Jackson’s obsession with trains got us through the fall and most of the winter. We got him his first set of tracks and a few toy subway trains for his birthday back in early October, and then for the holidays he added a few more trains, a cool tunnel, and some more tracks to his collection. It was a very cold, very long, very snowy winter, and on some of the worst days, when we couldn’t go out to play and it was even too difficult to get to a friend’s house for some company, the trains saved us all.
But winter finally (!) gave way to spring and Jack’s focus began to shift from trains to… letters. It started so slowly that I didn’t even recognize the shift. I think Drew was paying more attention than I was because he was the one who suggested we get more letter-related toys and books. My parents had given Jack this alphabet book for Christmas, which Jackson quickly became obsessed with (it remains his “bible” several months later), and, when Drew brought home this book one day, I couldn’t believe it when, the next evening, Jackson started turning the pages, “reading” it out loud with perfect memorization.
“Can you do that again?” I asked when he finished, holding my iPhone up. “I want to record it for Grandma and Grandpa.”
“A is for awesome, B is for bounce, C is for catch, D is for dog…” he said, turning each page as I recorded him.
Soon, Jackson was watching this phonics video on YouTube over and over and over (asking for it immediately when he woke up in the morning and throughout the day). He kept asking for more letters. “More letters!” I quickly ordered him some wooden blocks with letters on them. I showed him how we could line the letters up to spell “Mommy” and “Jackson,” sounding out the letters as we went. One afternoon, I noticed that the name “Gia,” which happens to be the name of one of his friends, was spelled out in blocks on the floor. The next day I asked his babysitter, Mavis, if she was responsible for that, and she said no. Drew said he didn’t do it and I knew I didn’t do it, so I said, “Huh, that’s a funny coincidence,” thinking the letters happened to be organized that way by chance. But Mavis had a different idea. She turned to Jackson and said, “How do you spell Gia?” And he looked at her and said, proudly, “G-I-A!”
There have been lots of moments like that since, where Jackson stuns us with stuff he seems to know out of nowhere or things he asks us about. Where does he pick this up? I wonder. “Did you teach him this?” I ask Drew and Mavis. Sometimes they have. Sometimes it’s just a mystery. I think ahead to when his world is much bigger than what it is now — when he’s in school and has friends whose names I don’t always know. Like most parents, I am both excited and terrified about the things he’ll pick up — the topics he’ll discuss without our supervision, the questions other people will answer because we won’t be there to ask (not that he would necessarily want to ask us), and the things he’ll learn, all the things he’ll learn.
Right now, he is learning the sounds each letter makes and how those sounds go together to make words, and it is one of the coolest, most exciting things I’ve ever experienced. And I know every parent experiences this, but it’s especially thrilling to see your child take interest in something that is interesting to you. Like, trains were fine. But words? Letters? Writing and reading? What will ever compare to experiencing Jackson’s obsession with these things and watching how very proud he is when he sounds out T-A-P and says “Tap!” (He did this on the subway the other day while looking at a poster, and it was all I could do not to jump up and down and start tap dancing and hollering to everyone on that car that my kid just read a word. He read a word! He read it! I mean, he had no idea what “tap” meant, but he read it. The whole world will open for him now).
I can’t wait to see what’s next. What other interests will he have over the course of these formative years? Which ones will stick? Which ones will fade away or become a memory he won’t even recollect?
One of the things I am conscious of as a parent is how easy it is to get carried away in the daydreams I have for and about Jackson or to feel tempted to define him in some way. This has surprised me about myself, but it’s there. Jackson is into letters right now so maybe he’ll be a writer. Jackson is a teeny bit tall for his age, so maybe he’ll be tall like my father. Jackson is this, so maybe he’ll grow up to be that. I have to remind myself that Jackson is going to spend the next many, many years figuring out what he likes and what his passions are and who he is. And these things will likely change a lot. And my job — our job as parents — is simply to support him along the way and to introduce him to new things and nurture interests and curiosities we notice or he expresses, and to try not to get too invested in any particular obsession or trajectory we imagine for him.
And also to refrain from tap dancing on subway cars in front of him. No matter how tempted we might be.
lets_be_honest May 21, 2014, 2:17 pm
I remember when Lil was an infant, I was so worried about how I was going to teach her literally everything. I guess I just assumed kids learn nothing on their own? It was probably my biggest parenting worry…all for nothing. Its so cool to see them pick things up like this. Great job, Jackson!
p.s. I’m impressed that nowhere in this essay did you say your son is probably the smartest child his age/a genius. Easy to start jokingly (or not!) thinking that at times like this 🙂 I love the advice in your second to last paragraph.
