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.

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Really little steps

So let’s say a kid wants to learn something big.  And by big, I mean something that could take a long time to master – something like speaking a language fluently, playing the piano, having a book published, competing in the Olympics, reading Harry Potter.  An accomplishment that will mean a high degree of mastery in a particular area when reached, but first, things that might feel like chore, drudgery, work.  It’s easy to think, when kids resist the early steps and phases of acquiring a skill, that they don’t actually want it that much.  If they did, wouldn’t they be willing to do the work?  Show up for the unpleasant parts?  Too often as adults we default to one of two things.  We give up, because we decide it wasn’t that important to them in the first place.  Or we just insist on practice, because we know they really want the possible result and the only way we see to get them there is to force it, to override the resistance.

Yikes.  Sometimes it’s OK, and whatever  default option we choose ends up seeming as though it was for the best.  But often it doesn’t, and everyone gets frustrated and cranky and disappointed.

When we decide to force it, it’s often in increments of half an hour.  If you’re going to insist on piano practicing, it’s for half an hour.  Getting better at reading?  Half an hour at a time.  Learning to rollerblade?  Half an hour.  And again, sometimes that works, but often it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t, consider that a half an hour can seem like a very long time.  Instead, consider suggesting very very tiny amounts of time, amounts that seem so ridiculously small they can’t possibly make any difference.  Amounts so small that they feel manageable, even laughable, to whoever’s trying to master the thing.  You can try it out on yourself first to see it in action.  It will likely make you laugh, it’s so silly.  Plan on doing something for 2.5 minutes.  Do it for a few days, and see if you get anything done.  And see if you get more done than you were getting done when you were insisting on hours at a time from yourself.  See how your resistance compares.

Then invite your kids to try it with whatever’s looming too large.  No amount of time is too small to start with.  (It’s always possible to add time, but once something gets swallowed up by resistance and struggle, it’s hard to restore the inspiration for it.) And it’s OK to worry that they won’t ever master it this way, but if you’ve read this far, you know that’s very possible with the alternative too, so it’s worth a try.  And further, it’s very likely that if it’s something they actually want to master, they will end up doing more than the little amount they’ve promised, once it doesn’t feel too overwhelming anymore. (It’s worth mentioning that if they don’t really want to master the thing, none of this is likely to do anything but allow them to do it as little as possible, which might not be the worst thing to find out.)  Even if they do stick with two and a quarter minutes for weeks, they’re likely to decide to increase it.  Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, kids really do want to get better at things.  They want to be more and more like adults, including in the realm of mastery and self-direction and self-regulation.  This approach gives them the chance to dabble in those.

But mostly, it’ll make it possible for them to take something on that’s big, in a way that doesn’t feel too big.

* I think it was because of one of Martha Beck’s books that I started using the practice, and inviting kids and parents to try it too. In order to include a link to her work here, I visited her blog and found that she just happens to have posted about what she calls turtle steps the other day. With a rather delightful turtle image, too.*