Advantage and disadvantage

Interesting piece at the Aotearoa Project blog on the Maori/Pakeha literacy gap (related: I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get my chromebook to do macrons. Apologies!). 

Got me thinking about what we’re doing to develop the little dude’s literacy. I reckon in New Zealand there is a reluctance among middle-class Pakeha to acknowledge that we give our kids advantages. We distance ourselves from the over-scheduled and anxious hot-housing that we associate with pushy American parents. But advantages aren’t just things you consciously give your kids. The biggest advantage arises from being part of the group that sets the systems up, that is able to do things a certain way and have it be accepted as the social norm. 

We started reading books as part of the bedtime routine when the little dude was about 7 months old. Now if I ask him to go get a book and come sit on my knee for a story he does. He likes some books more than others, mainly he is really into lift-the-flap books. He has a packet of crayons and when he draws, it occurs to me just now, I often write some letters on the page – most obviously, his name. I’m not very good at drawing, so writing letters seemed like a good way of showing him how to use a crayon (I’d be at a major disadvantage if we lived in a culture where drawing things was important).  

At my baby shower, he was given lots of books. Lots. And people have continued to get him books. He has dozens of books by now, all the ones that he inherited from his older cousins and all the ones his Safta finds in second hand shops. His soft toy for bedtime is a Peter Rabbit. He also has a stuffed Miffy, which was another present he received at the baby shower, together with a Miffy book. Those were gifts from the parents of one of my dearest friends. I had a Dick Bruna alphabet frieze on my bedroom wall as a child, so it was pretty perfect, and when I opened it I said “oh it’s a cuddly Miffy, how gorgeous!” These are the middle-class advantages we don’t really count – we started acculturating him into a literary world before he was even born. He has The Very Hungry Caterpillar and he has Te Anuhe Tino Hiakai. He has Where the Wild Things Are in its te reo translation and in Ivrit. He has a gorgeous collection of Margaret Mahy verses, my favourite of which is Seventeen Kings and Forty-Two Elephants. These aren’t just any books, these are the very best books from more than a century of modern children’s literature. These are the books you would choose if you wanted to foster a love of books. Which of course is what we’re doing. And more that that – these books are one of the main features of his culture. These books are our taonga. My culture, his culture, is a written culture. 

I didn’t know that New Zealand schools used this “whole of language” teaching style, even though I’m young enough that it would have been used when I was at school. I had assumed that children are taught to read phonetically (that said, I have no memory of ever learning grammar at school, which is possibly evidence of the whole of language approach!). Looking back, I probably was taught phonetically – just not at school. Last week I when we went to Te Papa and the little dude was playing with the magnetic wall I thought to myself, I’m gonna need to get some of those letter magnets for the fridge like I had when I was a kid. 

The more highly educated a parent is, the greater their ability to compensate for any deficits in their children’s formal instruction. It’s potentially a vicious cycle from the perspective of kids whose parents left school without qualifications: the education system assumes parents are providing significant learning support at home; in response, parents who are able to do this absolutely do; and the assumption becomes even more entrenched.