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.

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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.)

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A few mornings ago when I checked, the roots on this one had started.  Ten or twelve little white points poking through.  I shook my head in amazement, which I do just about every time I see this happen, as though I haven’t yet realized that I can count on it.

And then I had this thought: Earthly organisms have instincts.

Instincts… I got out the dictionary.  (This is not necessarily the most sensible thing to do when confronted with an unexpected thought, but I’m wordy, so that’s what I do.)  Here’s what my dictionary said about instinct: “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason.”

Complex and specific indeed, this tendency of a bulb to send out roots just because water is nearby.

What about other earthly organisms? We often say to each other – we humans who do have reason on hand – “trust your instincts!” But we also don’t tend to trust our instincts much at all, particularly in the industrialized pockets of the planet we inhabit.  We favor reason.  And we trust a cocktail of experience and interpretation of experience that relieves us of the need to trust instinct. Or at least makes us feel like we can get away with not trusting our instincts.

I think this is fairly costly, and could be in part to blame for much of our disease and unrest.  Where it may be most costly is in how we inflict the bias on young people.  Human children have instincts about which activities and tasks they’re suited to and which they are not, and they immediately start acting according to those instincts.  If they’re wordy, they might crawl in the direction of books, or listen especially intently when others are talking, or not start speaking until they have full sentences ready.  If they’re outdoorsy, they might cry when it’s time to go inside.  If they’re fascinated by structure, they might pile things up and knock them over, and then repeat. And if they’re not wordy, and someone’s trying to push words at them, they might duck or squirm.  If they’re not outdoorsy, they might cry when it’s time to go out.  If they’re not fascinated by structure, they might ignore the blocks.

The very thing that makes a young human child delightful, the instinct that makes her perfectly suited to life on earth, also sets spinning the worrisome wheels of the reason-driven adults who are charged with her care.  We start forcing reason on kids when they are very, very young in the form of various curricula. (Where a curriculum is any pre-determined course of instruction or expectation, mandated according to reason.) We have curricula for walking, for eating, for sleeping at particular hours, for behaving in specific ways under specific circumstances, for understanding lists of things and performing lists of tasks we’ve heard are critical to development and success.

And we have reasons for choosing the curricula we choose.  Very often our reasons are good.  But kids have lots of good instincts, too, and while it’s not always clear what those instincts are for, what the “complex and specific” nature of the instinct is and what pattern or journey it might lay the groundwork for, if we could find the courage to try to choregraph a duet between the two – between our reasoned relationship to the world and the instinctual nature of the creature new to its environment, we may very well find ourselves delighted and amazed, relieved even, by what becomes possible.

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.

Penmanship

I know several kids who write very, very slowly. I know others who like to decorate their letters as they write, many who form their letters starting at the bottom rather than the top, and lots who despise the task of holding a writing utensil at all, complaining of tired and weak muscles.

I watched one of these slow writers doing some math the other day.  The speed of her math performance has been a point of concern and discussion in school lately. It occurred to me as I was watching that part of the reason she takes a long time getting through math problems is that she wants the numbers to look nice.  For her, writing numbers (and anything else) is an opportunity to make art.

Artistry is often at work with the letter-decorators I mentioned too, though I’ve also seen letter-decorating used primarily to combat boredom.  Here are two other interesting coincidings: those writers who work from the bottom of the letter also tend to be the ones who would rather be designing and building things than sitting bent over a piece of paper, and the messiest and most apparently tormented or resistant are often the ones to whom the words are the most important.  The writers.

I’ve been observing young writers for a long time, and I was also one myself once.  The year I was eight was significant for me. I spoke in front of a large group of people for the first time, among other things. But the thing that got the most attention that year was my handwriting.  It wasn’t very good. I was in too much of a hurry, the adults told me.  I could do better.

