Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Matter of Degree

My nephew Liam who has just turned 9 and my niece Madeleine (aged 5) flew up to Sydney last week to visit their indulgent grandparents (my parents) and us. They flew unaccompanied by their Canberra-based parents but Qantas took excellent care of them during the flight.

Guillermo met them briefly two years ago but this time he had the opportunity to get to know them better during their week's stay under the same roof. I would go as far in saying that he got to know the worst of these kids since their whims were met with little or no resistance from their grandpa and grandma, unlike at home.

Treats which are not allowed often by their parents were showered upon them liberally by mine. Most came in form of cute souvenirs from the Sydney Aquarium gift shop, small toys, and permission to use their newly acquired water pistols to "clean" their grandparents' windows. They also wanted, only occasionally, fruit chews or TicTacs; most of the time, they found their sugar hits in sweet juicy mangoes and refreshing slices of watermelon.

Liam and Maddy ate their main meals sitting down and if we were in a restaurant they were allowed a small glass of Sprite, never Coke; they don't even ask because they already know Coke isn't any good for anyone. When they had eaten, they played quietly in their seats until the adults finished. If they were at home, they asked to be excused before leaving the table.

My niece who was more prone to playing up had occasional problems with the unfamiliar home cooked meals prepared by my mother. Just when Guillermo and I were anticipating the de rigueur request for a bundle of nutritionally deficient refined carbohydrate, salt and saturated fat commonly served in the form of fideos con manteca (pasta with butter), she asked for some penne cooked al dente with pesto. I was thoroughly amused and secretly chuffed that we seem to have another foodie in the making. She tucked into the short pasta with my freshly made pesto with mucho gusto indeed!

Bedtime was another area where Guillermo observed much difference from what he has grown used to witnessing with distaste in Buenos Aires. On the first night, each started getting ready for bed by having a shower, unassisted, at around 8:30pm. They then got on with reading their books they had brought with them. Both turned in around 9:30pm with no drama; pretty much the same as their usual routine at home. (When they were younger, bedtime was set at 7:30pm)

The excitement of being away from home or the realisation that their grandparents had little control over them finally dawned by the second night and their routine went out of the window. My nephew still got ready for bed at the same time but dragged his mattress into the living room as he declared he was to sleep there. Of course, his little sister took the lead and cheerfully followed suit.

In the end, my nephew stayed up to watch a documentary on corporations with Guillermo. This 9 year old was engrossed in the programme which was about corruption and fraudulent activities committed by corporations such as Halliburton, Exxon and Monsanto. Meanwhile, his sister kept asking for her mother. Satisfied with breaking their routine both kids turned in before 10:30pm that evening.

With a taste for more mature programmes as well as the usual Japanese animations in the mornings, the following night my nephew watched a programme on Japanese naval operations around Ceylon during WWII and their political impacts and implications, at the time, on India and the British Empire. On the third night, he watched a sub-titled Italian detective drama Don Matteo with Guillermo and me. On all three occasions during the week which he could have behaved much worse, he went to bed no later than 10:30pm on his own accord.

Guillermo who specialises in expertise which has much to do with the study of intelligence, concurs with neuroscientists that intelligence is largely a developmental process. Findings on the subject rebuke the common perception that some are born smarter than others. My husband mused that these two kids offered a glimpse into this nurturing process which begins with something as simple as having a healthy routine.

Liam (turned 9 in December) is starting Year 5 in his Express Music class at school this February. He has been excelling among boys up to 18 months older, ever since he started primary school soon after he turned 5, not only within his academically demanding Express class but in various inter-State competitions representing his school.

Maddy seems less academically inclined but impressed us nonetheless when I asked her to read to us from the book she had been reading at bedtime. At 5, she managed with minimal difficulty a book which averaged over 70 words per page peppered with words such as "wretched" or "struggle", targeting a readership quite a few years her senior.

After a week with them, we conclude that misbehaving is part of growing up as it is about testing and pushing boundaries. However, we now also have first hand knowledge that kids being drugged up with addictive Coke, sugar laden dulce de leche and neuron-murdering flavourings in papas fritas/ palitos (potato crisps/savoury junk food), or being allowed to party past midnight with their parents is thankfully, not the only way to go.

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