Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Second (or 102nd) guessing the school thing

"You may still have issues with the English educational system," a friend who knows me well remarked the other day as we watched our children chase each other around the playground, "but your children were made for it." I looked at my kids, at quiet Julia who thrives on structure and academic stimulation and at charming Evan whose innate politeness and desire to please have completely endeared him to his teachers here. "I know," I sighed.

For the most part, I've reconciled myself to the way my children are being educated here in London. It's still hard to set aside my long held belief that a foundation of free-form play, experimentation and creativity is far more important than early exposure to traditional academics, but I'm willing at this point to at least acknowledge that my way is not the only way that works. My children have truly never been happier, and anything that makes my children this excited and motivated and downright gleeful cannot be all bad. I've brought them to London and inserted them into this educational system, I remind myself frequently, and now it's important to support them here. The place where I draw the line -- the one exception which I cannot bring myself to enthusiastically endorse -- is Evan's obsessive quest for coloring perfection.

Evan is an excellent colorer-in. (Yes, I know this is not a real word. In Evan's world, it is, though, and this is his story.) He adores coloring sheets and can spend hours a day on them, and the end results are spectacularly well done, more so than anything Julia can produce, even. I must admit that I prefer his quirky happy face people and other original drawings to his painstakingly neat coloring sheets, but he is all about the latter and I am generally all about whatever makes my kids happy. If Evan wants to print Sesame Street and Little Einsteins coloring pages off the web and spend his afternoons happily creating perfect color-accurate replicas of his beloved characters, who am I to argue?

an Evan masterpiece, circa August, 2007

I know that Evan gets a lot of positive reinforcement at school for his careful coloring. In general, the art projects which Evan brings home from school are gorgeous and impressive, but they inevitably follow a strict, teacher-dictated structure. Evan's projects always look just like the teacher's model and he receives high praise for his artistic abilities, so he's clearly internalized the whole idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to "do" art. I'm thrilled that Evan gets so many opportunities to work with interesting art supplies at school and I'm happy that he's so proud of the projects he produces. But I'm less delighted with the uniformity of the children's work and I'm downright concerned about the effect this is all having on Evan in general. Because suddenly, my artistic little boy who loves coloring sheets is crumpling them up and bursting into hysterical tears if his marker strays even a millimeter outside the lines. All of the joy seems to have gone out of coloring for him in his quest for perfection and his rigid and unrealistic expectations of himself.

"Evan, what's wrong?" I asked yesterday as he burst into tears and pushed aside yet another coloring sheet. "I colored outside the lines," he wailed.

I studied the sheet. It looked pretty darn carefully drawn to me. "I don't even see it, Evan."

the source of all the hysteria

"There," he moaned, pointing at a nearly microscopic bit of red in a corner of Elmo's eyes. "It's ruined!" The tears began to flow even harder. "I need to print another one. I can do better."

"Evan, this looks fine to me," I soothed him. "You've clearly been doing very careful work and it shows. I can scarcely even see the red in Elmo's eye. But if you're really upset about it, why not make the eyes red, too?"

Evan looked at me scornfully. "Elmo's eyes are WHITE," he replied emphatically. "Usually they are," I agreed. "But why not make a creatively colored Elmo this time? Why don't we color a silly Elmo with crazy colors?" My only response was an angry head shake and some more tears.

"OK, coloring pages are clearly not working right now," I replied. "How about we get out some plain white paper and you can draw your own Elmo and color him in any way you want?" No response. "We could do something even more fun," I tried again. "How about a really messy, abstract art project instead of something representational?" Evan sniffed mightily. "No thanks," he replied. "I just want to be by myself for a while."

Are self-flagellating tantrums like this, which happen more frequently than I'd like to admit, entirely the fault of Evan's current educational situation? Certainly not. This quest for perfection and artistic drive is something that's innate in my child. Most of his classmates are gleefully scribbling across the coloring pages they find in the classroom despite the teachers' constant reminders to try to stay within the lines. This is my own kid's personal craziness. But I can't help but believe that there is something about the fact that they're even giving those reminders and something about those pretty art projects that need to be done the "right" way which feeds into Evan's perfectionist tendencies. At the very least, it's not helping.

