always call, email, or text when the plane lands, at any hour, in any part of the world. Flight Tracker is my best friend. 

My oldest daughter Emma has inherited her grandmother's bold fearlessness.

From my journals, 1974-1975
From the time Emma was 10 months old, I took her twice a day to Central Park, particularly one very large playground. Emma would casually wander off almost 100 yards away. As long as I was within eye range and met her eyes and waved when she glanced at me, she seemed perfectly confident. One nightmarish day, she managed to slip out between the playground bars and head for Central Park West. I didn't know I could run so fast.

At 15 months Emma would go down slides and climb up jungle gyms that three year olds would avoid. By 2 she was so physically competent that I felt confident about sitting on a bench and watching from a distance as she clambered over a climbing structure designed for children 6 and up. She hardly ever cried if she fell down or bumped into something. Emma was happiest learning new physical feats. She loved the water; at age one she would fearlessly walk into the ocean and laugh if she were knocked down. She was physically fearless yet not particularly reckless except about things she could not possibly know about. She was always ahead of other kids in trying something new physically like walking up the slide backward.

Emma in Niger, 2000                                                                      
 One month ago, I sat in a grass hut in a small village in Niger called Koyetegui, and watched democracy in action, Nigerien style. The five members of the Bureau de Vote sat on overturned pestles normally used for pounding millet, and offered me a seat on a woven mat. And so I sat, as the sun set and the kerosene lantern was lit, and watched as the chickens were chased out of the hut and the entire village crowded into this cramped space to watch the solemn counting and recounting of the 132 votes that had been cast in this tiny district. When the vote counting was over and the report had been filled out and duly sealed with wax, I rode back to the regional capital of Dosso with the ballot box to turn in the election results. It was only the next day that I learned from my driver that the chief of the village had presented me with a gift of an enormous river squash. I spent the entire ride back to Niamey replaying the events of the past few months in my mind, wondering how I had ever gotten to be so lucky.

From applications to graduate schools in International Relations in 2000:
In three and a half years, I visited over 75 cities in 53 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In several countries–Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Nepal, Benin, Curacao–I was the first AIRINC representative to conduct a survey. I have had the opportunity to do amazing things in my life. I have seen some of the truly wondrous places in the world, from the Sahara desert, to Machu Picchu, to the Mekong River Delta. I have jumped out of a plane in Maine and been seventy feet underwater in the Caribbean. I have witnessed one of the poorest countries on earth usher in a new era of hope and democracy.

My post to a Salon Group, 2001:
My 28-year-old daughter has just accepted a summer internship in Rwanda. Seven years ago, a million people were killed in three months in the worst genocide since the Holocaust.  At Columbia she is specializing in human rights, transitional justice, and Africa. If she wasn't going to Rwanda, she would have gone to the Congo. I am fiercely proud of her. But I worry about how to handle my fears as she goes from one world flash point to the next. I want to support her, not burden her with my anxieties.


Emma, her husband, and their 2 kids are spending two years in Paris, so she can work for an international organization. Her 5 year old daughter, now fully fluent in French, has inherited her fearlessness. When Emma was pregnant, she fretted that she would not be able to handle an anxious daughter.

In many ways, I, an anxious mother, did better with my bold daughters than my bold mother did with her anxious daughter. I never forget her telling me, "You would be much happier if you were more like me."

Letting your fear of what could happen clip your children's wings  and undermine their confidence and autonomy endangers them most of all

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mom, They Hate Each Other

When Emma and Michelle were young, I often called my mom, the wise mother of 6, lamenting, "Mom, they hate each other." Emma was born April 3, 1973; Michelle, June 17, 1975. Even now,  42 years after I became a mother, I don't want to masquerade as an all-wise grandma. No mother of 4 daughters ever masters sibling rivalry.

I am so glad I kept journals when the two oldest were young. i could not possibly recapture my earnestness, my conviction I had a magic solution to sibling rivalry.

Fall 1976--When Emma  (3 1/2) came home from nursery school, she asked me to read Green Eggs and Ham. She settled on my lap in the small black chair, and I began the book.  Michelle (17 months) immediately came over protesting, tried to climb into the chair. I assumed she wanted to listen to the story, so I asked Emma to move to the couch, so we all could fit. But then Michelle grabbed the book, bringing me her books to read.

I discouraged her, feeling she had had my exclusive attention for 4 hours; now it was Emma's turn. My friend Anne offered to read to Michelle, but she struggled down from her lap 2 or 3 times. I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham. Anne started to read to Emma and  and her daughter Elizabeth, so I could read to Michelle. Michelle got down from my lap and tried to grab the book away from Anne. When that failed, she tried bribery--3 books, her blanket, a slip, her rabbit skin. Elizabeth wanted the rabbit skin, but every time she took it away from Michelle she protested and only stopped when Anne took it back from her daughter.

