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on smoking and other critical childhood concerns

Shortly after our surreal parent-teacher conference — while we were making our way around South Africa’s Garden Route — we received an end-of-semester progress report from Munchkin’s school. Unlike the over-the-top adulation in the previous midyear evaluation, this report struck a more balanced approach, praising Munchkin’s kindness, creativity, and academic progress while highlighting a number of behavioral attributes where “strengthening is needed.”

The report also chided us for Munchkin’s high number of absences due to family travel, which have “negatively impacted on his learning and confidence.” While we agree in theory that “school absences have a direct impact on the student’s ability to achieve academic goals,” we also think that at this young age academic goals are not everything. In fact, one of the things we most valued about our recent vacation, during which Munchkin missed two weeks of school, was the opportunity to spend sustained, quality time with him.

When we are in Kigali, he barely sees us during the workweek, which may contribute to the disparate behaviors we experience at home vs. in school. Whereas his teachers describe him as a gentle, inquisitive, caring child, we routinely get treated to tantrums and moody behavior when he only spends a couple of tired hours with us at the end of the workday. In fact, during the three weeks that we were on the road, his behavior changed dramatically; at last we saw the sweet, well-adapted child Munchkin’s teachers kept describing.

The report was also timely in that it gave us a further insight into Munchkin’s interests and helped us engage him about the subjects he had been learning. We did not have access to the pink tower, brown stair, number rods, sand paper letters, or any of the other half-dozen unexplained Montessori “practical life materials” the report mentioned, but we could certainly help Munchkin practice his letters, sounds, and numbers – and we spent countless hours counting and spelling out words with him.

He has learned to count past ten, but for some reason has gotten fixated on the number 14. Even though he knows there are bigger numbers that come afterwards, 14 has become his go-to whenever he wants to emphasize how big something is. On the English front, he has moved past rote recitation and can now associate the sounds of many consonants with their corresponding letters; vowels, however, remain a challenge.

The most interesting of his recent developments has come on the science front. S had purchased a handful of Usborne educational books for Munchkin, of which the Body Book proved the biggest hit. It also has sparked several amusing anxieties. One flap of the organs page depicts a smoker’s black lungs and describes the ill effects of smoking. “Mama, will I smoke?” Munchkin would ask with visible concern every few minutes after examining the illustrations. Another page described how milk teeth fall out and are replaced by adult teeth. “Papa, I don’t want my teeth to fall out,” Munchkin would say with alarm every time he came to this page. “How will I eat if my teeth fall out?”

In addition to making us smile, Munchkin’s nascent anxieties have also proved a useful parenting tool. “I don’t want diseases. I don’t want to die,” Munchkin would say. “Ok, then go wash your hands and come eat your vegetables,” we’d respond. After struggling to make Munchkin do anything, his new preoccupation with cleanliness and good nutrition has been a godsend.

Although our assessment remains that Munchkin’s preschool takes itself a little bit too seriously, there is no denying that he has learned a great deal there, both academically and socially. The next year will bring quite a change as we return stateside; S has already devoted countless hours to finding an appropriate school for him back home.

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