Monday, July 30, 2007

Fortified Kids

We’re about ten days into our U.S. trip, in the second city. Aiden’s into his second week of camp (soccer camp for one week and now general sports camp for a week) and Max just started his first week of camp (gymnastics). Finally getting through the jet lag and beginning to be able to make sense of the world again.

Aiden has been incredibly observant this trip. There’s some kind of budding of consciousness that happens at first grade; suddenly he is acutely aware of difference and able to (sometimes) articulate it. Some of his questions/observations:
1. “Mommy, why do people in the U.S. live in houses while people in Korea live in apartments?”
2. “Mommy, how come there are no sidewalks in the U.S.?”
3. “Why can’t I ride my scooter to the store?” (he’s not used to having to get into the car for every little errand)
4. “Why are all the signs green, on the highway and on the street?”
5. “Wow, stuff in the U.S. is so cheap!”
6. (from the last trip, at the airport, upon being told that he had to stay in the women’s bathroom with me and Max until we were finished because the “rules” are different here) “Mommy, the U.S. is terrible!”

Language that he’s learned:
1. “What the heck?” (Now Max knows it too) I asked, “Where did you learn that?” From the kids at camp. He delights in the expression (perhaps because it rattles us) though he often uses the malapropism “What a heck?”

One day after I picked him up from soccer camp he told me how he saw an older boy pour some water on his face and then wipe himself with a towel, so he did the same thing. He told me how some people wear shin guards and some don’t, even though they’re all supposed to. I’m so impressed with his observations; I feel like, somehow, all this traveling back and forth invites him to notice and articulate difference. He very consciously studies and mimics the behavior he observes in other kids. I am fairly sure that at that age I was also acutely aware of my differences and did a lot of mimicking, but I don’t think I could articulate it the way that he can. Part of that may be the difference in the way we were trained to see the world; I attributed difference to some failure of understanding on my part; he has learned to distinguish language and rules (and name then as different) since he was a small child. He’s also mimicking the way KC and I talk as we move through these spaces and observe the people, the landscape, and the systems.

His observation of difference was occurring back in Korea as well. First grade has been a real challenge; as I noted in an earlier post, this year he’s started to become more self-consciously aware of the way that he himself is different (physically, culturally, linguistically, etc.). First grade has been challenging, not because of the work or the new school, necessarily, but because first-graders are so much aware of difference, so much more self-conscious, and so much more articulate. They hear what the older kids say and repeat, appreciating the power of the words but not understanding their effect. We’ve been having problems with teasing, with Aiden’s desk partner and his friends saying things like, “You write so slowly and your handwriting is so bad, you should go back to kindergarten!” Add that to his growing awareness that he is different (physically, linguistically, etc.) and he’s had a bit of a rocky time. He’s pretty even-tempered and he bounces back quickly, and in general he’s a social kid who gets along with everybody, but he is really hurt by the teasing. I had to have some discussions with some of his friends’ moms which felt like training for the diplomatic corps. I told them that I didn’t think (and I do believe this) that no ill-will was meant by the other kids; first-graders don’t seem to have much understanding of point-of-view, or much empathy. Aiden’s own way of communicating that he likes someone and wants to play is to go over and shove that person. He’s such a physical kid. I told him, “Not everybody likes that, they think you’re trying to be mean. I know that’s not what you intended, but that’s how your friends might feel.” So I think the teasing is something like that. His desk partner’s mom said that she tells her daughter, “Your writing is so bad” so that’s probably why her daughter repeats it to Aiden.

But that points to another problem; first-graders in Korea are beginning to feel the academic stress which will shadow them until they enter college. Part of the reason that Aiden gets teased, I think, is because he’s good at English and he can opt out of the system. And the way parents transmit their worries over their children’s academic abilities gets parroted by the kids and gives the kids reasons to channel stress through teasing. I was talking to a mom friend of mine about the teasing and she suggested that I assign Aiden more workbooks to work on his writing. If your kid is falling behind, time to make him practice more, to throw more stuff at him, so that he can be the best -- that’s the attitude. I told her, “No, I won’t do that -- that’s not the point. The point isn’t that he has to be the best at everything, or that he should do more work. He already does his regular homework, his math workbook, his English homework, and his Chinese every day. His writing has improved a lot, and that’s the important thing. I’m not going to add to his stress, or teach him that he can’t be less than perfect at something. I want him to play. I want him to spend time with his brother. I want him to understand that family and friendships are more important than schoolwork. I want him to learn that being a good brother or friend is a skill, and that you have to practice that every day too, just like reading and writing, and that that skills is more important than the others.”

That kid’s mom, my friend (who suggested more workbooks) has 3 boys and I suspect that the second son is stressed out because this year (he’s the same age, same class as Aiden) he’s taking (in addition to school) 6 hours of English a week (not including homework), piano, violin, art, soccer, and various other little things that I don’t know much about (workbooks where the teacher comes and does them or checks them at one’s home). I told my friend, “Don’t you think it’s too much? When does he have time to play?” But she said that even though she knows its hard on him, he can’t fall behind now, and that because they’re going to keep living in Korea she has no choice. I know where she’s coming from, and I can’t really disagree with what she’s saying, but I think it really sucks for the kids and I think in the end its going to have consequences. People think they can throw kids into this and that, adding skills to the kid like fortifying bread. That’s what we’re trying to make here -- fortified kids.

3 comments:

Cat said...

Wow. I think Aiden's desk partner's mom's comment was telling. And, like you said, kids this age really start to observe and mimic the behavior they see in older people. Sounds a lot like what the daughter and friends are doing, as well as experimenting with their social power.

A lot of it is probably my cultural bias talking, but I think it's unfortunate that the kids are experiencing learning and education in such a negative, competitive way. I think some sense of competition (especially with yourself) is healthy, but it sounds like the daughter, for example, is internalizing the concept that having a skill is part of your self-worth. And, making Aiden feel bad about his writing is a way of making her feel better and more powerful.

I also wonder if these kids will be able to grow up and learn to love certain school subjects or hobbies (like music) the way that I did, or if it will seem like just another notch on the bookbag.

Anyway, very interesting post.

Sahn said...

Excellent blog! And I'm amazed you enrolled your son in a Korean public school. I'm Korean American and Korean schools scare me! (Mental thanks to my parents for moving to the US back in '74).

ZenKimchi said...

Having just met you, Aiden and Max yesterday, we were amazed by how level-headed they both were. Aiden is an amazing kid. In the short time that we interacted with him, I immediately noted how observant and mature he is. I can't remember the last time I've had such an intelligent conversation with a seven-year-old.

I agree with your stance that social skills are learned and need to be practiced. I think many people in Korea, especially the children, need more work on social skills and developing a sense of empathy, which is synonymous with maturity.

Anyway, Max and Aiden kick ass!