Pride Goes Before Tiny Bite Marks

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I don’t take credit for my children’s many accomplishments. They are their own remarkable people.

As a new mother I didn’t have this quite figured out. Yes, I knew that babies arrive on this planet with all sorts of traits wired in. I knew it’s up to us to gently nurture them, shelter them from harm (including the damage cynicism can do), allow them to take on challenges, help them learn to trust themselves, and let learning unfold in delight.

But I had a few early years when I thought, probably with obnoxious smugness, that my wonderful parenting had something to do with how well my kids were turning out. They were very young and so was I.

My oldest, a boy, was thoughtful and clever. He liked to take my face between his little hands and call me every superlative he could think of like“dear, sweet, wonderful Mama. (Isn’t this positively swoonable?) He rescued insects from the sidewalk, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he picked up from one of his favorite picture books. When his father and I tried to talk over our little one’s head about issues we thought he shouldn’t hear, we used Shakespearean language to obscure our meaning. We had to stop, because our toddler began regularly using words like “doth” and “whence.”  What made things work fascinated this little boy, from the bones in our bodies to the engine in our cars, and he insisted on learning about them.

My next child, a daughter, was assertive and talented. She drew, danced, and sang made-up songs of such pure wonder that, I kid you not, birds clustered in trees near her. The force of personality in that tiny girl led us all to laugh at her improbable jokes and enter into her complicated realms of make-believe. Born into a home without pets, her drive to be close to animals was so intense that she kept trying to make worms her friends. Entirely due to her persistence we ended up with several pets by the time she was three.

Although our beautiful little children had medical problems, we had money problems, and other crises kept popping up I felt as if I lived in paradise each day. There’s something remarkable about seeing the world anew through the eyes of the planet’s most recent inhabitants. It’s like using an awe-shaped lens.

But I still had a lot to learn about parenting.

I recall being quietly horrified at a Le Leche League meeting when one toddler bit another. I thought about it for days, wondering what parenting might create such an impulsive child. All the parenting books I read, all the non-violence courses I taught, assured me there was a right way. Of course my comeuppance would arrive.

My third child was born soon after. This endearing, curious, and constantly cheerful little boy possessed relentless energy. Evidence? I’ve got evidence.

  • By the time he was 14 months old we had to twine rope around all the chairs, lashing them to the table between meals, otherwise this diapered chap would drag a chair across the room to climb on top of furniture in the few seconds it took me to fill a teakettle.
  • Before he could say more than a few words he’d learned to slide open our windows, unclip the safety latches on the screens, and toss the screens to the ground. 
  • He liked to grab the hand vacuum for experiments on his sister’s hair, houseplants, and other normally non-suckable items.
  • He watched with fascination as drips from his sippy cup fell into heat vents, the hamster cage, the pile of laundry I was folding.
  • He liked to take off all his clothes and climb on the windowsill facing the street, hooting like a giddy chimpanzee as he danced in naked glee.
  • We had no idea he could climb out of his crib till the evening he opened all the wrapped Christmas presents I had hidden in my room (keeping them safe from him) while we thought he was in bed. The look of complete joy on his face nearly made up for the hours of work it took me to rewrap.

I found myself making up new rules I never thought I’d utter, like:

“I know throwing is faster but we carry things down the stairs.”

We never run with straws up our noses.”

“Don’t poop in Daddy’s hat!”

He became a little more civilized by the time he was three, but not, as you might imagine, before he bit a few children.

Utterly besotted by the bright-eyed charm and endless curiosity of this dear little boy, I never suspected the labels doctors and schools so easily affix on non-conformist kids might be slapped on my child.  I never realized how much he would teach me about what real motivation and learning look like. And I never imagined how much he’d show me about what it means to pursue success on one’s own terms.

Today he is one accomplished young man, in part because he continues to see the world through an awe-shaped lens. And I am still learning from the four remarkable people who came to this world as my children.

Where Fascination Leads

child's interests, toddler's fears show inclinations, fear is fascination,

Born with uniqueness.

“I didn’t say I liked it. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” Oscar Wilde

My oldest was calm and attentive as a baby, except around vacuum cleaners. The machine’s sound made him scream with the sort of primal terror normally associated with death by predator. He had no previous experiences with loud sounds in his short life, good or bad. Except for surgery, performed when he was five weeks old, he’d had no bad experiences at all.

