Feb 28 2009

Ordered to Read

“Pick-up!” This was one of the mantras my mother was forced to repeat throughout my childhood. She spent a fair amount of her valuable time and breath telling us to put things away. It seemed ridiculous to me, when clearly it was just going to get messy again. Tomorrow toys would be pulled off of their shelves, shoes pulled from the closet, blankets unfolded and draped over the TV-trays to recreate the same cave I’d played in today. But she was insistent.

On Fridays, when the cleaning woman came, I found this request to be especially futile. Why would we hire someone to clean our house, and then clean it ourselves before she comes? When I shared this rationale with my mother, she dished out some mumbo-jumbo about how picking up is different than cleaning. Two tasks that, to me, seemed indistinguishable from each other. I did as she asked, but not without shrugging, grumbling, and promising myself I would never terrorize my children with this prodding to pick up all the time.

This promise I have broken, again and again, since my children could understand the spoken word. Not only do I ask them to pick up, I use the exact same language as my mother. Yesterday, before our cleaning guy arrived, I found a big mess upstairs. Then I heard these words coming out of my very own mouth: “I pay him to clean the house, not to pick up after you.”

Oh, fate laughs so cruelly at me.

But, it turns out, as much as I may be annoying my children (and planting seeds for the further annoyance of their children), all this business about picking up could be helping them learn to read! Researchers at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Ohio State University conducted a study to measure the associations between household chaos and early childhood reading skills. (Who thought this up?) The results are noted in an article called “Order in the House!”

If you think that once my house is all picked up I spend my spare time reading academic journals, guess again. I stumbled upon this via Slate columnist Emily Bazelon, who does a nice job of condensing the results of the research in her recent article, “Messy House, Messy Minds.”

The researchers created two groups based on the mothers’ reading skills: above-average and average. The participants in each group were asked about their reading habits with their children, and then the mothers were also asked about how ordered things are at home, probing for responses to statements like “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

Bazelon notes:

A shout-out to all my endearingly, creatively messy friends (but not to my husband, who still shouldn’t leave his shoes in the middle of the front hall): It’s clear that by an “ordered home,” [the researchers] do not mean a spotlessly neat and clean one.

I appreciate her important clarification, and I second the comment (are you reading, De-facto?) about leaving shoes in the middle of the hall.

The take-away from this research:

Results suggest that the degree of household order is significantly and positively associated with early reading skills among children whose mothers are of above-average reading ability. These results suggest the potential for new approaches to encouraging literacy development in the home.

Aha! A point for merging the desired aesthetics of my adult life with the vigorous imagination of my children. Now I’ve got a new angle. The longer I can keep the new couch in clean condition, the more they’ll read, and the better their chances of going to Harvard Brown.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Feb 4 2009

Couch of the Valkyries

“Careful, the couch!” This is the Valkyrie cry in our home, since I am prepared to slay any small (or large) being who might casually soil our newly acquired piece of furniture. This may seem a harsh punishment, but if you knew how long I have been waiting to buy a new couch, you might empathize with me.

For years, I’ve been trapped in this apartment with a hideous canapé, a cream-colored (read: off-white and stained) sofa-bed with far too many cushions to add any aesthetic presence to our living room. The seat cushions were famous for their capacity to spontaneously slide forward and down toward the floor. More than once, I sat on what I thought was the edge of the couch, only to hit the parquet myself. The four square cushions that were supposed to line up along the back of the couch were too easily crunched and crushed, or completely removed and transformed into a fort or a roof or series of stepping stones on the floor, permitting dry passage to the foyer without menace from the alligators. That old couch was a boat, a barge, a bridge – about anything you wanted it to be. It absolutely stimulated young, playful imaginations, which was, in the end, the only thing I liked about it.

Then last month, an astro-furniture convergence smiled upon me when three planets finally aligned: Saturn, the planet of limits moved into the 5th house of small children, and conjunct Jupiter, the planet of expansion, and Venus, the planet of beauty, in the 4th house of home and 60%-off. The kids are now finally old enough (and coordinated enough) to pay attention to rules and warnings. A little Christmas cash augmented our budget, permitting this purchase despite the recession. De-facto even agreed that after last summer’s repainting of the living room, the old couch looked pretty tired.

Forget that we had to bulldog the new couch through the front door, since I neglected to measure before purchasing. Absurdly, it was a few centimeters too large. The tiny grease mark on the side that resulted from its dramatic breech birth (feet first, after their removal) into our apartment is barely visible. The new couch matches the carpet, and makes our living room look, well, grown-up. De-facto likes it, too, he says it really ties the room together.


But then, the law had to be laid down. Short-pants and Buddy-roo were summoned to the new couch, invited to admire it, and ideas were solicited for how we might keep it clean and pretty. My children are smart and their suggestions were on the money, so they now have some ownership of the new couch mantra: no shoes, no eating, no drinking, no drawing. Except that occasionally I have to remind them. The minute one of them even looks the couch with their shoes on, or comes within a meter of it while holding a cookie in hand, I’ll shout out: “Careful! The couch!” I can’t help it. I just blurt it out. The other day, Short-pants dips her head and looks at me over her glasses, “I know mama, don’t worry.”

I hate this, really. I don’t want to be yelling at them about a couch. With the old one, I didn’t care. I might casually throw out a gentle warning, “feet off the couch…” but that was only to reinforce good manners. There’s nothing they could have done to hurt that old gray lady. But now I’m nervous, constantly walking the tightrope between the desired aesthetics of my adult life and the vigorous imagination of my children’s. I want them to be creative, which often means being messy and manipulating their environment to match what’s happening in their minds. I just don’t want to look at it, in my living room. And I don’t want it to damage my new, beautiful, stylin’ couch.

This morning, a plastic pink cup found perched on the arm of the new couch – fortunately no trace had been left – but then Buddy-roo’s name came in a shriek and then a stern reprimand of “what did we all agree to, about the couch?” She stood, frozen. Eyes on the couch, then on me. Then that face, the mouth curves down into a precious kind of pout, and an eruption of tears, “I really miss our old couch.”

Not me. I’m glad it’s gone. But this can’t go on.