Just kidding

Andrea* looks down at the algebra problem she’s working through and notices that she’s assigned a value of five, rather than six, to three twos. As she erases the five and replaces it with a six, she says “Just kidding.” We both smile. Then she continues with the rest of the problem.

This is a simple but brilliant little practice of hers.  Math can be so charged, and the prospect of making a mistake in math inspires fear and trepidation throughout the land.  If a young person can relate to miscalculation as an opportunity to pretend they’ve made a little joke, they’ve got at least one way to keep perspective.

So many of the kids I work with have learned to tense up and start defending themselves when they can’t remember something or when they mix things up.  Their eyes dart up to see how I’ll react, and before I even have a chance to, they start spinning their talking wheels – “Oh, I thought we were supposed to do plus, not times… My teacher said… When we did it in class… This is so confusing…” Or they just give up all together and tell me they can’t do it.  Usually over something as small as five, instead of six, for two times three.  These kids have received the message that if you don’t get every bit of it right every time, especially the single-digit stuff, then you might as well hang up your math cleats and plan on a route that doesn’t include any numbers.  They expect to be judged on their ability to achieve computational perfection.

Andrea figured out, in time, that it’s possible to miscalculate, even often, and still excel as a math student.  And that if she keeps her sense of humor about her, she can keep her head in the game.

I’ve started telling the younger kids I know, especially those who get skittish when they mix up six and five (or write a seven open to the right instead of left), about Andrea’s just kiddings.  I’ll say something like “One of the teenagers I know, when she makes a little mistake like that, always says ‘Just kidding.’ She’s not saying that to really pretend she meant to do it, she’s saying it because it’s funny to pretend she meant to do it.  I think she does it to remind herself that making a little mistake is no big deal and if she makes a little joke about it, the mistake doesn’t distract her from the real thinking she’s trying to do.”

A couple of them have tried it, and with noticeable results.  It interrupts the habit of panic and doubt, creates a space for relaxation and ease.  And there’s nothing like a little calm to free up the mind for math.

*Not her actual name.

Sparks

Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Worry about yourself

This little one’s inadvertently making an interesting point about the relative usefulness of adults.  She knows she can buckle herself in and just needs some time to get it done, and she wants her dad to pay attention to the things she actually needs him for, namely taking care of himself and actually driving the car.

Her stance suggests the possibility of a more efficient use of adult experience: once kids have the information and example they need, we should get back to giving our attention to the rest of what they’ll need us to provide information and example about.

It’s not that kids don’t want or need help.  It’s just that what they often crave is not for us to fuss about the things we’ve already shown them how to do as they’re working on completing their mastery of those things. What they often wish, as this child is so persistently saying, is that we would just go about our business.   That we would go ahead and do things, to show them how to do them, and then move on and do some more other things.  So they can start trying pieces of what we’re doing as soon as they’re able and interested, and then take over for themselves when they’re ready.

And I think Gandhi, for one, would have concurred.  More on that here, regarding that musical instrument you always wished you’d learned how to play…

Clean-up

I forwarded a notice to a friend about an upcoming volunteer clean-up event. It’ll be on a Saturday morning, on one of the local beaches.  My friend has two young sons who, whenever they have the chance, walk around their neighborhood picking up litter.  They learned these stewardly ways by watching their parents, but both of them seem, at the ages of 4 and 6, to have surpassed those parents in their dedication to tending the nearby earth.

Their mom responded to my email to let me know that the boys were very excited about the beach clean-up day.  “They have soccer on Saturday mornings,” she wrote, “but they may just have to miss a week for this; it’s more up their alley anyway.”

The boys like soccer, and they’ll probably keep playing at least for awhile because it’s a relatively fun way for them to spend a Saturday morning.  But their mom knows soccer doesn’t invigorate and inspire them the way cleaning up the beach will.  It’ll be lots more inconvenient, and to an uninformed onlooker it might appear as though she’s keeping her kids from playing, from being kids.

But the truth is, kids are more connected with the playfulness of work they take seriously than adults tend to be. For these two boys, there is more satisfaction and delight available in tidying up a patch of land than in running up and down the soccer field. For other kids it’s the opposite.  And no one’s right or wrong about how kids should be spending their time. People, including kids, are just different from each other, and when we’re given the chance to be who we are and care about what we care about, the lines between chores, work, fun, and play will blur all the way until we can’t see them anymore.

