I just moved into a house with an old steam heating system.  I have to add water with a manual feed valve every so often to keep the boiler running properly.  Last Saturday, I couldn’t get the water feed to open. I wanted to avoid a costly weekend service call for something that probably wasn’t even broken, so  I turned the whole thing off and, in the freezing cold, berated myself mercilessly about how I should have done more research ahead of time, should have learned more earlier in my life about How Actual Things Work, etc.  Then I remembered something I said recently to a young friend who’s frustrated that he isn’t as good at writing as he’d like to be.  “You’re a beginner,” I reminded him.  “You’ve only been at this a short while.  This is what it’s like to be a beginner at something.”Touché, self.  I needed that reminder about the steam heat. I’m a beginner.  It’d have been nice if I could have just waltzed in with a fully developed understanding of the system and how to maintain it, but it’s tricky to anticipate everything you’re ever going to want to be able to do (not to mention find the time to master every single thing ahead of time).  In this case I had to start at the beginning, with its inherent struggle, uncertainty, and messiness.

Why the resistance to being a beginner?  We operate as though there’s a tiny little window of time in which it’s OK to be a beginner, so it can be awkward to start learning something when you’re an adult.  And no matter when you start something, it seems at the beginning as though you’re lousy at it, even if you might be on pace to be more proficient than those who’ve been at it for years. So for the most part we just stick to the things we’ve been doing all along.

But kids are watching us.  And I know lots of them who resist the early work of being a beginner (even though they’re still well within the time frame in which it’s acceptable to be new at something).  I’ve heard adults blame technology and media –  kids have no patience anymore, no attention span, they say; that’s why they won’t work hard and persevere. If I were going to blame something, though, I’d blame adults‘ unwillingness to embrace beginnerhood.  Kids don’t get to see what learning looks like in the beginning so they assume that if they can’t get it right away, they’re no good at it and might as well give up.  Our only recourse is to insist that they keep at it, which doesn’t tend to work that well and makes everyone frustrated and tired.

If kids saw us embarking on new learning adventures and fumbling around with those early stages of learning, they’d come to expect the difficulty. Otherwise the challenge of it is hidden, and when kids don’t know exactly what to do as soon as they pick up the violin, or the pencil, or the pogo stick, they think something’s wrong with them and they shouldn’t bother trying.  The other day I watched a 4 year-old (who doesn’t watch TV or use any electronic devices) shake her head and step back when offered a pad of paper and crayons.  “I’m not very good at drawing,” she said.

Kids are learning this expectation of instant proficiency from us.  We’re not showing them what it looks like to work through the awkward early part. No matter how many times we say that you have to work hard to get good at something, kids won’t get it if they don’t see us doing it.

* John Holt’s Never Too Late is highly recommended reading on the topic of adult beginning…