As a first time parent I turned his reaction into a giant philosophical issue. (Okay, maybe I turn everything into a giant philosophical issue.) Should we only vacuum when one of us took him out of the house until he somehow grew out of it? Or should we hold and reassure him when the vacuum had to be turned on? I was convinced whatever we decided would somehow have lifelong ramifications.

For a few months we relied on the first solution. The only vacuum sounds he heard were through open windows. Even outside, he listened on Baby High Alert status until it was turned off, with wide eyes and a stiff body. Fortunately the vacuum didn’t run long since our house was tiny. Then winter hit. It wasn’t easy to go outdoors simply to turn on the vacuum. Much as I appreciated any excuse to be slothful, I was still in the first child clean house stage (that ended resoundingly long before child number 4). So we tried desensitizing him to the Terror Machine sound. Although he initially screamed when I got it out and named it, he began to calm down as I did this day after day, naming it, then saying OFF and ON while performing those functions quickly. I was relieved when he no longer cried in nervous anticipation. Next I’d hold him as I pushed it around, doing one room before letting him turn it off. His tension dissipated and it became a favorite activity. Have you guessed? Mastery of fear led to fascination.

One of his first words was “vacuum.” He wanted to know all about them. He loved sale fliers with pictures of vacuums. I ended up cutting out all sorts of vacuum pictures to put in a photo album so he could flip through it, pointing and making “vroom” noises. Anything associated with vacuums, like hoses and plugs, also made his fascination list. An early talker, he memorized manufacturer names of vacuums and, like a household appliance geek, would quiz other people about vacuums. I recall one such incident when he was not quite two. We were at the park when my child tried to instigate a conversation with a fellow toddler. It didn’t seem the other little boy was a talker yet. Meanwhile my son, telegraphing his strange upbringing, was asking, “Do you have a Eureka vacuum at home? Do you have a Hoover? A Kirby?” When he saw the respondent didn’t understand, my son tried what he thought was an easier question. “Is your vacuum upright or canister?” Both little boys looked up at me with incredulous expressions, as if asking what was wrong with the other.

He often called his play “work” and was never happier than when he could contribute to real work. For his third birthday my son’s dearest wish was for a hand vac. And to go to Sears so he could hang out in the vacuum section. That’s what we did. Even his best buddy Sara, who had come along for the birthday excursion, patiently indulged him. She understood him well and when they played house she often had him fix pretend things or turn on pretend things, which always made him happy. That year he got a gift wrapped hand vac.

The vacuum obsession wasn’t his only early childhood weirdness. Once he figured out that bones have Latin names (I think a physician friend leaked this info) he insisted on memorizing those names. He liked to rescue bugs from situations he deemed dangerous, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he got from one of his favorite books. He preferred actual tools to toys, and before he was four he started building things out of scrap wood and nails, carefully hammering them into shapes almost as incomprehensible as his crayon drawings.

Around that time I read a fascinating book by James Hillman, The Soul’s Code. Hillman is a deep, insightful thinker. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I recall that it described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny, which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling.

The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, Yehudi Menuhin, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.

My firstborn is an adult now. He can weld and fabricate, repair tractors and cars, build additions on a home and turn a shell of a room into a working kitchen, drive heavy equipment, do complicated calculations in his head, make do on little, and work until everyone around him has long given up. He’s also witty, intelligent, and endlessly generous. I don’t know if those early vacuum terrors had anything to do with how he’s turned out, but I’m sure the child he was would be amazed at the man he has become.

What was your earliest fear, fascination, and other ways you may have shown the “acorn” of yourself?” What about the children in your life? 

Child 1

This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

theory of loose parts, kid innovators, creativity, learning is discovery, self-motivation,

misspenthopesxx.deviantart.com

The kids had a bunch of boards, some old nails, a hand saw, and a few hammers. They also had the two most important ingredients, the desire to make something and the freedom to do so.

They spent an afternoon planning their tree fort, enthusiastically arguing over whose plan was best. Their first few attempts failed spectacularly. They were undaunted, even bragged a little bit about the noise the boards made falling down. Several of them asked family members for advice. A few others paged through books and watched YouTube videos as they tried to figure out basic construction techniques. They started again, measuring more carefully as they built a frame. The process took much longer than they’d expected but they stuck with it. When they ran out of materials they scavenged tree lawns on garbage pickup day, dragging back pieces of wood. They got a few cuts and bruises. They were proud of those too. As they worked they talked about how they’d use their clubhouse. It didn’t occur to them how much they were learning.

Conventional thinking tells us that children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, lessons, coached sports, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages. They do this because they believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more their children will benefit.

But learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close. Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking That’s true of a baby as well as older children and teens.

Young people are also cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Research indicates that people are drawn to learn from situations that are “just right” for them.  They may make plenty of mistakes along the way, just as babies fall when learning to walk, but facing those challenges and making those mistakes are pivotal steps in maturity.

It’s also well-known that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play. They pretend, make up games, daydream, wonder, and launch their own projects. They are discovering not only the world around them but a rich inner life as well.

Of course adults are vital to young people’s lives. They provide safety, guidance, love, and much more. Kids know they can ask trusted adults for help or advice. They do so more eagerly when they recognize these adults won’t overwhelm them with information, quiz them on what they are learning, or take over. Adult responses simply need to stay in proportion to a young person’s request.

For an example of how powerful the drive to discover can be, let’s take a brief detour to two Ethiopian villages. These places may be rich in intangibles like family and tradition, but they are poor in every other way. The illiteracy rate is practically 100 percent. There aren’t even written words around for children to see: no books, no labels on packaged foods, no street signs. That’s where the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project dropped off 1,000 tablet PCs with solar chargers. They weren’t handed out in a school, but to kids. The devices were pre-loaded with English-language operating systems and software that tracked how the tablets were used. The boxes were taped shut, with no instruction given at all.

In less than five minutes, one child (who’d never seen an on/off switch) powered up a system. The kids collaborated as they learned. Within a few days they were using 47 apps per child, within five months they were taking pictures. That took a while since the kids had to teach themselves to hack Android because the tablet cameras were mistakenly deactivated. The OLPC project is finding, all over the world, that kids are learning to read and speak in multiple languages. They easily search, program, and connect using inexpensive tablets. These kids are also teaching adults in their villages to read and use computers. They’re doing it without adult instruction.

So how did our fort-builders do? They had three sides framed and were working on the fourth when one boy’s father stepped in to help. His help may have been welcomed if they’d asked or if he simply contributed to the team effort, but this very well-meaning man decided the kids weren’t doing a good job. He took over, telling the kids to re-do some of their work and to build the rest of it according to his instructions. They did, but without much gusto. The resulting fort was more sturdily built yet they only used it a few times.

A year or so later they scavenged some boards from it to make a go-cart, and then another go-cart. This time they welcomed the help of another child’s grandfather who worked alongside them, learning together as the project unfolded. Their enthusiasm had returned.

How To Grant Wishes

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Image:helen-carter.deviantart.com

When I was a child an elderly neighbor shared her life-long dream. Lottie Borges had always wanted to get behind the wheel of a semi, start it up, and drive. I got a glimpse of a yearning that couldn’t be hidden by her apron and heavy orthopedic shoes. Years later when I heard she’d died I was sorry the thrill she longed to experience driving an 18 wheeler had never come to pass.

Each one of us has dreams. Sometimes they’re suppressed so long that it’s not easy to remember them or the spark of vitality they once roused in us. We forget because we’re busy meeting our family’s need, what the boss wants, what amusements can fill the moments we have left over. We set aside the goals we once held dear. They are not gone, just dormant.

Our culture emphasizes personal effort. It’s assumed that failure to achieve our aims lies entirely with the individual. But that’s not how wishes usually come true. They happen in the context of relationships. When we talk about our goals with people dear to us we infuse our ideas with energy. It’s a way of activating a network of people who, along with us, envision our dreams taking place. That network may help bring about the exact circumstances necessary to achieve our goals. Perhaps if my former neighbor had shared her wish with someone other than a child she might have connected with a truck driver who’d have gotten a kick out of letting her take his rig for a run around a back lot.

A few years ago I got together with a group of friends and, on the spur of the moment, we decided to write down our long-held wishes. We laughed, wondering if old fantasies (such as running away with a teen idol) should be included. But the challenge was compelling so we started writing. When my friends shared their goals I saw sides to them they rarely revealed. Here are some of their wishes:

  • I will get a lead role in community theater.
  • I will travel to Ethiopia.
  • I will master class 5 white water rafting.
  • I will record my parent’s reminiscences.
  • I will have a graphic novel published.
  • I will get a master’s degree in library science.
  • I will become a foster parent.
  • I will take a class in conflict resolution.
  • I will paint wall-sized murals.
  • I will build a clay oven in the back yard.
  • I will finish the quilt my grandmother started.
  • I will learn to speak Russian.
  • I will be elected to city council.