Spiral

I opened my computer’s browser and saw this video caption: “It looks like this guy is just lugging around a 100 pound tire, but he’s about to do something pretty cool with it.” It turns out, as you can see from the video, that he’s going to use it as a hula-hoop.  If you’ve ever tried to hula-hoop, or lift a tractor tire, you can imagine that this feat would require a great deal of strength, coordination, practice, and patience to achieve.

It also looks very, very awkward at the outset, and like an odd choice of ways to waste time.

Kids are often doing things that look the way this looked – like a guy just lugging around a 100 pound tire.  They spend inordinate quantities of time and attention on things that appear to be nothing.  They run around and around and around things.  They pick things up and move them to other places.  (Or just put them back down.) They draw the same thing over and over.  They ask the same question again and again.  They stack things on top of each other and then knock them over.  It can seem pointless and unsophisticated. But if we’re paying attention in a particular kind of way, if we’re curious about what they’re up to, we often find out later that something else, something complicated or subtle or graceful, was in the works.  If we give kids room to do the things they’re doing that seem unproductive, that seem superfluous, that keep them from what we wish they were doing, we may facilitate accomplishment and contribution we can’t predict.

Anne Lamott wrote of her infant grandson: “Einstein would probably say that [my grandson] is already every age he will ever be, but in such super-slow motion relative to our limited perspective that we can’t see the full spiral of him yet…”

We forget, in our eagerness to make sure kids get by, that our perspective is limited.  We forget that we don’t know everything there is to know about how and where a new person will fit, what potential he or she possesses and is beginning to explore and develop, and how that potential might get expressed in his or her interaction with the rest of the world.  When we give ourselves room to be curious in our uncertainty, rather than just frightened into rigidity, we make it possible for the full spiral of each new person to be realized.

Seeing

I was on my bicycle the other morning and passed a row of parked cars in front of a restaurant.  One of these cars got my attention because, I eventually figured out, it had resting on its roof rack a small row boat with a pair of deflated pontoons slung over either side.  Fortunately, I figured this out before my puzzled gaze caused me to veer off course.  But for a few moments, I couldn’t quite understand what I was looking at.  Had a giant duffle bag full of wood dropped from the sky and landed on this vehicle?

In the course of any given day, we know what we’re seeing, most of the time.  Or at least we think we know.  Much of the time we see what we’ve already decided to see, or what we’re looking for.  The things that stand out are the ones we scan for.  I was in a workshop recently in which the leader asked us to say to ourselves “yellow, yellow, yellow” as we looked around the room and notice which objects stood out.  And then, “blue, blue, blue.”  If she’d have just told us that we “see what we’re looking for,” I’d have nodded in solemn agreement.  But to watch my mind pull the colors out away from everything else in view; this got my attention in a different way.

One thing we have grown very adept at looking for and seeing is disorder and disability in children.  We look at kids and see all sorts of problems – things that make them less easily compatible with existing expectations.  We name the problems and categorize them, create new interventions intended to eliminate them, build entire institutions around them.  For better or worse.

We’re less skilled at seeing the affinities and strengths that make kids unique and capable.  The problems are so shiny to us, so alluring with their fancy names and their carefully mapped-out recommended responses, that it’s difficult to see the other colors.  And to see what those other colors may lead to or turn into if we pay as much attention to them as we pay to the problems.

On my bike that day, approaching the odd-looking boat flopped over and configured in a way boats usually aren’t, I had to ask myself, with some impatience and force, “What am I looking at?  What the heck is that?  What am I not seeing that’s right in front of me?”  Since then, I’ve been trying to remember to ask similar questions of myself when I’m sitting across from a child.

Because there are the things I already know, the things that are easy to look for and notice, and then there’s everything else.  And the everything else – the things that don’t match up or seem to fit and insist we reach deeper into our ability to imagine and conceive of newness and alternative – is often where the richest, most promising parts of us live.

…what you wish for

I got a delightfully practical and irreverent little book about landscaping and gardening for my birthday.  (Here’s a link in case you’re in need or want of such a book.) In the section about hardiness, and which plants will grow in which zones, I came across this note of caution and wisdom from the author:

“Zone envy is natural, but each of us has good things that no one else can have.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This could be said of many things, including us people, with our various proclivities and struggles.  Those children, for example, who frustrate their caretakers with what seems like excessive sensitivity often say and do astonishingly insightful, compassionate things that less sensitive children don’t.

If you could change that thing about your child (or yourself) that you wish were different, you might also have to give up something you couldn’t bear to live without.

