Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Our five-year-old potato

Today is Pete's fifth birthday. FIFTH. We still discover so much about him day by day. Sometimes the discoveries are purely cool: a couple of weeks ago, we realized that we hadn't done much lately by way of prompting Pete to try reading, so I started looking at the first few pages of The Cat in the Hat with him, and boom! Those words are sticking like anything. Watching the process is fascinating. Pete doesn't have one method for figuring out words. Sometimes he's using phonics; he gets the letter-sounds, but they do only so much for him. Sometimes he recognizes individual words. Sometimes he deduces words from context, or he remembers the phrasing of the book from previous readings. (You can tell what tools he's using by the mistakes he makes.) The big picture is the amazing part: you've got one little person with almost no reading vocabulary struggling against the whole of written English, with its arsenal of tricks and misdirections. It's not fair. But Pete--and any new reader--grabs every tool in the house and tries to get something to catch. Seeing the beginning of the process, I still wonder that Pete's going to read, really read, before long. And that any of us do.

We have also figured out recently--largely on the basis of an attempt to see The Lion King in Des Moines--that Pete is unusually sensitive to loud environments, which make him something between anxious and (occasionally) terrified. We've been slow to understand this characteristic, partly because Pete generally deals with new situations well (he sailed through our 2,700-mile holiday odyssey, for instance) and partly because we don't encounter loud environments very often. But after The Lion King freaked him out a bit, we started thinking through what has made him anxious: cheering at a minor league baseball game, the buzzers in Darby, a couple of concerts, fire alarms. We had been trying to reassure him about the content of the situations, telling him the environments were safe, but that reassurance never worked because, we think, we were missing the point: the sound is itself the problem. This too is fascinating, though discovering it has been hard on all of us.

So we learn how Pete will come to be like us, as he starts to read, and that we need to understand how he's not us but profoundly Pete. But the whole five-year-old him is wonderful to know.

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