Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Reading Into It

When our eldest was four years old, we ran into the parents of another foreign child who attended nursery school in a neighboring town. This little girl, also four, was the apple of her parents' eye and, while not necessarily smarter or more accomplished than other children of her age, was widely touted by her proud parents as the brightest infant in Japan. As you can imagine, we got a little tired of hearing about it. Marie could tie her shoes weeks before anyone in her class could. Her hand-eye coordination was a marvel. She could pick out Twinkle, twinkle, little star on the piano like a regular little Rachmaninoff. Whenever we met Marie and her parents, we were invariably treated to a long recital of her various talents and accomplishments.

So we braced ourselves now -- waiting for it. And sure enough, it didn't take them long.

"Marie can already read hiragana!" her father enthused.

"And kanji too," her mother quickly put in.

My husband and I stared at each other in amazement. Hiragana and kanji? Wow.

Written Japanese is different from English in that it that starts off easy and gets progressively harder the longer you study it. Hiragana is a syllabary: one symbol represents one sound, either a pure vowel or a vowel plus a consonant. There are fewer than a hundred hiragana symbols and it doesn't take long to learn them. Kanji, or Chinese characters, are far more complex: each symbol is a pictogram, and there are tens of thousands. It can take you a lifetime to learn them all, and you will probably still find plenty that you don't know.

"Is your daughter reading Japanese yet?" Marie's father now asked.

"No," my husband and I said simultaneously. My husband looked a little peeved; he finds braggarts a sore trial and Marie's parents taxed him beyond reason. "But we're starting to teach her how to read English," he added lamely.

Unfortunately, Marie's parents didn't want to hear about our daughter's progress with English. The mother nodded smugly and smiled. "Our Marie is very advanced, after all."

In all fairness to them, I should point out that Marie's parents were good, kind people. Other than this awful tendency to push their daughter and brag about her achievements, no matter how petty, they were not at all offensive. But every meeting was a challenge for us and to this day my husband and I marvel at our fortitude.

Only an hour or two after this, we were sitting in a restaurant when our daughter picked up the menu and started reading parts of it out to us -- in Japanese. She only knew bits here and there, but it was clear that she knew at least 50 percent of the hiragana and even the odd kanji. We could have gnashed our teeth in frustration. Why hadn't she said anything earlier when Marie's parents were bragging about her so insufferably?

"How did you learn them? we asked. We hadn't taught her.

Our eldest preened and pointed to the hiragana symbol み, reading it out in a clear voice: "'Mi' is from 'Minami,'" she piped -- Minami being her best friend. She went through all the other hiragana she knew and in all cases, they were from the names of friends. The only ones she didn't know were ones which did not appear in her classmates' names. She had learned hiragana from reading her classmates' names printed on labels over their coat hooks and shoe cubbyholes.

We were astounded, but we needn't have been. A lot of Japanese kids pick up hiragana this way -- and the odd kanji too. By the time the going gets tough, the kids are in elementary school and there are teachers to help them learn the really difficult things. Little Marie wasn't necessarily a genius; we just hadn't realized that our kid -- like all kids -- could do this too. Neither had Marie's parents.

A few months later, my husband was sitting in the pediatrician's office with our daughter. He pulled one of the Madeline books our daughter loved out of a bag and started reading it to her. Our eldest has always had a photographic memory and she snuggled up to him happily and began reading out loud with him. She could not follow much of the text, but she knew all the words by heart.

A Japanese mother sitting nearby leaned forward, watching her. "Can your child actually read that?" she asked, her eyes wide.

My husband shook his head. "No way. She's just memorized it," he assured her, but the woman continued to watch, spellbound.

"Your little girl must be awfully smart," she breathed respectfully.

"No, really, she's memorized it. She couldn't read it herself."

When they were called in to the doctor, my husband heard the woman talking to her friend. "That little foreign girl can read English already. You ought to have heard her."

"That's incredible," her friend whispered in awed tones. "English is supposed to be really hard to read at first."

What he would have given to have Marie's parents there.


Eryl Shields said...

I hope Marie's parents are still as thrilled with their daughter as they were then. I worry about kids with parents like that though, they must be under a great deal of pressure to be good at everything.

susie said...