Growing limits

At the end of last summer we brought a little fuchsia inside with low hopes.  I picked up the diminutive plant early in the season expecting that it, like the one I bought the summer before, would thrive in the gentle morning sun where I hung it, spilling over the sides of the basket like fuchsia are wont.  Instead it grew about two inches in two months and produced a single tiny pale blossom. In the spirit of Arnold Lobel’s Toad, I spoke to it occasionally.  I may have been more insistent than Toad, but I’m sure at least once I said simply and perhaps ever so impatiently, as he did, “Now, plant, start growing.”

Once inside, the fuchsia maintained its low stature until December or so, at which point it finally started to grow.  Straight up.

I found this frustrating.  I wanted it to grow like I’ve come to believe and expect a fuchsia plant should, with graceful trailing symmetrical vines.  And to bloom.  It seemed to have no intention of that.

But then a few weeks ago, a pair of buds began to swell at the end of the tallest stalk, a precarious two feet above the surface of the soil. I was less encouraging this time. “No way can you handle the weight of blooming,” I said.

But as the flowers grew, so did the diameter of the stalk.  Soon there were two more pairs of blossoms. The stalk listed slightly but held up.  Other stalks followed suit, and soon the plant was an unlikely display of top-heavy splendor.

“Point taken,” I replied. Apparently it would succeed in pulling this off.

I’m sure there are all sorts of simple botanical reasons the fuchsia grew and bloomed this way, but when something like this happens in my house I have a hard time not taking it as metaphor. I’m constantly asking people to consider that this may be how growth works, when it comes to children who show their greatest potential in areas or directions that seem odd or unlikely to produce results or success. When they don’t read right away because they’re busy perfecting their climbing or they’d rather be on the phone with a grandparent than go to a birthday party with classmates or they don’t care about learning to throw accurately but they’ll pore for hours over architectural drawings.

Children, like plants, often don’t abide by our wishes for the timing or content of their development.  But if we make it our job only to offer the steadiest support we know how, and trust kids to find their way to whatever unique expression and contribution they may be capable of, we may well be surprised and delighted at how they turn out. We may find, for example, that the avid climber wasn’t trying to get out of learning to read but knew she did her best thinking when she was in motion.  Perhaps she later leads outdoor adventures, or restores ecosystems.  We may find that the party-avoider was not anti-social but simply preferred the quiet company of one person at a time. That the fascination with architectural drawing was the beginning of a capacity for visualizing and solving complicated technical problems.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote “Man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” We can keep doing that, keep holding back the human organism with static hope and prediction, or we can watch each new person with the expectation that we have absolutely no idea how much is possible, and what the limits of the world, the limits of human potential and growth, might actually be.

Two twos

John Holt once wrote (in Instead of Education) that no one can truly say yes to an idea unless he can freely say no to it.

Yesterday I played a round of Yahtzee with an eight year-old.  This particular eight year-old tends to favor instant gratification, a tendency which on one occasion during our game was putting his chances of winning in peril.  He loves a fast pace, and he usually acts quickly but also enjoys winning.  Because he is new to the game and its nuances, I thought it only fair to point out the potential cost of the choice he was about to make.

I should say before I proceed with the story that I have been meeting with this child for several weeks, because he’s been having difficulty in school and his mom is hoping to find a way for him to exist there with less stress and anxiety.  It has been my experience that it’s impossible to empower a person to receive ideas for making his or her experience of any situation better, (or his or her performance in any situation better if that’s the goal), without, as John Holt suggests, giving that person the opportunity to decline any suggestions made. Young people are so often trapped in patterns of generalized resistance, after many years of being bossed into things by adults whether or not those things serve and support, that they miss out on input that they might actually want.  (I wrote about this in more detail here.)  So with this child I have been, in the context of games and other activities he engaged in with me by choice, offering suggestions with the understanding that he would likely say No thank you at least as often as said Yes (if not always). He has in fact said No thank you many many times.

So when it came time for him to choose between recording a pair of twos on his scoresheet or recording a pair of threes, I once again offered a suggestion knowing that it might well be turned down.

Me: Hey, I have a suggestion for you about this one.  Do you want to hear it?

Him: Um… yes.

He stopped moving for the few seconds it took me to explain, glancing back and forth between my face and the dice.

