I generally tend to downplay my achievements: I'll admit that I love how the quilt that I just finished for my baby niece turned out, but I'll let you notice for yourself (or not) that the mitered corners are almost perfect, the binding width is even, and that there are zero wrinkles in the quilted layers. I describe myself as a competent writer, even though there's lots of evidence to suggest that I'm actually better than, well, the writers of most of the dissertations that my department has produced. I say that I'm an 'experienced' Casino dancer instead of outright claiming to be one of the best follows in the area - maybe even in the country.
However, I'm going to make an exception and be completely and immodestly triumphant about having established something called Tea, which is when Twelve and I sit down in the living room with a tray of tea and small snacks when she gets home from school.
It may be the most awesome thing I've ever done.
I got the idea about three weeks ago while reading a book that's I suppose optimistically titled Our Last Best Shot, which is all about how adolescence is the last stage in which we adults have any hope of positively influencing incipient adults. Apparently, setting up situations that include space for them to talk to us is a good thing. It doesn't specifically describe Tea, but it inspired me to write "Tea, 3 pm daily" on a post-it note (that I think I'll save for posterity). I had visions of delicately appointed tea trays, like the ones brought to Cora by the evil Miss O'Brien, and all of Twelve's friends clamoring to be included.
In reality, the tea tray is a very ordinary top of one of those cheap folding tv tray tables, not an antique tray with turned spindle legs and a cute little railing. We use the regular mugs, and the only special thing is that we do actually use a teapot and the snacks are in individual little dishes. So far, Twelve absolutely refuses to consider inviting friends.
Twelve was skeptical when I first announced the plan. The first couple of days, she did a bit of playacted reluctance, and I had to insist that she sit her butt down on the couch. Day three, she said that she wasn't going to do it anymore for some non-reason that I've forgotten (I think her exact phrase was "this is going to be a short-lived tradition" because blah blah blah), so I had to insist again. By week two, however, she was dumping her stuff in the bedroom, plopping down on the couch, and waiting impatiently for me to bring in the tray. She's even starting to talk before she makes it to the couch.
Like everything this year, I don't know how long this is going to last, but for now it's pretty great. She talks up a storm, and does a pretty good job of hearing me when I coach her on ways to handle things that come up. Today's conversation-slash-coaching session was centered on the referral that she got from her social studies teacher, who seems to have finally gotten fed up with Twelve's constant chattering in class. She had been sent to the time-out chair (I was a bit surprised that seventh grade has time-out chairs, too) for talking to her best friend during quiet work time, and then while sitting in the time-out chair had asked another classmate if she could borrow a textbook. That's what got her hauled out of class and sent to the office with a referral.
Twelve's putting on this blustery, I don't know why I got in trouble, everyone I talked to didn't get in trouble kind of front, but eventually - eventually - we pared the situation down to: Are you allowed to talk during quiet work time? No?
But I was just asking L questions about the assignment! very indignantly. Okay, it sounds like you're frustrated about not knowing what you're supposed to be doing. What if you ask the teacher? He's very dismissive when we ask questions. (Very nice use of 'dismissive,' very nice indeed.)
Okay, if you're asking L, how does she know what you're supposed to do, hmmm? Oh, she looks at the board, where the page numbers are written? Could you possibly look at the board to find out what page you're supposed to be on? Twelve sees my logic there, so she backtracks quickly and says that was not a real example.
Okay, final question: Are you supposed to be working collaboratively during quiet work time? No? At this point, Twelve is getting tired of being bested by mom, so she's quite relieved when the phone rings and Tea ends peremptorily. It was too bad, because I was enjoying it a bit.
Later, when I bring it back up and say that what I'm really looking for from her is assurance that she'll refrain from talking in class, she sort of says she'll try but claims that she can't possibly just stop all together. I laugh at her about this, and give her the bit from Friends where Chandler says dramatically to Joey, "If only there was something in your head to control the things you say!" and I let the subject drop. I've told her that I'm going to request a meeting with her teacher to discuss all of this in person, and while she scoffed at that a bit, I think it may help; if nothing else, the teacher will perhaps enjoy that I bothered to try, and Twelve will have gotten another lesson in how to navigate the world.
Ah, the concerted cultivation of middle class children. As Annette Lareau describes in Unequal Childhoods,* middle class children are routinely trained in the navigation and manipulation of social institutions. For example, when a middle class child (ahem) does not understand why she got 37 out of 50 points on a social studies assignment, a middle class parent might encourage her to ask the teacher if she can meet with him during break, and then during the meeting, ask him to show her where she missed the thirteen points. Whether or not Twelve actually follows through on this particular suggestion remains to be seen - we may very well discuss it at the same meeting that we discuss the referral - but even the implicit lesson is clear; when something doesn't go your way, challenge it, and there are more and less effective ways to do that.
The approach of working class families, by contrast, is of the accomplishment of natural growth.
Children are cared and provided for, but are largely left to their own devices. Schools and other social institutions are seen as authoritarian and a bit omniscient and are not to be challenged. Without putting value judgements on which method is better for kids, it's clear that the middle class approach is more effective at teaching children how to navigate powerful institutions to get what you want or need.
Between the fact that somewhat unmotivated doctoral candidates have the freedom to be home every day at three o'clock in the afternoon and the opportunity for middle class coaching that provides, we're basically ingesting class privilege along with our Tea. It may not be the kind of class privilege that lets me buy $230 UGG boots that button up the side for Twelve for Christmas, but it's the kind of class privilege that will make it easier for Twelve to get the kind of job that will let her buy whatever godawful boots she wants when she grows up.
*One of the best books ever.