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Holding back the years

In the midst of feeding baby Ari his lunch, I touch the first three fingers of each of my hands together. I’m using baby sign language for the word “more.”

Ari, who’s all of seven months, squints at me, organic bananas and oatmeal caked on his face like a blonde five o’clock shadow. He seems to be saying, if a baby could imitate Clint Eastwood, “I don’t get your meaning, compadre.”

So, I utter the words “more” while signing vigorously.

Ari’s tough-guy image fades and his bottom lip quivers.

I sign again and pretend to eat his food.

WAAAHHH! Ari wails piercingly and I hastily pop the spoon in his mouth. As he sucks down the goop, he looks at me as if to say, “Please don’t do that again.”

Now, my wife Wendy and I taught our first two kids to use the “more” and “all done” signals by the time they were Ari’s age. So, we worry, a little, about his development. But we know the problem is not Ari. It’s us. We’re hurrying him to show us progress so we can feel like effective parents.

We get anxious over our other children, too, especially regarding school. Early last year, in first grade, Benjamin could barely sound out a word in his phonics reader. Other children his age read everything from road signs to Jigsaw Jones books. Anxiously, we forced Benjamin to practice nightly and fretted when he’d haltingly make out syllables, then throw the book across the room.

With Jacob in preschool, our concerns centered on his “pulsiveness.” While others practiced writing their names, he impulsively took children’s papers and pencils. As most kids dashed off to the playground to practice their tricycling and social skills, Jacob dallied in the restroom, compulsively trying to tear off a perfectly straight paper towel.

Actually, he seemed less concerned about keeping up with his contemporaries than being like his big brother — or becoming an adult. When we got frustrated with his lack of learning, he said things like, “When I’m a daddy, I’ll be able to swim, right?” Or, When I’m a daddy, it’s OK for me to drive a car?” We started to think he worked so hard to get ahead that he couldn’t just be in the moment. He was always thinking way down the line.

And yet, school wasn’t the only area in which we too often pressed our children. We packed their after-school schedules with sports, music, karate, and even chess classes.

Later in the year, I slowed down enough to grapple with the key question: What’s the big rush to have my kids achieve? Aren’t my wife and I the same people who start to cry about how fast they’re growing up whenever we see Benjamin singing in a school play or Jacob painting a surprisingly discernible human figure?

So why don’t we appreciate these moments, let them brew in our minds, enjoying the aroma of success rather than propelling our kids to hurry up the next ladder rung?

Well, we’re trying. After speaking to Benjamin’s teacher last year, she told us not force him to read to us until he was ready. She promised that she would keep him moving forward. Within a few weeks, he was proudly reading step-one books aloud. Several weeks later, he was reciting passages of more complicated tomes to his brothers. By the end of spring, he was blowing though fourth-grade level Secrets of Droon books so intently that he didn’t hear us calling him to dinner (he didn’t hear us before, but now he has an excuse).

For Jacob, while we recognize that he has the descriptive vocabulary of a movie critic and would really rather be a 39-year-old father of three, we want him to grow at a pace that fits his age. So, we’ve decided to hold him back for another year of preschool (he’s still only three-and-a-half) to let him be one of the kids at the forefront for a while. He may enjoy showing other children the ropes and may feel more at ease with himself.

As the new school season begins, Wendy and I are shaving off a couple of extracurriculars for Benjamin and keeping things simple for Jacob. Of course I’ll bug Benjamin to do his homework and encourage Jacob to give up his pacifier before the year’s end. And I’ll still try to teach Ari baby signs, though he’ll probably be reciting Shakespeare before he makes the “more” signal.

Still, in this new school year, I plan to appreciate my children’s individual progress. They are remarkable and, whether they prove to be Einstein and Gates or Beavis and Butthead, I’ll celebrate their successes, one step at a time.

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