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Back to the Grind

No Credit

Labor Day was always a little sad when I was a kid, because it marked the end of summer, which meant the end of freedom and the beginning of the grind.  I’ve been doing “back to school” checkups for the past month or so, checking immunizations, vision, and hearing, and reminding kids that their days of staying up ‘till 2 and sleeping ‘till 12 were numbered. The parents hold out the usual consolation prizes: new clothes, maybe a lunchbox, fresh notebooks and pencils at the very least.  But kids know this is a bad deal. They accept it, most of them, grumbling.

The worst part of school, of course, is not the early schedule, but the deadly serious way many of the subjects are presented. (For those of you who are saying, “not my kids’ school; the kids there all have a great time learning,” maybe you don’t need to read the rest of this.) We adults are all too aware that school achievement is the key to economic security. We know that the competition for top colleges is fierce. We know that only the most dedicated, driven, and gifted will make it to the top. We know that it is never too young to start.

The problem is, too often we pass this knowledge on to our children. So school becomes an obstacle course, an endless series of spirit-numbing tasks, a grind. For the few who excel academically, success becomes a burden which they put down at their peril. “I am a student who gets As,” they tell themselves, adding anxiously, “If I get a B, what am I then?”

What we forget, with all of our anxiety about achievement, is that learning is naturally joyful. In the psychology lab, a 4-month-old infant learns to turn on a light by swinging his arm. He does it over and over: swing, on! Swing, on! His face shows an unmistakable emotion: joy. Children (and adults, too) have a hard-wired love of finding things out. The moment of Aha! brings a rush of dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain, the same rush that comes with that first bite of chocolate cake, or (think back, now) that first kiss. People learn best when they are emotionally involved. In the world of medical education we call this “adult learning.” But it’s just as true for children, if not more so. Duke Ellington was right: It really don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.

Where does that leave us as parents? If you’re one of the fortunate few, and your child’s school is a place where exploration drives the curriculum, now might be a good time to let the principal and teachers know that you see what’s going on, and approve.  If not, then you might have to take matters into your own hands.  How? By making your home, at least, an oasis where learning and happiness live together harmoniously.

I don’t mean that you should rush out and buy the newest “educational” game.  Instead, and probably most importantly, let your children see you learning for pleasure. Read something for your own edification, and talk about it with enthusiasm. Plan trips to parks, museums, the library. When you see something new – a flower or a bird you don’t recognize, for example – look it up. When your child asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer (or you know only part of the answer), look it up. When your child does show sparks of interest – in music, or stamp collecting, or dinosaurs – fan the flames. Go to concerts, stamp shows, the natural history museum. When you can, follow your child’s lead. Protect your child from too much TV, Internet, and gaming, which fill your child’s attention and tend to close off all other avenues of discovery. Protect your child (if you can) from too much homework, which does the same thing.

My daughter was lucky. She went to a very good school and she was a very good student. Still, I remember a moment when, walking to the car on a crisp autumn afternoon, she looked up and earnestly told me, “Dad, I love learning; it’s just school I hate.” What could I say?  School isn’t always fun. There’s value in learning to work hard.  But if school is only about hard work, or mainly about hard work, then your mission, as a parent, is clear: to nourish your child’s natural love of learning and – as much as you can -- keep it safe from the grind. And, be sure to stock up on fresh pencils.

Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P. is the co-founder of Reach Out and Read and has published studies on early literacy promotion. He is also a member of the Mom Congress Advisory Board.

This post is part of the Mom Congress Back-to-School Blog-a-thon. Please join us!