Jess May 21, 2014, 2:24 pm
Oh wow, the cuteness is overwhelming. And I love how proud he seems (and how amused Drew is!)
Painted_lady May 21, 2014, 2:30 pm
Holy shit. Your kid is SMART.
I started reading by three, and my mom started me in on it with a whole series of books, I Can Read!, that were set up in a way that helped me read better in increments – big print, each story focused on a letter or a group of letters but built on the ones before, the words got bigger and the stories and pages longer. This is not a this-is-how-you-parent post, but I just wanted you to know about them if you didn’t. I think I’d have been a voracious reader anyway, but being able to read so early, before school started, before there was any pressure, was so great because reading was always associated as something enjoyable.
Dear Wendy May 21, 2014, 2:34 pm
That’s awesome! My mom just ordered a bunch of early reader books for Jackson (we’re visiting my parents in a couples weeks); she, like you, was an English teacher (wait, you teach English in addition to drama, right? I hope I’m not misremembering). My sister taught herself to read when she was 3 and I’m sure my mom must have encouraged that a lot (I was 10 by then, but don’t really have much memory of that). I was not an early reader, but because reading and books were so celebrated in my home, I did become a voracious reader when I did eventually learn (in first grade, I guess? Or, whenever kids normally learn… I’m not sure when that is). I hope Jackson will continue to love the idea of reading, but we aren’t pressuring him. At this point, he seems naturally very interested and we’re just trying to support him in that interest.
Painted_lady May 21, 2014, 2:56 pm
Theatre and art, actually (but I’m flattered you remembered the theatre part!). And that’s awesome about your sister. I don’t remember very much of it, obviously, because I was three, but from what my mom says, I was definitely pretty self-starting as well. My brother was, unsurprisingly, really difficult on the reading front, as he was with most things. He didn’t even enjoy being read *to,* so he didn’t learn till probably a year after he was supposed to. Hell, my mom didn’t even read for fun till she was pregnant with me and forced herself into it, which ended up with her loving to read.
lemongrass May 21, 2014, 2:39 pm
Yay! It’s funny how without a kid I never once thought about how I became an adult but once I had E, it’s been fascinating watching all the little tiny milestones that snowball into a person. I still remember the first time he rubbed his eye on purpose.
KKZ May 21, 2014, 2:51 pm
It’s so fantastic that he’s picking up on this so early and easily, Wendy. I learned to read pretty early too, with lots of encouragement from my parents, and today I *am* a writer. So, you know, that definitely could happen. 😉
Wendy's Sister May 21, 2014, 2:52 pm
Wendy didn’t say it, but as Jackson’s aunt, I’ll say it:
My nephew is fucking brilliant!
Dear Wendy May 21, 2014, 3:01 pm
He’s starting to read, but he’s not anywhere close to potty-trained so it’s a draw!
Addie Pray May 21, 2014, 4:20 pm
XanderT May 21, 2014, 2:54 pm
Beautiful essay, Wendy. I love how all the way through it you were trying not brag. Oh, heck, I will do it for you…Jackson, Wendy’s 2 year old son, is starting to read!! NaNaNa! Bam! In your face!
Classic May 21, 2014, 3:04 pm
Oh Wendy. This is wonderful.
Moneypenny May 21, 2014, 3:23 pm
This is awesome!! That is so cool to see him develop and start learning all of these things right before your eyes. 🙂 Who knows what he’ll be talking about in a month or two?
My nephew is almost 2, and he knows all of his letters. Not in order, but more like, ask him what the letter is on his puzzle piece and he’ll tell you. It’s fun and amazing to see.
Addie Pray May 21, 2014, 4:11 pm
Jackson is holy shit balls brilliant! And his little voice – what a cute little voice!!!!!
honeybeenicki May 21, 2014, 4:56 pm
That was awesome 🙂 Kids are like little tiny sponges and it’s awesome to see them grow and learn. I know someone already mentioned, but my family is a huge fan of the I Can Read! books.
TaraMonster May 21, 2014, 4:02 pm
That is so dang cute! Little kids reading deserves its own level of adorable. I’m serious. My cousin’s kid is 3 and when he reads I feel like the proudest “auntie” evahhh.
