In July 2013, when I spent a week in Ireland, I visited my friend Bernard in Navan. Bernard and his wife Moya have twin girls who are a year older than Lily. They were five at the time of my visit and I remember being mesmerized by what they could do. Their manual dexterity and language abilities were so much more advanced than Lily’s or Katie’s. They could skip with skipping ropes, put slides in their own and each others hair, and have conversations with me and their parents that seemed, at the time, terribly mature. But, you know, they’re Bernard’s kids, so I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
A year and a half on, and Lily is now five and three quarters and Katie is four and a quarter. When I reflect on what they could not do last year, but can now do with ease, I am astounded by the ability of children to learn so much so fast. Over the years, a great deal of my anthropology practice has focused on how and what we learn about the world around us and how we put our embodied knowledge into practice. So it should come as no surprise that seeing my own children go through this process of engaging with and learning about the world around them is fascinating to me – as I’m sure it is to most parents.
I’m not bragging about how great my kids are. I’m gushing about how great ALL kids are. The ability of children to learn so much so quickly, and to make sense of a very complex world, astounds me. Some people compare kids to sponges soaking up information. But this analogy doesn’t capture the exciting, complicated and innovative ways that children re-organise all the information they receive in order to make sense of it and of the world. All children are learning all the time. They are all learning different things, each one at his or her own unique pace and with his or her unique style. Here are just some of the things my children have learned since last year:
Lily has learned to swim and Katie is nearly there too and both of them love to fully submerge in the water, their little heads disappearing below the waves. They can now both dress themselves, and brush their own hair and teeth. Some mornings, Lily makes breakfast for both of them (Katie’s still too short to reach into our top-opening fridge or to reach the cereal bowls). They can both use knives and forks, although Katie protests loudly at the indignity of having to cut up her own food and prefers her minions to do it for her.
This time last year, Lily could read simple picture books (we thought them very advanced at the time). When I went to New York I bought her some Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willems, to add to those she was already had at home. However, within a week of returning from New York, her reading ability had advanced beyond Elephant and Piggy. These days, she can read anything. I mean, anything! She doesn’t always understand the words (‘Mummy, what does superficial mean?’, ‘Dad what’s oesophagus?’) but she can pronounce pretty much every word she reads. I’ve heard a rumour that Santa is bringing a dictionary!
Because she is such an avid reader, her spelling is fantastic. Until a couple of months ago she was a cautious speller, and always sought reassurance that she was right. Not any more. Sure, she gets some things wrong, such as ending a word with ‘y’ when it should be ‘ie’. On the other hand, she knows that a word such as ‘pick’ is spelled with a ‘ck’ instead of a mere ‘k’. I can only imagine she knows these things because she reads so much and so she knows what words are supposed to look like. We certainly haven’t taught her. She has never ‘learned’ spellings off by heart the way I had to do for homework when I was a child.
She now has her own email account, and regularly emails Granny and any other family members who take the time to email her.
We have taken a very different approach to Katie’s reading and writing. You might say no approach at all, as our philosophy of unschooling has evolved. With very little input from us, Katie can now read most of her letters, knows what sounds they make and can write many of them. It is now her turn to get to grips with Elephant and Piggy.
Two months ago I wouldn’t have believed it if I was told that Lily would soon be able to add together three numbers in the hundreds. But she does it with ease. Even her mistakes show she’s learning. The other day she added 9 + 9 + 9. Her answer was 36. I told her she needed to try again. Her brow furrowed for a minute and then she said ‘Silly me. That’s four nines. I should have just done three nines’.
The list of things the girls can do aged four and five that they could not do aged three and four seems almost endless. Their drawing, painting, inventing, role playing and much more besides have all become more complex, detailed and advanced. And they are such great company. They have a much greater awareness now of the impact of what they do and say, and they use that awareness to great advantage, teasing their Dad and me, making us laugh, playing tricks on us. They are avid communicators, talking the hind legs off a donkey at every opportunity, and making friends with people of all ages.
One of the things that I find fascinating is that I always notice a leap in their abilities when they have had new social experiences. After we’ve had visitors, or have spent an out-of-the-ordinary day with family or friends, both girls show an improvement in their aptitude for everything from drawing to mathematics to making conversation. I don’t know what the reasons are for this, but I can almost see the synapses in their brains going into overdrive and ensuring that they respond to these new stimuli and learn quick and fast.
This Christmas, take pleasure in what amazing creatures your children and grandchildren are. Revel in their curiosity and hunger for knowledge. Enjoy their creativity and humour and inventiveness. Answer their questions and laugh at their (awful) jokes. Make the time to listen to what they have to say. Take them seriously. Read to them. Sing to them. Allow them to read to you and sing to you. And accept that they’re smarter than any of us will ever be! Happy Christmas xx