Dani Klein Modisett: "Billy, what kind of dinosaur is that?" a mom with a dark, curly ponytail asked her 2 1/2-year-old after Mommy and Me class recently. Our kids were too busy playing to leave, so she and I were marooned in that place where moms of young children often find themselves. We were standing together with nothing in common but adventurous children and a lot of dead air.
"Billy loves dinosaurs," she said, rolling her eyes in a my-child-is-so-exhaustingly-gifted way.
"Really," I responded. (It's a word I frequently use when I have nothing else to add but it's clear the other person has more to say on the subject.)
"Sure," she said. "There's a program on PBS that's all about dinosaurs -- in a vérité style -- and Billy can just watch it for hours."
Interesting, I thought, because my boys are suckers for SpongeBob, but what really gets them excited is iCarly. It dawned on me that my permissiveness in exposing my kids to pop culture might be putting them at an intellectual disadvantage.
"Billy, what kind of dinosaur is that?" the mom asked her son again -- this time with a tad more urgency. I looked at Billy expectantly, wondering if his glazed-over eyes meant he was scanning his tiny genius brain through billions of dinosaur images he had catalogued in there.
Then he burped.
"Billy!" his mother said, blushing. "Come on, honey, I know you know it ....""Um ... Ru ... Ru ...," Billy stuttered.
"Rhoetosaurus! That's right! Good for you, honey!" she squealed.
Just then, my son spotted a bee in the sandbox lying very still. The bee's future didn't look bright.
"Mama! A bee!" Gideon shouted to me.
I was tempted to say, "Gideon loves bees... we raise them in our backyard so he can chart their growth," but I didn't have the energy. Anyway, the Mama Rose of Pre-K (see "Gypsy," the musical) beat me to the punch.
"Billy, it's a bee!" she exclaimed. "What do bees eat?" (Now I had the blank face. Do they eat honey, or make honey? Crazy, but under pressure I couldn't remember.) "We talked about this earlier this morning, Billy, didn't we?"
You did?! I thought. You talked about pollen (thank God the answer came to me) at 7 AM?
"P... p... pollen!" Billy yelled. Good for him. Then again, if I'd gotten quizzed on facts over Cheerios, I could have pulled it out quicker, too. Meanwhile, my son was focused on pulling the bee's wings off.
"That's not a good idea, Gideon," I said. "He could give you an ow-ie." (Pronounced "Ow! Eeee." That's what we call pain in our house. Not a real word. Could I be failing my son any more?)
As we piled into the car, I really did feel bad. (Or is it badly?) All kidding aside ... what if I'm not stuffing enough facts/figures/skills into my children? I've never read any book on this, but I really like children who laugh. And who give and get a lot of hugs. And who dance wildly when they hear music, even if it's Kei. (Blech -- but the girl understands rhythm.)
Obviously, I want my kids to read and write, but is it wrong that I don't need them to speak three languages and quote Nietzsche at age 5? And furthermore, the parents of kids who can do all this need to stop acting like it's all an accident. After all, when my 2-year-old tells a knock-knock joke, I don't pretend I didn't teach it to him. I just smile proudly and say, "Yeah, I've been coaching him for six months and he just started nailing it!"