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.

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.

Chicken, cucumbers, listening, complying

One summer, soon after I graduated from college, I was staying with my mom at her house.  She called one day from work and asked me to do a couple of things.  The conversation went something like this:

Mom: Could you take the chicken out of the freezer and slice up a few of the cucumbers from the bottom drawer of the fridge?

Me: Sure.

Mom: Thanks. I’ll be home around 6.

Me: OK.

As soon as I hung up I realized I had no recollection of what she’d asked me to do.

You’re likely giving me the benefit of the doubt here, concerned that I was having a stroke or something.  I wasn’t.  There was nothing wrong with my brain.  I just wasn’t listening.

I thought of this the other day when I overheard a mother and her son in a parked car.  The mom was in the front passenger seat looking at her phone, and the boy was climbing in and out of the driver’s seat while they waited for the driver to return.  Their conversation went something like this:

Mom: Stop it.

Child:

Mom: Oh, I got a message from Grammy. On Thursday we can go see her.

Child: At her house? All day?

Mom: Yeah, she gets back from her trip on Wednesday.  Stop climbing over the seat!

Child:

Mom: I said Stop it.  You are NOT LISTENING.

Unlike the distracted twenty-something I was that time my mom asked me to do the thing with the chicken and the cucumbers, this little guy was definitely listening.  That much was clear from his response to the news about seeing his grandmother. He just wasn’t complying with the direction about the seat-climbing.  Of course we know perfectly well that that’s what his mom meant. When we’re attempting to get kids to do things (whether for their own good or for our convenience), we tend to conflate listening and complying.  We say “You’re not listening” and we know that what we mean is that they’re not doing what we’re telling them to do, and that if they did, we’d know that they were listening.

But I think it would make a difference if we were more careful about distinguishing between listening and complying.  Maybe the most compelling reason is that most of us who interact with children want them to learn to be discerning about when they comply with what they’re being asked or commanded or pressured to do, and when they choose not to comply.  There are indeed situations that will arise in their lives when we hope they will listen, hear, and then not comply.

The earliest interactions kids have, with their parents and others who speak with them when they’re young, are the ones that train them in how they’ll relate to input from others.  We can’t reasonably expect them to listen/comply without much discernment when we’re talking, and then when others are talking (their peers or strangers or political zealots), listen first before making a considered choice about whether or not to comply.

And if kids are actually having trouble listening, or processing the content of a dialogue, it’s important to be able to recognize that, distinct from a resistance to compliance, so we can address that difficulty with listening or processing for what it is.

After a few rounds of what happened with me and Mom and the chicken and cucumbers, we decided that maybe she could, when making a request or delivering information that needed to be retained and acted upon, ask me (nicely) whether I was actually listening.  We realized that I was able (without meaning to be) to make it sound as though I was processing what I was hearing thoroughly enough to retain it, without actually retaining it.  I needed to consciously alert myself to pay a particular kind of attention when I was going to need to remember something.  Who knows why – maybe I was burned out from all the remembering I did as a college student, or maybe I’d developed a habit of tuning my mother out when she was giving instructions, or maybe I was just tired that year. But I was interested in keeping track of what she was saying, and so we figured out a way to make sure I did. And we laughed about it and I reminded her frequently to not be snippy when she was reminding me to listen. We treated it like a joke, but for serious purpose. Because of course it wasn’t always just about chicken and cucumbers.

It’s a gift to kids every time we invite them to inquire with us about the impact of what we (and they) say, and what it actually means. It often feels as though there isn’t time, but it makes a difference even if we find the time once in awhile, with just a few of the words we use over and over.

Lines less traveled

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out Logan Laplante’s TEDx talk about how he’s taken charge of his education, organizing his life around a commitment to being happy, healthy, and fostering creativity.

There’s just one small thing I wish Logan had taken a step further. He says that to follow a traditional educational trajectory is like skiing one well-worn line down a mountain, while designing a program for yourself is like heading off into the powder to blaze your own trail.  I’m with him up to the part where he says that the shared line is probably safer.  In the snow it may be, but when you’re building a life, I’m not so sure.

