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.

Forced math love

The heading of the article reads “Learning to Love Math.”  My pulse quickens for a moment.  I like the sound of this. From personal experience, I know that it is possible to learn to love math. When I was 8, and 9, and 10 years old I’d have told you I hated it.  Then I got the hang of it (or maybe something changed about the way it was offered, or even what was offered as it), and I started to like it.  Later still, it became something I would think about voluntarily, something to do for fun.  And now sometimes I get to share my love of it with other people, and then it’s fun again, and more.

So when I came across this article about learning to love it, I read on with excitement.  But then I got to this part, explaining a professor’s mission in rethinking math education: “We need to teach kids to love math, not just to get through math.”

While I agree entirely that it’s better for everyone if we come from an intention of inspiring love, rather than settling for the survival of “getting through,” the use of the word “need” left me a bit disappointed.

Every time we decide that we have to teach someone to love something (reading is another place we demand this of ourselves), we make the work of sharing knowledge and skill more difficult for ourselves and the task of receiving it more difficult for those with whom we intend to share it.  To show kids how something like math can be loveable is indeed more effective than just shoving boring-ified things down their throats.  Much more effective.

But to demand of ourselves that we get every person to love one thing is to doom ourselves to failure.  It’s just not possible. People are not like that. We’re not all going to love the same things. And further, humans (children included) are more available for learning when we don’t feel as though we have to take on someone else’s experience of the content, or someone else’s expectation of how it should seem, feel, be appreciated or used.

And we don’t have to love things in order to use them for what we’ll need them for. With the same commitment (to revealing the beauty of math and other potentially useful and loveable things), we could say things like “If we expect kids to be able to understand and use math, we should stop turning it into something that feels disconnected and arbitrary.” I know that’s probably what the quoted professor mostly meant.

But the words matter, and our longstanding habit of using the insistent language of “have-to” when we talk about young people and education is not without cost.  It’s possible to use language about math and other realms that won’t force us to face off with the diversity of human preference. We can choose words that make room for us to draw the potential appeal forth from the numbers (or the books or the music or the carpentry), words that will let us look for ways to make things feel more humane,  attractive, and accessible without insisting that those things occur the same way for everyone.

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.

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.

…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.

The writing, the talking, the drawing

“I prefer drawing to talking.  Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”

I came across this quotation this morning from the architect Le Corbusier.  My sense is that this sentiment was issued somewhat cantankerously, and I know from firsthand experience that drawing is frequently not faster than talking, but it got me thinking about drawing, and writing, and people who are new to both. How common it is for a young person to crave time for drawing, and how attached we are to getting kids to write, and soon.

Several years ago I met with a mom and her seven year-old.  The seven year-old was fiercely committed to drawing at the time (two years later he took up painting and landed a local gallery showing).  Meanwhile, his mom was worried about his sloppy handwriting.  I watched him do a little of each, the drawing and the writing.  I suspected that he was indeed struggling a bit with the formation of letters, but he was also resistant to the act and it seemed that resistance was playing its own part.  When he was drawing, he had enormous patience with himself for getting a line or a mark just the way he wanted it.  If it didn’t come out right at first, he’d try again until he got it.

This child’s mom and I decided that it might be worth holding off on forced handwriting practice, because it seemed as though the motor function required to neaten up the writing and get it flowing more easily and less stressfully might well come as a side effect of her son’s drawing practice.

I saw these two again a year later. The now eight year-old still preferred drawing to writing (his temperament is such that I suspect he’d have agreed with old Le Corbusier about the talking) but the difficulty with the handwriting had settled itself out.  “I stopped bothering him about it,” the mom told me.  “It made sense that the drawing would help his hand get stronger and more used to forming the lines he intended.”  She smiled.  “I had to be patient, and trust him, and it worked.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson from that.”

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?

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.