Great post, Mary.
I have struggled and I'm sure I will continue to struggle with comparing my daughter to other babies her age. I see any of her "advanced" characteristics as a reflection of my "amazing" parenting rather than what it mostly is--natural developmental abilities and baby stages. It's a big curse of motherhood sometimes and yet at other times it's a breath of fresh air that boosts me and helps me to know I'm doing a good job.
I'm sure it'll get much more interesting as she enters school someday!

Alice said...

It does get aggravating listening to the accomplishments at that young age when there IS such diversity in their abilities.

And after reading your story, I WISH I had a close friend to teach my kids another language while they were still youngish. If your daughter can stick with the Japanese, she could probably make a fortune as a translator. I knew a gal who did Japanese translating and they carted her all over the world.

Charles Gramlich said...

Kids are so amazing with language. I think it's pretty good evidence that the ability to learn language is biologically coded, although the specific language requires learning and exposure.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Marie's parents had trouble with her when she was about ten -- by which time she was pretty spoiled, and not in a good way. Although she picked the Japanese up on her own, they pushed her with a lot of other enrichment activities and bragged about her inordinately.

Susie -- Thank you. I agree: it's hard not to think our kids are geniuses, or that we are somehow responsible for their brilliance. And sometimes, we're just so thrilled with what our kids can do that it's hard to be humble. Marie's parents never got the hang of this, but I'm betting you'll be a lot better at it!

Alice -- One thing I really hated when our kids were little was the subtle and sometimes not subtle at all competition the other parents were inclined to indulge in. I did my damnedest not to do this myself, and I hope I succeeded.

My kids don't study Japanese enough to be really high-paid translators, but if they ever do, boy, will I brag.

Charles -- Even the slowest plodder in our kids' nursery school could read simple Japanese by the time they had graduated, and no one taught them a thing. Humans are definitely programmed to learn language.

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Kara said...

what i taught preschool my kids had Marvin K. Moody Will You Please Go Now memorized. i like to think they were all geniuses. most of them would be in first grade now. shit.

Kim Ayres said...

I always felt slightly sorry for those who only had one child, as they would automatically assume that everything the child did was somehow attributable to them. But the more kids you have, the more you realise very little you do makes that much difference

Tabitha said...

Wow, I really feel for Marie. That kind of bragging can give the child a really big head, and can also lay on a thick layer of pressure to always be perfect. Neither of which leads to a happy life without much struggling. :(

My kids surprise me the same way your daughter surprised you and your husband. My oldest is so good at hiding what he knows. He'll spout something out, and then I'll just stare at him. I recover, ask him where he learned it, and it's usually something simple like your daughter reading her friends' names. :) Kids are like little sponges, aren't they?

Christy said...

I love this story since my little girl is very interested in learning her letters these days. I am constantly amazed by children's ability to absorb information with very little prodding.

Jacqui said...

Well, my kids ARE geniuses, but I try not to brag...

I read an interesting article about praising kids like that and how, for kids who might not FEEL as spectacular as they always hear their parents saying, the praise/bragging has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of making them feel good, it just makes them feel like their parents 1) don't know them very well, and 2) wouldn't like them as much if they knew the truth.

marshymallow said...

Wow. I hated learning to read. My parents had no one to compare me to, however, as we lived in a tiny farming community at the time. My brothers and i were the only children around for miles. In fact, i think i only started reading because i didn't want my brother to get ahead of me. The genius gene skipped me, somehow, but my brothers are brilliant. Most of the time.

Mary Witzl said...

Jules -- I'm honored, but I'll forego the chance to advertise just now. The fact that people come to read what I write is reward enough, but if I'm ever truly strapped for cash, I'll definitely get in touch.

Kara -- It's okay to think that other people's kids are geniuses. In fact, it's more than okay, it's a great thing, and feel free to indulge in this kind of bragging to your heart's content. All of us with kids think our own offspring are pretty smart; the trick is to refrain from telling the world this.

Kim -- How true that is! Even before I had kids, I could see this to some extent, but having had myself a few, I am all the more convinced. As parents, we can guide our kids; we have it in us to subdue their spirits or help inflate them, but in the end, there is only so much we can do. That isn't to say that we shouldn't try or that we should not be responsible for our kids' actions. But we should not take it all so much to heart.

