Monday, October 09, 2006

Dr. Aunt

Over Succot my oldest niece, Malka, who's 9, asked me what I'm studying in school.

"I'm learning how to talk to people who are unhappy, to help them feel better," I said.

"Want to practice on me, Aunt Ayelet?"

Hm. On the one hand, I sure can use the practice. On the other, I'm definitely not an expert in developmental issues, which in the case of a child are extremely relevant. Also, child psychologists do much of their work by observing children play, rather than by talking to them, since kids aren't always able to describe what's going on in their lives and how they feel about it. Talking to kids isn't always productive or straightforward.

But we gave it a try, and spent more than an hour talking about a problem she's been having with a friend at school.

("Does it always take this long, Aunt Ayelet?" Malka asked. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I wasted 8 years with my first psychologist.)

She didn't want to call the friend by name even though I guessed who she was; instead, she referred to her as "Hannah Montana," the titular character of one of the silly Disney kid sitcoms she watches.

The frank chat reminded me of how glad I am not to be a child anymore -- the struggles with peer group acceptance and ostracism, the arbitrary rules imposed by grown-ups. Her friend struck me as very controlling (I've never liked Hannah Montana); I tried to encourage my niece to stand up to her.

I hope the outcome is positive; if not, well, there's one more thing Jerusha can blame on me.

I always used to think that I'd be happy if my (hypothetical) kids were happy, rather than exceptionally smart. But I don't know if that's true. While playing an alphabet game with my nieces, I learned that my older niece don't know much about geography, and it bothered me.

The game goes, "A my name is (name that begins with A) and my husband's name is (name that begins with A). We live in (place that begins with A) and we sell (commodity that begins with A)." And so on, through the alphabet, then beginning again with A.

I came up with a number of location names -- Easthampton and Kalamazoo are two examples -- that Malka rejected out of hand because she'd never heard of them. And I was fairly shocked and disturbed by this.

I already knew that her spelling is atrocious; the geographical ignorance made me first worry about her, and then wonder at myself. Because Malka also said, at one point, "Aunt Ayelet, does this game bother you? You know, with all the husbands?" Which is a pretty impressive display of empathy for a 9-year-old.

Shmuley Boteach, of whom I'm not a tremendous fan, nevertheless has a good parenting outlook; he was quoted in an interview as saying that he worries less about his children's grades and more about their development into interesting, compassionate people. And my niece is clearly a very considerate child. Isn't that more important than knowing where Kalamazoo is?

But I'm still buying her an atlas for Chanukah. And I'll sit with her and go over the major geographic markers, telling her what I know about them.
Copyright (c) 2006 "Ayelet Survivor"

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