Me: I know it probably seems better to take the two threes because that’s six, and the two twos is only four, but the thing is that by taking less than three of the threes, you sort of lose three.  If you take less than three twos, you only lose two.  Which makes it a little easier to catch up later on, if you still want to get the bonus. I just thought you might want to know that before you decide, but of course it’s up to you.

He didn’t quite understand, which isn’t surprising, given the complexity of the argument and my lackluster presentation of it. And I know he was skeptical, because he knows that in games, nearly always, more is better.  But he opted to take the twos instead of the threes. As he wrote the four carefully on his scorecard, he said to himself quietly “I think I’d like to lose less here.”

I’m certain that if I hadn’t accepted weeks’ worth of No thank yous he wouldn’t even have bothered to listen, though he might have pretended to, and might even have followed my advice. But in this case he did listen, enough to say back to himself the part of what I’d said that seemed consistent with his commitment in the game (that is, winning, which presumably seemed related to “losing less”). He listened, considered, and then acted according to the new information he had and his own commitment.  He truly said yes to it.

It could seem as though all that was at stake here were two measly Yahtzee points.  But imagine the difference it can make to a young person to feel free to evaluate the potential value of a piece of advice.

When we stop trying to force kids to take input, they become free to actually receive it.

And then what happens is that it becomes possible for them to use adults for the purpose for which we are best suited and for which they actually need us:  to be team members with them as they navigate their way through a complicated world; to let them know which things we’ve found to be true for ourselves and what has worked for us, in case it might help them find what’s true for them and will work for them.

Duet

This time of year in the morning one of the first things I do is check on my paperwhite bulbs.  (I learned this only a couple of years ago; set a bulb in a pile of rocks with water just deep enough to graze the base of the bulb, and as soon as the water’s there, the bulb will sprout roots that zoom out in amongst the rocks.  They can hang around dry for weeks doing nothing, and then just a whisper of nearby hydration invites them out.)

IMG_5419

A few mornings ago when I checked, the roots on this one had started.  Ten or twelve little white points poking through.  I shook my head in amazement, which I do just about every time I see this happen, as though I haven’t yet realized that I can count on it.

And then I had this thought: Earthly organisms have instincts.

Instincts… I got out the dictionary.  (This is not necessarily the most sensible thing to do when confronted with an unexpected thought, but I’m wordy, so that’s what I do.)  Here’s what my dictionary said about instinct: “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.”

Complex and specific indeed, this tendency of a bulb to send out roots just because water is nearby.

What about other earthly organisms? We often say to each other – we humans who do have reason on hand – “trust your instincts!” But we also don’t tend to trust our instincts much at all, particularly in the industrialized pockets of the planet we inhabit.  We favor reason.  And we trust a cocktail of experience and interpretation of experience that relieves us of the need to trust instinct. Or at least makes us feel like we can get away with not trusting our instincts.

I think this is fairly costly, and could be in part to blame for much of our disease and unrest.  Where it may be most costly is in how we inflict the bias on young people.  Human children have instincts about which activities and tasks they’re suited to and which they are not, and they immediately start acting according to those instincts.  If they’re wordy, they might crawl in the direction of books, or listen especially intently when others are talking, or not start speaking until they have full sentences ready.  If they’re outdoorsy, they might cry when it’s time to go inside.  If they’re fascinated by structure, they might pile things up and knock them over, and then repeat. And if they’re not wordy, and someone’s trying to push words at them, they might duck or squirm.  If they’re not outdoorsy, they might cry when it’s time to go out.  If they’re not fascinated by structure, they might ignore the blocks.

The very thing that makes a young human child delightful, the instinct that makes her perfectly suited to life on earth, also sets spinning the worrisome wheels of the reason-driven adults who are charged with her care.  We start forcing reason on kids when they are very, very young in the form of various curricula. (Where a curriculum is any pre-determined course of instruction or expectation, mandated according to reason.) We have curricula for walking, for eating, for sleeping at particular hours, for behaving in specific ways under specific circumstances, for understanding lists of things and performing lists of tasks we’ve heard are critical to development and success.

And we have reasons for choosing the curricula we choose.  Very often our reasons are good.  But kids have lots of good instincts, too, and while it’s not always clear what those instincts are for, what the “complex and specific” nature of the instinct is and what pattern or journey it might lay the groundwork for, if we could find the courage to try to choregraph a duet between the two – between our reasoned relationship to the world and the instinctual nature of the creature new to its environment, we may very well find ourselves delighted and amazed, relieved even, by what becomes possible.