How much room you get

A few months ago I read a short essay by a classical pianist about creating a recording of his performance of a piece of music.  At one point in the story he mentions that the positioning of the microphone relative to the piano is important.  It affects the roundness of the sound, he says, and “how much room you get versus how much piano.” I’d never thought about it quite that way before, that of course a recording includes the surroundings as well as the object of the recording.

I was reminded of this handful of words the other day when I heard someone mention a behavioral diagnosis frequently given to young children.  I have spent enough time with a wide enough range of children with various diagnoses to know that there are very real symptoms and challenges associated with particular combinations of neurological organization and chemistry, so I do not dismiss any such diagnoses out of hand.  But I think the musician’s query about how much piano and how much room can serve us in choosing how we’ll relate to and assess a child’s behavior.  We could ask ourselves “How much is the child and how much is the room?”

It seems to be easiest and most common to head right for all-child, no room.  That assessment, locating all of a child’s performance inside his or her skin, puts us in a comfortable helping position.  We can focus all of our efforts on fixing the child’s problem.  Another simple one is all-room, no child.  This one is clean in the opposite way, vilifying the environment and absolving the child.

In my experience it’s almost always much much more complicated and intricate than either of those two possible assessments.  Just as you can’t have the sound of an instrument without the space and conditions in which you play it, you can’t have behavior without the parameters of physical space in which it occurs, the demands made on and expectations of the person doing the behaving, the words spoken to him or her before and during, and myriad other conditions and contributing factors.

When I’ve made this point before, I’ve received frustrated and even outraged exclamations that I’m failing to recognize the plights of children, that my suggestion that we be careful to include the impact of a child’s surroundings implies that I think that kids aren’t actually struggling.

And I have seen many cases in which behavioral diagnoses are assigned because the diagnosed children are behaving inconveniently, not because the children are actually struggling.  But in fact I think it’s just as important, maybe more important, to the children who are actually struggling that we consider every factor in our efforts to support them.  That we are careful to disentangle to the furthest extent possible the elements of difficulty that are inherent to a specific human organism from those that are introduced from outside the confines of the organism.

Only once we’ve asked ourselves how much of what we’re seeing is the child and how much of it is the room can we actually begin the work of tackling any truly inherent struggle.

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Kicking the correcting habit

I got this question recently from a young writer: “How come when I ask my parents to read something I’ve written they immediately start correcting it? I asked my mom to read a first draft and she covered it with marks.  It makes me want to stop showing her stuff.”

Here’s what I told her: The thing to remember is that when your parents were young, they probably never got much feedback other than correction.  So to them, the role of an adult in relation to a child’s writing is of correct-er.  Correcting may be the only way your parents know how to respond.  If you want them to do something different, you’ll probably have to be very specific, ahead of time.  You could try saying something like this:  “This is my first draft of this, so I haven’t worked on the spelling and punctuation details yet.  But I’d like to know what you think of it so far – whether you like the way it sounds, if the characters seem real; stuff like that.”  

It may take a few rounds for them to get comfortable leaving the “errors” alone, so try not to get too frustrated and give up on them.  They really do want to read your writing; they just need a little help with responding to it.

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If you ask most adults why they think kids need to be able to write, they’ll say “so they can express themselves clearly; so they can say what they need to say in writing.”  Our words suggest that we’re interested in the communication of writing.  But our actions – the way we’re eager to get our hands on a child’s work with a correcting implement in hand – tend to suggest otherwise.  We don’t mean to get in the way of what we say we want (progress toward proficiency in communicating), but we do. When we respond only with correction to kids’ attempts to use writing in the way we say we want them to (leaving notes, posting Do Not Enter signs, compiling long wish lists, drafting stories) it sends the message that we’re more committed to the presentation – the performance of the writing – than to the actual communication.

Once kids get a grip on using words on paper to send meaning out into the world, our editing services may well become welcome and even requested.  We might offer them like this: “Before you send this note to your grandmother do you want me to look over it and make suggestions about what might make it easier for her to read?  If the words are spelled the way she’s used to seeing them your thanks might come through more clearly.”  Or “I know you’re hoping that your poem might get printed in Highlights.  If you’d like I can make a couple of suggestions about changes you could make that might help them understand what you’ve written so they can appreciate it.”

It’s not that kids can’t use our input.  It’s that when we throw it at them before it’s useful, because it’s all we’ve been taught to do with early writing, it’s more discouraging than helpful.  Professional writers grant themselves latitude in the early drafts and stages of their writing; polishing is for later, if the thing is to be presented for publication or otherwise committed to print.  If we offer that same latitude to young emerging writers, they’ll do the same thing with it that the professionals do; they’ll use it to plumb the depths, look for the essence, of what they want to say.  And also like the professionals, they’ll sometimes decide that what they’ve written is something they want to share.

That’s when our experience and editing services can become useful and welcome.  And if when we offer services we respect a child’s choice to accept or decline, we make two things possible that might not otherwise be.  First, if kids know that our support is optional, they’re not restricted to a choice between compliance and resistance.  They become available to receive what we’re offering if it’s useful to them.  (Otherwise they tend to resist out of habit and frustration.)  Second, we make it possible for them to learn how to discern which corrections/suggestions/changes actually serve what they’re trying to communicate.  If we just bully them into taking our changes because we’re bigger and older than they are, because we say so, because we know best, we shut down the process of their learning to discern for themselves.