And for the record, next time you feel like tap dancing on the subway you should go for it. I have seen so many things the subway. So so many things. You really have to bring the crazy to surprise most NYers. My inner monologue would be like, “Huh, lady tap dancing and BUM TAKING A SHIT IN BETWEEN THE CARS. AHHHH!! HELP! MAKE ME UN-SEE THIS!”
Yes. That actually happened. And it’s an image that’s permanently burned into my retinas.
Jenny May 21, 2014, 5:24 pm
Thanks for including all those links, Wendy! My son is also 2 and he’s learned all his capital letters, now we’re working on “baby letters”. We’re starting to work on “_ is for _”, but he knows “M is for Mama” so that’s the most important one, right? 🙂 I agree with you – the learning the alphabet thing has been the most exciting thing ever. And I do the same thing with daydreaming about the future. My son sings all day long and loves to play his little instruments (he has a guitar and INSISTS on using the pick when he plays it) so I’m convinced he’ll be a musician. Jackson is so cute! I think kids are such sponges at this age and it’s so awesome when they have adults who are fostering a love of learning in them. I wish all kids had that, it’s so important, you know? You guys are doing a great job with him 🙂 Now, if someone would help me with these math problems I have to do to post this…
Jenny May 21, 2014, 5:28 pm
My son also has the same Yankees hat 🙂
Dear Wendy May 21, 2014, 6:31 pm
Oh my God, don’t mention math problems. I am dreading the day Jackson needs help with math homework because neither Drew nor I are equipped to handle that.
That’s cute about your son liking instruments. Jackson doesn’t seem very interested in instruments, but he does love singing. He has a little friend who loves all instruments, like your son, and we all say he’s going to grow up to be a musician. It’s fun to daydream and who knows — maybe he will!
Addie Pray May 22, 2014, 8:50 am
Oh oh oh I’ll be Jackson’s tutor! I love math – adore it – and I love the new way they’re teaching it these days.
Addie Pray May 22, 2014, 8:57 am
i’ll skype tutor jackson! pwease?
Dear Wendy May 22, 2014, 9:35 am
DesiDad May 21, 2014, 5:32 pm
I have heard that the schools have done away with any emphasis on phonics. I don’t know why that happened. Maybe it was due to some weird fad, or research grant greed, or whatever fashion trends take over the occasional branch of science. I think that is sad for all the kids whose parents are not as literate and smart as this kid’s parents. I think phonics is just fine as a technique to teach reading to little kids.
Portia May 22, 2014, 5:21 pm
I’m not entirely sure what the reasoning is, but using phonics for English is a bit dangerous because English is spelled how it sounded a few hundred years ago, not how it sounds today. So, it could have an effect on their spelling and also not necessarily correspond to their pronunciation of words (some kids would pronounce cot and caught the same, others different). Fun fact: English is the only language that has spelling bees. But I’m a linguist, not an educator.
applescruffs May 21, 2014, 6:03 pm
That is so cool! I remember the moment reading clicked for me. My mom and I were driving around Baltimore (since we lived there and all) and I pointed to a stop sign and said “S-T-O-P stop!” My mom goes, “WHAT did you just say??” And then I read 3 more thing to her to show that I knew how. Most exciting moment ever!
jlyfsh May 21, 2014, 6:40 pm
I took longer to read but my little sister was forced to read (by me) much earlier than I did. I love the links too, great ideas for my friend’s three year old!
nitabee May 22, 2014, 8:38 am
This is one of my favorite Jackson posts, I love it! I’m a huge reader, so this makes me smile. My sister’s a kindergarten teacher here in a low-income school in north Florida, and it’s extremely rare for her to receive a kid who already knows how to read (very few even really know their alphabet).
findingtheearth May 22, 2014, 1:34 pm
I knew how to read by 3 1/2. Neither of my parents are sure how, as they don’t remember sitting me down and showing me how. I love books. My daughter loves books too, and we spend so much time reading them. I am excited for when she starts reading independently, though I know I will miss the reading snuggles and cuddles.
Addie Pray May 22, 2014, 3:21 pm
Wendy, when do we get to see Jackson sing the letters I through Z? This is hogwash, we only got to see through H. Not fair.
Dear Wendy May 22, 2014, 5:01 pm
I texted to you!
Addie Pray May 22, 2014, 6:12 pm
oh my goodness my heart exploded. how are you able to refrain from gobbling him up he’s so damn sweet. suh suh suh sweet.