Tabitha -- We managed to lose touch with Marie and her parents, but I have often wondered about what became of her. We would listen to her parents brag and wonder how Marie would get on in a world that didn't watch her every move with breathless anticipation and total admiration. Personally, I cannot imagine a better way to mess up your kids than spoiling them with excessive praise and always pushing them to do more and more.

Kids ARE sponges. If only Marie's mom and dad had taken their eyes off her for a few seconds and paid attention to her classmates, they'd have seen that!

Christy -- I remember our delight at watching our daughters learn to read. We taught them to read English, and it was just incredible. But having read your blog, I know you're not the type to bend everyone's ears with how your little girl is the next Einstein and Marie Curie all rolled into one. My husband and I do brag on occasion, but we're generally damned sneaky about it.

Jacqui -- (My kids are geniuses too, but I try not to bandy it about. Tough, isn't it?)

I'm a firm believer in not praising kids indiscriminately. Whenever people lavished praise on me as a kid, I quickly tuned them out when I realized that they were just doing it to bolster my ego. On the few occasions I got fooled, their false praise merely made me rest on my (very flimsy) laurels.

That article sounds interesting, and I really do agree. Wish I could send it, however belatedly, to Marie's parents, but the gist of it it would d probably sail right over their head.

MM -- Now, if I were little Marie's mom or dad, my response to this would be, "Oh, but Marie just LOVES learning to read! She is so eager to acquire new knowledge!" (Yeah, I know -- makes me want to retch as well.)

How interesting that you only learned to read to keep your brother from getting ahead of you! Our youngest, now an avid reader, fought us tooth and nail at first. She hated having to read out loud and learning the difference between C, the caterpillar K-sound, and K, the kicking K-sound. Now when she's reading something she wants to share we can't get her to shut up.

Anne Spollen said...

I always think the parents aren't really praising the child when they brag, no matter how humbly the bragging is done. They're actually complimenting themselves: look what OUR genes made, OUR parenting skills have produced such a creative, obedient, wonderful child. Sheesh, we are just such terrific people, me and my husband...

Gorilla Bananas said...

I believe The Beatles wrote a song for Marie's parents called "And your bird can sing". Here is an unusual version of it with footage from Japan.

debra said...

We really are hard wired to learn, aren't we. I remember when #1 daughter was about 7 or 8, she told me some amazingly sophisticated fact. I asked her how she knew; her response: "I just KNOW" And they do.
The parents of the Marie's of the world don't seem to give their kids the time to be just kids. To play and relax and BE. Too bad. It's a tough way to go through life.

The Anti-Wife said...

Some parents never stop their excessive bragging. A woman I work with has a daughter in college who is, according to her, the second coming of Christ.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- Yes, that is exactly what is going on, and this makes it doubly hard for the child. When she screws up, she's not just letting herself down, she's letting down mommy and daddy.

Oddly, there is something almost atavistic about looking at your own offspring and finding him or her superior, though. I suspect adopted parents can do the same. The trick is keeping this natural assumption to ourselves instead of bandying it about to irritate others --who feel just the same about their kids but know better than to share it with the world.

GB -- I am indebted to you for that clip! I was very busy trying to read the Japanese and marveling at Tokyo 1966 -- the Beatles alighted at Haneda Airport, which is now used only for flights from Asia and this puzzled me until I remembered that Narita was not yet built. And the demonstrations, and the Budokan all decorated the way it was -- this was really fascinating, and thank you!

Debra -- You are so right. Learning is something that comes so naturally to kids that it a joy to watch them. Some parents just can't see that it's not that their kids are prodigies; it's that they're kids.

And as for kids being allowed to be kids, I could not agree more: the parents who are desperate to get their kids into every enrichment program and after-school activity depress me no end.

Anti-wife -- I feel for you, as working with someone like that is tough. I've done it too, and my husband and I suffered through eight years of Marie & parents. I once worked with a woman who NEVER talked about her three kids. One day I ran into her with them (all adults, good looking, one a doctor) and was flabbergasted. Thinking about it now, I have no idea how she managed to resist the urge to brag.

A Paperback Writer said...

