Vitality files

I was behind my house the other day, cleaning up twigs and other remnants of winter, when I heard from an adjacent yard a handful of intermittent exclamations.  At first I could only discern that these utterances were exclamatory in nature.  I couldn’t make out the words.  Then I heard a ball ricochet off the fence, and then another.  The next words were audible.  “Yes! I got it!” and then “Another one – amazing!” My five year-old neighbor was staging a baseball game, complete with opposing teams and umpires and commentators.  By himself.  He would toss the ball up in the air and then chase it down, pitch it to himself and then drive it with a bat across his makeshift field.  At one point his older brother overheard him from the driveway and called a mocking mimic through the other side of the fence, but the little one wasn’t fazed.  He snarled briefly back, and then carried on.

I’m always complaining that I can’t describe vitality, though I know it when I see it. And of course it can be audible too, so I also know it when I hear it.  What I heard in the yard reminded me of the video I posted awhile back of a young mountain biker, navigating a challenging trail for the first time.  He sounded just like my little neighbor did – breathing hard but unable to resist the delight of narration. And in both cases the narrator wasn’t visible, but the vitality was impossible to miss. Here it is again:

I think we believe, as a culture, that this quality of engagement with life is only possible for the very young, before it’s time for the serious work to begin, for the hard realities of life to take over.  We think it’s cute when kids are enthusiastic, and it’s nice for them that they’re that excited and engaged, but we know it won’t and can’t (and maybe even shouldn’t?) last.  Our attitude seems to be that kids are like that because being a kid is fun and carefree and eventually people just become less enthusiastic and animated. And they have to get to work on the serious stuff anyway, so it’s just as well.

But look how hard these kids are working at what they’re doing.  They’re not doing things because they’re easy.  They’re not shying away from challenge.  They’re choosing those challenges that compel them to participate in such a way that their hearts pound and their voices swell with excitement.

What if that kind of relationship to life and aliveness is actually more available to all of us, at any age, than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe?  What if it dies off not because of an inevitable deterioration of enthusiasm for life but because it’s not encouraged, because we don’t empower ourselves to go after what young people show is possible for humans?

I recently came across another such demonstration of vitality and skill (distinct from the solemn demonstrations of prowess one often sees in young performers):

Sometimes I worry because so many of my examples of vitality seem to involve sports or physical action.  Do I think that only athletes and others who are in physical motion experience and show vitality?  Not at all.  I’ve seen people invigorated and animated by the likes of data analysis and proofreading.  I do think it’s generally easier to find the athletic and physically animated examples because they tend to play better on video. Though, have a look at Paul Lockhart here, barely able to contain himself on the subject of serendipitous parallelograms:

Vitality is probably easiest to see when there’s a physical expression to it, and it does have a tendency to incite motion.  Lockhart is in a chair, but the farther he gets into his discussion of the parallelogram situation, the more he moves.  He leans forward, he gestures, he varies his facial expression, his eyes dance.  So maybe it’s just that the demonstrations of vitality that get shared (on the web, for instance) are the ones that have other appeal – as in Malcolm and Owen’s cases where the level of skill seems surprising.  And it’s more universally exciting, maybe, to watch someone zooming along or rocking out than it is to watch someone like Lockhart turning giddy at the sight of an unexpected pair of parallel lines.

But the essence is the same, and every one of us has something that brings us to life this way. What if we were to orient ourselves around that, and see what we could build from there, rather than looking first to those things we think we have to force ourselves to do in order to get by?

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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.

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.

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.

One child’s hockey is another child’s…

It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen.  When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice.  Practicing, actually.  They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.

It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice.  Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!”  “It’s different! It’s a game.”  “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”

But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance.  (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)

Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force.  And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.

So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun.  I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job.  After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted.  She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.

Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity.  When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery.  Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.

We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.

If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them.  What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.

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.