I think it may once have been, but it’s getting less and less safe to traverse the common route.  The competition is so great for the handful of spots there are to fill along the way (in the “best” colleges, “best” graduate schools, the “best” jobs) that it’s no longer a fail-safe way to build a life.  We just keep saying it is because the powder makes us nervous.  The powder’s unknown.  We’d rather take our chances on the thing that will almost certainly work out for some people, even if it’s only a very, very small percentage, than head off into the powder where everyone probably has an approximately equal chance of making it, because there are so many more routes possible and winning spots doesn’t matter so much, if it matters at all.

We’re not safer on the route we know.  We’re just more comfortable there.

I’m so grateful to Logan for the framework he offers, simply and frankly, in this talk. Logan lives in the kind of world I think we could build for everyone, where vitality is of the utmost value and importance and can, in fact, be the best possible guide.

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.

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.

One size fits one; mindful device-choosing

My dad called the other day with a question about smartphones.  After I told him what I know about the functions he was curious about, he sighed and said “Do you think it’s really a step forward, all this technology?”

I think and talk about this often with parents. The topic is huge, and endlessly complex.  But I’ve found that there’s a good place to start with the question my dad posed: It depends on who’s using it.

Here’s what I mean:

My brother runs two small businesses from his smartphone.  He has never in his life been comfortable sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time, so he may not have survived as an entrepreneur without technology that allows him to manage his work when he’s on the move.  In my opinion, that would have been a loss, both for him and for other people.  He’s a farmer and a pizza chef – his work means food, enjoyment, and community for many people.

And then there’s this.  An acquaintance of mine works as a mental health counselor.  Until recently she spent much of her time outside her job writing stunning prose and poetry.  A few months ago, she noticed that she wasn’t writing much. She realized that the time she would otherwise have spent writing was getting eaten up by the various entertainments and other consumptions available on her new smartphone.

My brother’s phone helps make his fullest participation and contribution possible.  My friend’s phone has apparently been undermining hers. (And I’ve seen similar scenarios of both types arise with children and electronic devices.)

I read recently about how the journalist John McPhee first used computers to support his writing.  After decades of organizing his stories manually, using slips of paper and scissors, he became curious (in the early 1980s) about whether or not new technologies might be able to support his process, perhaps improve his efficiency with assembling thoughts and ideas.  He met with Howard Straus, an information technology expert at Princeton where McPhee teaches.  What Straus said first to McPhee was “Tell me what you do.” He then (for many years) adapted software to support the complex organizational process that McPhee undergoes when assembling a story.  McPhee writes of Straus “Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around.  One size fits one.”

We don’t all have Howard Strauses on hand to tailor technology to support what we’re up to and what kids are up to, to this extent.  But we can approach it the way Straus did with McPhee and his writing. He didn’t rush at him with all the new possibilities, whether or not they could support or forward McPhee’s work.  He studied the actual person in front of him and then considered what might be possible and what computer technology could provide in support.

We can ask ourselves (and each other, and our kids) what it is that each of us is already up to, what we’d like to achieve, and then make choices about engaging with technology that are in keeping with the answers to those questions. It’s only a beginning; there’s lots more to manage and navigate, but it’s a place to start.

Executive compliance

When the phrase “executive function” is used in reference to school children, it usually means there’s been a failure to carry out tasks related to assignments – such things as keeping papers in order.  Conclusions are drawn about kids’ ability to execute. In my capacity as a coach and tutor I’m often asked to help kids address difficulties with executive function. And I have lots of strategies for improving it.

But before I offer any such strategies to a child, I need to know whether there’s actually a lack of executive function or a lack of executive compliance.  It’s true that sometimes kids don’t perform tasks they might otherwise perform because they can’t figure out how.  But sometimes it’s because they’re choosing not to perform them, for one reason or another.

There are actions to take in either case, but they’re very different actions. It’s no use offering a child strategies for executing tasks she could execute but just isn’t executing.  There are other things to attend to and address in that case that will be a better use of energy and resources.  On the other hand, a child who’s actually struggling to execute and is looking for support in doing so will be available for receiving any coaching an adult or peer might offer.

(See also: Help Unwanted)

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.