SANTA FE — As a politician, I can state unequivocally that “I love all children.” They are our future; they are our most vulnerable citizens, needing the greatest attention; history will judge us by how we’ve treated them, and (never forget) they make for great photo ops.
Every piece of campaign material should have a shot of the candidate reading to a group of smiling, eager-to-learn children gathered around the candidate who should be reading from a recognizable classic of children’s literature. And as George W. Bush learned, it is even better if the book is being held right side up while the candidate pretends to be reading.
As a parent, however, I’m not as sure about this “love for all kids” thing. Oh, sure, I love all of my children, stepchildren and grandchildren; love them with a steadfast passion that survives every testing of the limits, angry outburst, repulsive habit or plain bad decision they demonstrate. But sometimes other people’s children aren’t very loveable. Often, people who publicly shout their love for all children don’t have any themselves. Time-tested parents are wary of such effusion. They know better.
In my lifetime I have coached little league baseball and soccer; worked as a social worker in several settings with disturbed children; and counseled families who were desperate to give their kids away for adoption or to find a nice institutional placement for them—preferably one as far away as possible. I’ve learned that generalizations about “all children” often miss the mark because each child is a world unique to itself. The trick is not to lump them all under a blanket policy, but to find the specialness of each and then to find how to allow them to flourish at their own pace and in their own way.
And these experiences have left me skeptical of the glib, all-inclusive “love of all our children” expressions that peppered Gov. Susana Martinez’ State of the State address Jan. 2. Those expressions are now used to justify a series of her legislative proposals that strike me as being not very child-friendly at all.
Especially suspicious is her proposal to flunk third graders who can’t pass a standardized test of reading proficiency.
This is being marketed (and marketed is precisely the word for this initiative pushed around the country by corporations eager to convert learning into profit) as done out of love for children. It is in their best interest to avoid “social promotion” (you are supposed to hiss at this phrase) because that would simply be setting them up for later failure — in school, life and society.
If the legislature doesn’t mandate flunking these children in law, then, we are told, Hanna Skandera will order it done through regulation… one more step in eliminating local school boards’ control of their schools. That’s how crucial a component of Governor Martinez’s “love of children” this is.
Child psychologists, though, list flunking a grade as among the most adverse of childhood experiences, almost as damaging to the fragile child’s sense of self as the death of a parent or serious physical abuse. To realize that your peers will be moving upward while you remain behind leaves emotional scars and a depleted sense of self that should not be lightly imposed. Children develop intellectually at different rates and with different pathways. Using an arbitrary calendar to judge them is dangerous.
History has many examples of highly successful and influential men and women whose love of reading developed only at some point beyond what we would call “the third grade.” So, why use that point in time to risk the consequences to the child? Why not let each child’s parent and teacher make the type of customized decision that we have always respected? What will be gained?
New Mexico has never required social promotions. We’ve simply left that decision to the family and the teacher who together can assess how physical problems, linguistic differences, lack of exposure to opportunity and learning disabilities might all be involved in delaying reading.
Shouldn’t the teacher be the one to judge if a child is able to read well enough to move to the next grade? Of all the skills, the ability to read is one best demonstrated by simply reading out loud and explaining what you’ve read to the teacher. What is gained by requiring this skill to be demonstrated instead by “passing” a standardized test purchased from a private company, other than improving that company’s profit and loss statement?
“Loving all children” is easy—if you don’t have to deal with the consequences of a one-size-fits-all policy. Loving this particular child, and meeting his particular needs, takes caution, care and insight; that means a teacher and a parent, not a corporation, should be deciding.