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.

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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.)

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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.

Jake’s example

I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 14 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:

Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact.  After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…

Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science.  His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate. 

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax.  You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”

I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two.  She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back.  It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from.  But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.

As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction.  From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention.  Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.

The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses.  But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark.  Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.

Listening for the Surgeons

The surgeon on the TV show has just had his hand badly damaged in a plane crash, and he’s taken to a hospital staffed with unfamiliar doctors who swarm around him and his hand, discussing the best course of action. He’s unconscious when he arrives, but wakes up long enough to whisper “I’m a surgeon.”

The scenario may be typical far-fetched television drama fare, but the plea is perfectly believable.  This man’s most important commitment and contribution depends on a certain degree of functionality in his hand, something that not every patient would need. His situation might merit more aggressive treatment than would another patient with a commensurate injury.  If he’d had the time and stamina for more words he’d likely have said “Please do everything you possibly can to restore function to my hand. Give it any resources you have.  Take risks you might not otherwise take. My hand is the most important thing.” He wasn’t trying to tell them he was special.  He was letting them know who he was.

Kids start doing this when they are very young (without the dire circumstances).  They don’t always use words; often their clarity about what their best contribution and purpose might be begins to show itself before they’re able to communicate effectively in words:

Perhaps they find themselves fascinated by the inner workings of machinery and most engaged and well-used when they’re taking things apart.  The adults around them will tolerate it to a point but then we’ll want them to sit down and study something on paper, and they’ll resist, one way or another.  “I’m an engineer,” they’re whispering.

Or they’ll find that the place they’re at their best is outside, doing most anything, and so they strain to be there as much as they can, even when adults want them inside to eat lunch or to read them stories or to play with their brothers and sisters.   “I belong outside,” they’re whispering.

Or they’ll love stories, have voracious appetites for being read to and for audio books and films. They love making up and enacting elaborate tales, but they’ll resist any teaching advances when it comes to writing or reading text from a page.  “I’m a storymaker,” they’re whispering.

They’ll seem more upset than we’d like them to be when someone else is sad or hurt; put aside their own concerns to comfort and support another person.  “I want to help,” they’re whispering.

Or their favorite parts of the day will not be the times when they’re busy with their own personal activities but when they’re with a group of friends, watching and listening and negotiating and then later synthesizing and reporting on the goings-on.  “I’m a diplomat,” they’re whispering, “or a mediator or a social scientist.”

I don’t mean to suggest that kids showing these preferences and commitments are trying to declare lifelong careers.  Only that they’re letting us know what they have recognized themselves to be suited to and captivated by. They are asking us to recognize that there are parts of them, as with the surgeon’s hand, that call for more attention and respect and support than others.  They’re giving us hints about where to start – hints about who they are and what they have to offer.  They’re saying “Here’s when I’m at my best; here’s what it makes sense for me to start with, here’s something I can commit myself to.”

The way we often respond is like this: “That’s nice, and you can do some of that, but you’re getting older and it’s really time for you to learn how to ____. You can [be with your friends/go outside/take things apart] when your homework’s done.”

Even if there’s enough time in the day for both, such that one doesn’t have to shut out the other, many parents find that kids eventually stop doing those things we’ve designated extra-curricular, even if they’re still drawn to them.  We tend to chalk this up to age, but that’s often not it.  We’re sending the message that whatever it is that kids have identified as uniquely or specifically them is not as important or valuable as what we have identified as urgently critical for them to learn and know.  Even if they do master the things we tell them to, they’re doing so against a backdrop of believing that what makes them unique – what shows itself as the basis for their individual contribution and participation – is of only peripheral value and not deserving of priority.

This, unfortunately, is a very effective way of preventing the thing many adults actually want for kids – for them to find a way to be comfortable as themselves in the world and to make the best, healthiest possible use of their capacities.

Progress

For a long time, the educational paradigm was to give everyone the same thing the same way.  We didn’t worry about whether or not every child was getting what we were offering.  We just offered it.

Then at some point we did start to worry about it.  We wanted more children to get what was offered.  We started working on how to offer it so that more of them could get it. I don’t think anyone would contend that this shift wasn’t, hasn’t been, progress.

It isn’t enough, though.  It works better, but it doesn’t work well enough.  We’ve been at it awhile now, and more and more, the ones for whom it isn’t working are protesting.  Some of them protest by disappearing into themselves.  They get very quiet.  Others protest by making lots and lots of noise – by being what we tend to call difficult.  Others just struggle and think it’s their fault. It’s time to move on.

I was thinking.  If we started with giving everyone the same thing the same way, and then we moved on to trying to give everyone the same thing in different ways, maybe the next logical step would be to acknowledge that every person actually needs something different. So we can get to work figuring out how to provide it.

This would not be good news for standardization and convenience, but it could be the best possible news for humanity. It could mean that we start to get a glimpse of what’s really possible – of what happens when each person’s actual potential is realized.

Thrum

Lots and lots of people watched a YouTube video yesterday of a young child’s trip down a tricky mountain bike trail.  The camera is attached to the rider’s helmet, so the viewer gets to experience the ride with him.

The whole thing made me a bit uneasy at first, mostly because I’m not much of a risk-taker and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride a bike down that trail myself.  It didn’t seem safe and I was concerned.  I got over that after a few seconds when I realized that the rider is very skilled and probably wasn’t in much more danger than I am when I ride around on streets with zero grade.  (Actually he’s probably safer, given the absence of cars and drivers.)

Once I got over that I could enjoy his enjoyment of the ride.  I think much of the appeal of the footage lies in the tone and articulation of his commentary; he’s still getting some of his consonant articulations worked out, so his expressions of the large emotions he has over the course of the ride are especially endearing.

But for me the most striking thing about the soundtrack is the quality of attention in his voice and his breath.  Behind the young exclamations it’s possible to hear the thrum of vitality, as he calls on everything he’s learned about moving his weight in concert with his bike, regulating velocity, negotiating turns and terrain.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a treacherous trip down a mountain to call forth that kind of aliveness.  It’s not the ride itself that inspired the quality of this child’s commentary.  It’s his relationship with the riding. He’s been practicing, studying the skill and performance of his dad and others, in order to be able to do a thing that delights him. Everyone has a thing they can be like this about.  At least one.

Thanks for the reminder, Malcolm.