Finally Michelle used one of the cardboard blocks to climb on the ottoman; from there she lunged for the big black chair where Emma was sitting with Anne and Elizabeth. She didn't quite make it and had to be rescued, but she had achieved her purpose--the reading stopped. I've noticed that she often starts fussing if someone picks up Emma, reads to her, pays her exclusive attention in any way, shape, or form

I'm glad to see such self-assertion on her part, even though I feel pulled in two directions now, with both of them clamoring for exclusive attention. It frees me from being Michelle's defender. More and more I can let them learn to handle their disputes by themselves. I know Emma's worst won't really hurt Michelle, and Michelle protests more than enough to warn me if any mayhem is actually occurring. Once or twice lately I've rushed in ready to scold Emma, when Michelle's protests had absolutely nothing to do with her. Emma's being away at school mornings seems to have encouraged Michelle to increase her demands. If she could get rid of Emma in the mornings, why not all day?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What Is Your Birth Order?

To Only Children: Being the oldest child dooms you to the responsibility chip, whether you have no siblings or 7. Until both your parents die, you are being parented by people who have no clue what they are doing.  Their grandparenting skills are nonexistent. Children raise their parents to be grownups. Being outnumbered makes the job more challenging and stimulating, but you are always up to it.

My five brothers are 18 months, 3 years, 7 years, 11 years, and 13 years younger.

. Sibling closeness has mattered more to me than to my brothers. I try much harder to keep the family connected. Being both the oldest and the only girl seems central. I was my adult height when my two younger brothers were born; they were only 5 and 7 when I left home for college. I must have seemed a maternal figure to them. In some pictures I look like their young mother.

We did not grow up in the same family. My mother returned to school full-time when my youngest brother  Brian was 5; she started teaching high school when he was 7. The 3 oldest Koch sibs  had a stay-at-homehome mother until we went to college. Brian doesn't remember my mom staying at home full-time. My father retired before Brian finished college.

We have very different perceptions of our parents. The 4 oldest remember our dad as a brilliant intellectual and mathematician; The 2 youngest remember a grail old man who disappeared into Alzheimer's Disease. The three oldest remember our childhood perceptions of my mom as "just a housewife" who never went to college. My younger brothers remember her the way her obituary describes her: "teacher, activist, trailblazer."

With the death of my mom, Joe, 18 months younger, is my only collaborator for family history. Fortunately, Joe was too busy climbing on the roof as a kid to remember very much. I could write family fiction and convince everyone it is family history.

I struggled not to favor my first daughter Emma in sibling squabbles, because she, like me, is the oldest of several siblings. Both my first husband John and I were the oldest children of oldest children of oldest children--not the best recipe for marital harmony. Certainly Emma shows the same sense of responsibility for her younger siblings that I felt.  Almost all oldest children feel younger siblings have been insufficient grateful because they fought the battles that whipped their parents in to shape.

In my constant discussions with friends about baby spacing when my kids were young, I noticed that adult relationships with your siblings greatly influence you. If you love your sibs, you might think a brother or sister is the best gift you will give your kids. If you don't talk to your sib, you will feel guilty about the trauma you are inflicting on the oldest. As people only have two children, there will only be younger and older older. Middle children seem to have special gifts society will sorely lack. When I told 6 year old Michelle, I was pregnant with Molly, she rejoiced, "Now I won't be the only middle child."

Faced with the challenge of caring for my mother during the last years of her life, my brothers and I had to confront and heal lifelong conflicts and misunderstandings. It is so easy to fall into childhood roles. My mom was always the family switchboard. We would call her, not each other; she would relay the news to everyone. I struggle very hard not to play the same role.

I adore my brothers and wish we saw each other much more often. We are scattered from Maine to North Carolina. My mother had five brothers as well. As a teenager, I used to reproach her, "Mom, how could you do this to me? You knew what it was like." My mom, a long-term care activist, used to begin her speechs, "I have lived with 12 men--long pause--only one of them intimately." Growing up with my brothers, I acquired a lifelong comfort around men. Daughters were a challenge; sons would have been easier. Taking care of my grandson revives many wonderful memories of my brothers as children.

What is your birth order? What impact has it had on your life? Being the oldest is being the oldest, whether you have no siblings or 7 siblings. You were raised by parents who had no clue. And that will continue until the day both of them are dead. They get better with younger children, but they don't know how to parent a 25 year old, a 40 year old, a 55 year old anymore than they knew how to parent an infant or toddler. Children raise their parents to be grownups. Having no accomplices just makes the job more challenging.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NYC, 1974-1976, Nonsexist Childrearing in Action

Emma belonged to a Chelsea Manhattan playgroup for two years, from 1974 to 1976. She was 17 months when it began, 3 and ready for nursery school when it disbanded. Playgroup met 5 mornings a week in the basement of the Y on West 23rd Street. Parents had the option of coming 1 to 5 mornings. Scheduling was a nightmare that I had naively accepted. I kept the minutes of playgroup, and I wrote a paper about it for a social work class in group dynamics 20 years later.