Still, a child aged 4 who teaches herself to recognize letters or characters is advanced. It might not be genious level, but "average" children do not do this. Your daughter may have been placed with several advanced children, but this is still very good.
And memorizing a book, although it is not the same thing as reading (I memorized Never Tease A Weazel at age 3, and my mother used to put me infront of people to see how many of them could catch that my eyes didn't move as I "read" the words.), it is still advanced. Again, it does not indicate genious, but I assure you that it is not what every child does.
I am trained to teach gifted kids, but I have plenty of others as well. Some kids couldn't memorize a children's book at age 13. In fact, most could not.
I have an incoming 7th grader this year whose father has been driving me nuts with e-mails about how brilliant the boy is. I take great pleasure in replying to each e-mail by acknowledging whatever ability daddy is bragging about by indicating that it is "common" for advanced students. I'm sure this father would have a good deal in common with the parents you knew. And yes, I'd like duct tape his fingers together to prevent any more of those awful emails.

A Paperback Writer said...

I just clicked through to your blog through your profile from my blog, and I was visitor #4900 exactly! Do I get points for that?

Kappa no He said...

Isn't it funny the two extremes? I get a lot of mothers saying how dumb their child is..."He just got SECOND in the all Japan piano recital."

Carrie said...

I love this post too! I was one of those parents who thought her child was the next Einstein--he learned everything so quickly! But I didn't have much exposure to other kids, so I'm sure I was just delusional with love.

On another note, sadly, I've been struggling with Japanese for the past two years and still can't even read Hiragana.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- Oh, how I wish I could say "Yeah, my kid was special learning hiragana that well without any help" -- but I can't!

Out of twenty-two kids in my daughter's class, I don't think a single one of them did not know hiragana when they left the school at age 6 -- and their teachers did not have to teach them a thing. This is a huge difference between Japanese and English. Japanese starts off easy and gets hard; learning to read English is tough going at first, but it gets a lot easier. Few native English speakers learn to read the letters of the alphabet without assistance (my sister figured it all out when she was three, but she WAS a genius), but my daughter was nothing special, and neither was little Marie.

The memory thing is pretty impressive, though, and you, me, and my kid are all VERY special because of this. I'll bet you know as many epic poems as I do -- probably more, in fact! And my eldest knew the first and last names of virtually every child and teacher in her school -- and we are talking well over a hundred. (Shame on me for bragging, but can I help myself there? Can I?)

Now come back and be visitor 5000 and I'll be even more impressed!

Kappa -- Aw, you KNOW the moms who say things like that are really bragging! If I had to brag about my kids, I'd do it that way -- sneakily, as though I were really being self-deprecating. I had a nice little group of friends in Japan who knew how to do this very well. We never bragged about our kids, but we managed to show off all the same.

Carrie -- I'll bet I could teach you hiragana -- honest. Are you studying it full time? And who are you learning it from?

Catherine J Gardner said...

Wonderful story. My brother is always worrying about his youngest son, saying his daughter could do this and that by his age. I tell him - he'll get there in the end. And they always do.

Carrie said...

Hi Mary,
I work for a Japanese company, and we have lessons at work once a week for an hour. I admit I don't study on my own (who has time!!). But then, maybe if I did that instead of trolling the Internet every night...

Mary Witzl said...

Catherine -- I don't think we ever stop worrying about our kids entirely. Shortly after my oldest kid was born I realized the enormity of what I had done: created someone that I would worry about more than anyone or anything else in my life. It's a tall order, but I think you're right: they generally get there in the end and the less we obsess about them, the better.

Carrie -- I promise you, if you just push yourself, you'll have hiragana down in no time! Give yourself a time limit and the promise of a couple of rewards, maybe -- like a great night out eating sushi and singing karaoke at a Japanese bar. I'll bet if your company offered to send you to Japan, you'd learn in no time flat!

Carole said...

Wonderful post. So true to life. I love reading your take on differnt aspects of life as well as the culture of the places you have lived. Excellent.

My life has gone from busy to hectic and I will not have much time to myself or the computer for awhile and will be not be blogging. I will still pop in and read you when I can, but didn't want you to think I totally abandoned reading your fun and insightful posts. Hopefully you will get published soon and I will be able to buy your books.