Family life

I'm not a crappy parent (and neither are you)

Should Tracy Chappell worry if her four-year-old doesn’t know the alphabet?

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Tracy learned a valuable lesson from her daughter Avery. Photo: Tracy Chappell.

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005.

About this time last year, Avery was a few weeks away from turning four and starting JK. She had been in preschool for a year, and had just moved to a new one (because the one the girls had been attending closed its doors), and was having a bit of an adjustment period, as she often does at the start of something new.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances around the moment I realized she didn’t know the alphabet. But it was just that — a sudden, startling moment. I turned to her with a quizzical look and said, “Do you not know all the letters?”

“I know some of them,” she told me brightly.

Read more: Video: How to play the Alphabet Game >

What kind of mom doesn’t know that her child doesn’t know the alphabet? One like me, I guess. She could print her name and letters with ease. We read books together every night. She was in preschool, where no one ever suggested there was an issue with what she knew or didn’t know, so I just assumed she was progressing along fine. And she was three, so maybe she was.

It’s another example of second-child syndrome. I figured she was picking up this stuff because her big sister, Anna, did. Maybe I don’t give myself enough credit, because I probably did more than I recall now, but I remember the day I discovered that Anna knew her letters. We had a floor mat with interlocking foam squares with letters on each one, and Anna and I started playing a game where we had to tell the other to jump on a certain letter. She knew them all. She was two.

So when I realized Avery didn’t, I panicked. I felt like a terrible mom who had handicapped her daughter’s learning potential through benign neglect. I blamed my desire for a stainless-steel fridge, which meant we put away the oh-so-awesome fridge phonics Anna grew up playing with. Then I took a step in the worst direction — quizzing Avery about letters and numbers at every opportunity. In the midst of a routine bedtime story, I’d go into teacher mode and ask her to identify letters. Avery, understandably, balked at this, withdrawing from our cuddle and resisting any participation, no matter how cleverly I tried to disguise my lesson in lighthearted fun. It got to the point where I had absolutely no idea what she did and didn’t know because she’d completely shut down.

Read more: How to raise a reader >

I left it for a while. I spoke with her teachers after she’d been there a few months; they said they had done an assessment and that Avery’s knowledge was “average.” Don’t hate me for getting my back up about that word. I’m ashamed that I did. They told me I had no reason to be concerned, but that doing some extra work with her at home wouldn’t hurt.

Over the next few months, I learned some valuable things about my daughter. First up: She did know her letters. As I suspected, she just didn’t like to be quizzed on them, which is very like her. But when I bought some flash cards and used them to play games with her, the truth came out. We also set her up on some computer games that showed us she knew what was going on, and they kept her interested in learning more about sounds and words.

Read more: 10 educational apps recommended by parents >

But the most important thing I realized — something I knew, but had forgotten — was that every child has a unique learning style. As Avery’s mom, I have to make a point of understanding how she processes things and how her beautiful brain works, and recognize that it’s not necessarily the same as her sister’s (or mine). It’s unfair to compare her to anyone else; I never want her to feel pressure or less-than when it comes to school, or grades, or anything else. Avery also has a very different temperament than Anna, so her smarts might not show up so overtly, and how we approach things like at-home reading or practising printing or spelling might need some adjusting. But that’s what this parenting gig is all about.

At the end of Avery’s school year, her teacher told me she was right on par with where she should be academically, and excelling socially. He also said the change in her over the course of the year was amazing — that she was very keen on learning, loved printing and was now an enthusiastic participant, where she used to never raise her hand or take part in show-and-tell. Avery takes her time warming up in new situations and showing her true colours. I know that. But now I’ll remember not to forget it. When she’s given the time and space to shine, she always does. As usual, I’m the one who learned the best lesson from following my daughter’s lead.