Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Kittens and Kids

As I've watched our kittens grow, I've pondered over the lessons I could learn from them. Kittens grow up so fast compared to children, you get to see them pass through various phases of development in just a few weeks. Watching them go through phases of development has been fascinating! During the first week or two, they mostly slept and ate. As they got bigger (and their eyes opened) they became more adventurous, exploring first the box we kept them in, and eventually the entire house. A little after that they started play-wrestling with each other. More recently, I have seen them develop amazing abilities in climbing and jumping, today one was even climbing up the screen door of the house! And yesterday I watched for several minutes while one of the kittens played with a little plastic bottle lid, tossing it in the air and rolling it around the floor with his paws. At the same time they have progressed from bottle feeding, to lapping milk from a bowl, to eating wet and dry cat food (and crumbs the children drop as well!). They have learned to use a litter box (yeah!) and know without being taught to cover up their own waste. They have become more and more adventurous, happily exploring both the house and yard.
Now, what does kitten development have to do with kids? I think we sometimes forget that a lot of our children's behaviour is really programmed into their development, just as the behavior of young cats is programmed. We can't rush them ahead, pushing them to reach developmental milestones before they are ready. At the same time, we shouldn't be too concerned if a child is not showing the degree of maturity or mastery of some ability that we think they should (or that another child is); in most cases, we will find our concerns resolved with time. Interestingly, although our kittens are siblings and the same age, one of them has been consistently ahead of the other in almost everything--opening eyes, lapping milk, etc--the only thing he lagged behind in was litter box training! But our other little kitten has passed through each stage just as surely as her brother--but at her own pace. I have every reason to believe that they will both be equally capable as adult cats!
And kids? Well, just among my three I have already seen vast differences in when they do things. One speaks in multisyllable words at 14 months, another not till much later. One is walking at 9 months and running at 10, another takes a cautious first step at 15 months. I expect the variations will be even wider when it comes to reading, math, soccer and chess! Some abilities will come sooner, some later, each child will have unique talents and interests--and each will doubtless grow up to be a competent and interesting human being!
Something else about our cats: they have markedly different temperaments. Prince, the male, does everything with vigor--from eating to playing to purring. Princess, our little grey female, is much more reserved--and she likes to savor life. When I was bottle feeding her, she would suckle delicately for as long as I would let her--obviously the actual suckling was at least as important to her as the nourishment. Prince, on the other hand, was interested only in guzzling down as much milk as he could as fast as he could. Princess likes to curl climb up to my shoulder and watch the world from there, or curl up on one of the kids' laps and sleep. Prince is always looking for something t0 pounce on. Aren't our children similarly equipped with individual temperaments?

I wonder, now, what would happen if I took these kittens, with all their drive for play and exploration (things that help them develop the abilities they might use as adult cats to, say, escape from an angry dog or catch a tasty mouse for dinner!) and kept them shut up in a cage, or even an empty room all day? What if I kept them in a large cage with a few "educational" activities designed specifically to teach them skills--say, a pole for climbing and an electronic mouse for chasing? Doubtless the second set of circumstances would produce happier and more capable cats than the first, but...what if instead of keeping them in a cage I let my kittens roam through the world, finding their own places to practice the skills of climbing and pouncing? Can you see where I am going with this? I have no doubt at all that kittens get a better education by exploring the world in their own way, encountering a large variety of places and objects and tackling them with all the physical and mental vigor of discovery, than they would if I placed them in a cage with carefully selected "enrichment" activities. I believe the same is true of my children! Let them explore and encounter the world on their own term, exercising their bodies and minds to play, practice, encounter challenges and come up with solutions. Isn't this what that wiggly little 6 year old who can't stay at his desk is really needing? Isn't this what his brain and body are prepared for? He knows how to learn--he just needs freedom to do it!


Maile said...

What a fascinating post! I know my kids had their very individual temperaments from the moment they were born. I'm always amazed by the things that fascinate them and the connections they make when I stand back and let them follow their own interests.

Catherine Agnes said...

Wonderful post, Paula! Your posts on education have really changed my perspective.

Kelley said...

Wonderful! I think it's time to give my parenting techniques a bit of a tweak.