Early Summer 2006
On a recent trip, I found some time to lounge around my hotel's swimming pool. Within hearing distance were a mother and her young son, who looked to be about 3 years old. They were sitting at the edge of the pool, and the entire time the mother quizzed the little boy about what letters various words began with. When he answered correctly, she'd praise him with a ''Good boy!'' All this, on a sunny, beautiful spring day by a heated pool while other kids played in the water and squealed with joy and wild abandon.
Does anyone else see something, well, sad about this picture? Does it seem strange that this little boy -- barely out of toddlerhood -- was being drilled on phonics at a swimming pool? Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that a 3-year-old at a swimming pool would be better off discovering the magic of water, frolicking, and having silly fun with his mom than being drilled on how the word ''umbrella'' begins with ''U,'' no matter what the latest child development craze may promote. Actually, more and more children's advocates are encouraging us to let our children be children, rather than little robots programmed to do or say something well before it's necessary or even healthy.
Phonics aside, I also think that praising a child with ''Good boy!'' when he gives a correct answer -- or catches a ball, sets the table, eats all of his cereal, whatever -- is not only missing the point, but sending a harmful message. What we intend to do in these cases, I hope, is to praise the behavior. Being specific about what a child has done well is not only satisfying and helpful to the child, it doesn't connect his ability to answer/catch/eat/whatever with his worth as a human being. If he's a ''good boy'' for saying umbrella begins with ''U,'' is he not a good boy if he doesn't? Or if he can't finish his cereal? Or catch the ball? You get my drift. We are all good people. Sometimes our children's behavior leaves something to be desired, sometimes they don't know the answer, sometimes they just aren't hungry and can't clean their plates, and it has nothing to do with ''good'' (or bad). Isn't something like ''Good job!'' (or ''Good thinking!'' or ''Good catch!'') a better way to show our appreciation and praise for, well, a good job than telling a child, ''Good boy!''?
And while we're at it, let's try to play this summer! Along with the signs at pools that say ''No Glass'' and ''No Running,'' it is my humble opinion that there should also be signs that say ''No Phonics Drilling.''