Fortunately, that flurry of concern over my sub-par penmanship didn’t leave much of a mark on me, as far as I can tell.  I know that the parents and teachers who harped on my letter formation back then had my interests at heart and in mind.  I’m pretty sure that if they had realized I was just trying to keep up with my thoughts, they’d have handled it differently. The teachers I know now aren’t as hard on kids about handwriting as the ones I had when I was young, but we still tend to miss the opportunity to learn from what goes on with kids when they sit down to write – not just how the letters look but how kids are about it and what communication there may be for us to receive in the course of watching.

We miss this opportunity for noble reasons; we believe we know how to tell when writing’s going well and when it’s not.  The sight of neat legible letters soothes us, makes us feel as though things will be OK for the child forming those letters.  But too much haste, too little haste, unusual pathways, and general resistance worry us.  The task of writing feels important, so we get rigid and frightened about it and push for the results we know to push for.

But being rigid and frightened makes it hard to see what more there is to see, and it tends to undermine access to the very proficiency we’re after.

Here’s the thing.  The word is penmanship.  As with craftsmanship or sportsmanship, there’s grace and individuality suggested by and allowed for in the word.  Penmanship has come to refer only to how tidily we write, but it didn’t start there and we don’t have to settle for that.  We can ask ourselves more interesting questions about the emerging penmanship(s) of those newest to the tool – the way each one wields his or her pen.  What is there to see in a child’s resistance to writing?  What might it lead to?  Why would a person spend as much time drawing spiraling tails on every letter as choosing the words the letters make up?  Why is the messy writer in such a hurry?

If we ask questions like these, we’ll get insights into the behaviors themselves and also, most likely, surprising causes for further curiosity and even celebration.  And we’ll make lots more room for young people to come to own the work of writing, and to call on it to serve and support them in whatever paths and pursuits they choose.

Paperweight

I was once asked to tutor a ten year-old who didn’t want any help.  (This has happened lots of times; I say “once” because this story is about one particular child.)  He was a relatively good sport about it, because he’s a relatively compliant kid.  He was not about to refuse to meet with me, and he was not about to be rude to me.  But it’s hard for anyone in a situation like his to go without an outlet for resistance.  So this is what he’d do.  When it came time to write anything down on a homework assignment he’d write with one hand but not steady the paper with the other.  The result was nearly illegible numbers and symbols.  Just generally a big mess.

I’ve seen enough children doing this to discern with some accuracy when it’s the result of a lack of understanding of the physics involved in the act of writing (which it really sometimes is) and when it’s a communication.  This was a communication.

I could have told him to hold the paper still, and he probably would have obliged (being relatively compliant). But then he would have found some other way to let me know he wasn’t happy with the circumstances.  Instead I asked him if sometimes he holds the paper still when he’s writing on it.  He didn’t respond right away.  “What d’you mean?” he said (with what sounded to me like caution).  I said, “I mean, I’m pretty sure you know that when you’re writing, and you hang on to the paper with your other hand or steady it with your wrist, what you write will be easier to read.  So it seems like maybe you don’t feel like it right now, or something.”

He didn’t say much then, and we moved on. But the next time it happened, when he realized he was doing it, he looked up at me and I raised a dramatic eyebrow.  He covered his eyes for a moment, scrunching up his face, and laughed. It became a bit of a running joke between us.

My approach didn’t change the fact that this child didn’t really want to be there with me working on math, but it set a tone that allowed us to talk about it, person-to-person.  And that meant we could also talk about the various challenges and resistances that led his teachers and parents to send him to me in the first place.

This is one of those things that can seem simple but not actually be easy.  It’s often not easy to figure out how to acknowledge out loud that a child’s will is involved in a behavior, with curiosity about the behavior and without immediately attributing the expression of that will to laziness or obstinacy. But it’s possible.  And it’s worth it.  When we find ways to access and express genuine curiosity about why kids are doing what they’re doing, we make room for a human connection that transcends the common adult/child dynamic – the one in which an adult gives a directive of one kind or another and the child is limited to a choice between compliance and defiance. Breaking the cycle of that dynamic tends to allow for much more productive and peaceful conversations.

And it’s also just plain more fun and less exhausting for everyone.