In the reminders to "do your best" which Evan gets at school, Evan seems to hear "I can do better." And just as he beats himself up when he isn't proud of his work, so do I beat myself up when I watch him suffer this way. I'm trying to do my best for my children here, trying to trust in the educational system and to believe that I'm doing the right thing sending my kids to this school. But when my 3 1/2 year old is crying hysterically because he didn't color in the lines carefully enough? Surely I can do better for him.


Blogger AnGlOpHiLe FoOtBaLl FaNaTiC said...

Oh, that's so sad. And, he's trying so hard to get it right. Poor Evan. I love the British education system. They are light years ahead of us...even our private schools. But, now you're letting me see a draw back. Poor boy. I hope he recovered.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Iota said...

Poor little boy. Can you find some other outlet to encourage his wild side (if it's in there)? Messy playdough, finger painting, something involving glue and glitter?

This isn't the first time I've heard about the British school system crushing creativity. I think you're right, but the trouble is, schools get a lot of credit for kids who can read and write and do math, and no credit at all for kids who are creative and imaginative, etc etc. So colouring-in is seen as a good way of encouraging pencil control, rather than a way of expressing a lovely vibrant vision of colour (at least, that's what I'd guess).

6:56 PM  
Blogger Patois said...

I have to say that it isn't only the British school system. You'll find some of that in my neck of the world, too. It is why, I believe, white-out was invented for ink.

Poor guy.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate that his personality has more to do with it than the British educational system. I don't know anything about the British educational system, but I can relate to Evan on some level.

As a child, it never would occur to me to color something other than the colors it's "supposed" to be. A purple Elmo would have bothered me. A lot. I think some kids just find a measure of comfort in predictability, consistency, and especially in the ability to control the outcome. Not all kids are "creative," and I'm certainly one of those. I've never been creative a day in my life, and to this day all my creative pursuits are largely copies of others' originality.

He'll find his way. His crying may upset you, but his determination will get him far in life. As a perfectionist, he may feel he doesn't measure up, but on the other hand, he may also have a very bright and successful future ahead of him simply because he is so meticulous.

All I'm saying is, don't rush to beat up the British system when that in fact may or may not be the influencing factor. Sometimes as parents we think "this is the way kids are," and it rocks our world when our kids don't conform to our assumptions. I'd say give it a little time -- he may find his own way around this.

2:41 AM  
Blogger K said...

My daughter was in one of the most free-form preschools in the entire world....and she would do things like that too.

We are working *hard* to dismantle her perfectionist-streak. But for her, anyway, the school had nothing to do with it. It was all in her personality.

Good luck.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Victoria said...

Oh, sweet little guy! My kids go to a pretty "loose" Montessori school and my seven-year-old is a perfectionist OCD fanatic! So that nature thing plays in big time. Sigh.

Hope he finds that nice balance.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Cami said...

Poor Evan. Maybe you could try an art club? A&B went to one called Messy Monsters.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

On one hand, I want to scoop Evan up in a big hug. (You too, Mama!) But on the other hand, as someone who didn't manage to get even a drop of perfectionist blood in me, I envy that in Evan, a little bit. Not the being hard on himself, of course (aww) but the drive to do better. Little bit of envy there.

2:41 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

For the record, the lad's handwriting is quite impressive.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Liesl said...

Hugs to both of you! I often wonder with Liam what is temperament, and what is school influence, and what comes from Kevin and me. It's hard to tell, and some we may never know. But the important thing is that Evan has you to love him and support him no matter what, and that's bigger than any school influence :)

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Sarah Lee said...

I've just come across your blog and this post had me in awe of your wonderful love and adoration for your son. He's very lucky to have such caring parents that are really trying to give him the very best in life.

I have a daughter with a strong perfectionist streak. It isn't always easy to manage a young child with such determination, but I'm in awe of it at the same time. However, I also struggle with the pain she feels when 'in her mind' she's 'not good enough' - and I can see she's more than that.

All the very best,


P.S. I admire your attempts to encourage him to let free expression flow - I'm all for rainbow coloured Elmos!

5:08 AM  

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