I thought you might be amused by parenting, Manhattan style, 1974. How earnest and how absurd we were in so many ways. But we were absolutely committed to allowing our kids to be free to be you and me.

Ranging in age from 28 to 40, we all lived in Chelsea and Greenwich Village. With one exception, our playgroup child was our first child. At 28, I was the youngest mother, but the only one from a large family. We all were college educated, with serious careers before we had children. There was an editor of psychiatric books, a writer, a teacher, an artist, an art therapist, two social workers, one vocational counselor, two psychology graduate students, and  a psychiatric nurse.

Most of us were struggling with our decision to stay home with our children. Confirmed apartment dwellers, we saw little relationship between mothering and housework. All of us planned to remain in Manhattan. Dreading winter cooped up with newly mobile, newly negative toddlers in one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments, several mothers were contemplating returning to work to regain their sanity. Significantly, no one returned to work full-time during the life of the playgroup.

None of us had long-time friends who were staying at home to raise young children. We needed to build a new circle of friends; our friends from work no longer sufficed. We were not traditional wives and mothers. We desperately wanted intellectual colleagues fascinated with child development, determined to raise children without our own inhibitions and neuroses. All of us considered ourselves feminists, committed to nonsexist childrearing.

Playgroup was supposed to give us time off. The first year the ratio was one mother to two children; the second year it was one to three. Many mother who weren't on duty stayed anyway, particularly those with younger children. When we weren't playing with our toddlers, we engaged in ongoing group therapy. All of us had been or were currently in therapy and could talk comfortably and knowledgeably about conflict, repression, projection, and denial. We endlessly analyzed our marriages, our families, our psychological makeups, our childrearing philosophies, and our children's personalities.

Six of the 10 core members are now mental health professionals. Remarkably, none of our children are currently in jails, mental hospitals, or rehab centers. We were an extremely self-conscious group. The simplest decision was carefully scrutinized for its optimal effect on our children's intellectual and emotional development. The latest child development books and theories were eagerly shared and discussed. Husbands' participating in child care and housework was the norm. One couple was not married, and no one made anything of it. Everyone eagerly welcomed fathers' participation.

No one wanted to push early academics on our kids. Creativity and exploration were the predominant values. No child was ever pressured to participate in any activity. If he didn't want to draw, paste, paint, sing, snack, his autonomy was respected. We had reasonable expectations about toddlers' capacity to share. A great deal of mess was tolerated, and children were not pressured to clean up. "No" was a word seldom heard--from adults

We were enlightened Manhattan intellectuals, very influenced by the ferment of the late 1960's. All the children addressed all the adults by their first names. Zealous attempts to enforce good manners were frowned upon. By 24 months, all children knew and used the words, penis, testicles, vulva, vagina. Toilet training was a continuous show-and-tell entertainment. The potty was in a prominent place in the room. I vividly recall two-year-old Emma saying, "I see your penis, Michael. Would you like to see my vulva?"

 At any one time at least two mothers were pregnant or breastfeeding, and all the children's questions were freely answered. My second daughter Michelle started attending playgroup when she was 1 week old. Playing with baby Michelle was a surefire activity. Surrounded by 2 year olds every day, Michelle developed prodigious social skills.

Most of us belonged to a babysitting cooperative as well. We were an amazing source of support to each other. When one of us had a baby, all the others turn turns bringing the new parents an elaborate evening meal. I have never again experienced such a caring community of parents, committed to mutual aid.

Such a playgroup probably possibly could not have existed in the two other places I raised children--Bangor, Maine, and Long Island. I know it could not exist now in Manhattan. I spend three days a week in the same housing development, cavorting with my grandson in the same playroom, the same playground. Now I talk to nannies, not parents. Understandably, parents discourage their nannies from starting playgroups and inviting people they don't know well into their homes..

The Chelsea playgroup was one of the most fascinating, frustrating, turbulent, nurturing experiences of my life. After two years we were all very different people from the self-conscious, judgmental twits we were at the beginning. Comfortable in our mothering, we no longer had to criticize each other to bolster our wavering self-confidence. Watching very different children develop helped us to understand our own children's unique personalities.

In many ways our children were freer from sexist stereotyping than their children are now.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Corduroy Over 35 Years

Vanessa was 15 months old; maybe that is why she is distracted by the camera, unlike her more attentive son. She would have listened more attentively to Andy than to someone reading with her eyes closed.