We realized that we should meet occasionally to support each other’s dreams. By discussing what we are doing to reach our goals and how we can help each other, we’re more likely to turn intention into reality.

If you’re interested in our wish granting process, here’s the method we’re using.

1. Get together with at least one other person with whom you have a mutually supportive relationship.

2. Brainstorm. Call up the longings you had as a child, the grand plans you envisioned as a young adult, the places your mind wanders when you daydream.

3. Write down those yearnings. Word them concretely. It is easier to check off a goal such as “Complete a pottery class” than a vague listing such as “Try making pottery.” Instead of vowing to “appreciate people more,” expect yourself to “Write letters to six people telling them why you appreciate them.” Include a range of possibilities— creative, professional, interpersonal, physical, and inspirational. Make some challenging, some just for fun.

4. Make the list as long as possible. Shoot for 50 or 100. Pushing yourself to write so many goals forces you to look inward, uncovering deep desires that you may have buried.

Such a list will take some time, but you may find that long-suppressed dreams ease back into your consciousness only after you’ve written down goals that seem silly or impossible.

5. Put stars by at least five of the most important dreams. Remember your list isn’t a set curriculum. It can change as your goals evolve. 

6. Talk about what steps you need to take to accomplish them and how can you support each other in these steps. Often it’s helpful to plan on baby steps, starting small and recognizing there may be tumbles as you work your way up to bigger steps.

7. Write yourself a note to be opened three months from now. Or write an email using futureme.org timed to arrive in three months. This note should be in present tense and action oriented, “I am saving $50 a week towards my trip” or “I am practicing Russian each evening and looking for a native speaker to build my language skills.” This is a great way to promote progress. Then write another message to yourself, to be opened in another few months.

8. Keep the wishes shared by others alive through encouragement but also through your belief that the vision will be reached. Continue to pay attention to circumstances that may be helpful to others as you work toward your dreams together.

Something happens when goals are written down. When we make a conscious decision to guide our lives in the direction of our dreams, possibilities begin to open. And when we share that process with others, we have the delight of helping them make their wishes come true.

By the way, the wish lists written with my friends are already adorned with check marks.

Do Childhood Books Shape Us?

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Building a self. (andycarter’s flickr photostream)

Children’s inner lives may not seem all that complicated. But they are, even if kids aren’t fully aware of the complexities they’re dealing with until they’re much older. That’s one reason it’s hard for them to talk with their parents about ways they are gaining strength, inspiration, and a sense of self.

Their favorite books offer a clue.

Children are drawn to stories that resonate with the same challenges they’re facing. Authors know kids seek out tales that present certain compelling themes. Speaking one’s truth, overcoming adversity, enduring tragedy, relying on wit or cleverness, making a sacrifice, establishing one’s own values, finding a kindred spirit, gaining new powers or knowledge—this is the stuff that translates into purposeful meaning for the young reader.

To understand what kids are going through as they grow up, it helps to look back at the pivotal books that made a difference during our own formative years.

As I look back I realize two books I read over and over still echo in my life today. One of my favorites was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. It’s the story of a little girl who is taken to live in the mountains with her grumpy but kind grandfather. She loves to spend her days outdoors on the hillsides, playing with the goats, talking to Peter the goatherd and his blind grandmother, and eating simple wholesome foods like cheese made from goat’s milk. When Heidi is taken away to live in the city, a companion to her sickly cousin Clara, she’s deeply homesick. Although she happily learns to read, hoping she can go home to read to the blind grandmother, each day away from her beloved mountains haunts her. She convinces her uncle to let Clara come back with her for a summer visit. There they spend days outdoors, playing with the goats, eating her grandfather’s hearty food, and laughing. Her cousin recovers her health and Heidi is free to stay in the place she loves.

My other favorite book was so pivotal I’ve called it the book that saved me.  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is about a lonely girl named Mary who lives on the moors of England. She befriends a boy, Dickon, who can speak to animals. She also insists on becoming acquainted with an invalid named Colin. Mary doesn’t want dolls or toys. She wants the joy of helping a hidden garden come alive. She wants to remain free of lessons so she can learn Dickon’s wisdom. She wants to understand the mystery that makes flowers grow, helping Colin find that strength in himself.

Both books are about a certain kind of justice, one that permits self-determination and self-definition. Both are about the value of staying rooted and feeling nourished by a sense of place. Both are about the restorative power of nature. I feel those elements in my life strongly. Yet I see even more of these books in my choices. My children have grown up without schooling, as Heidi and Mary did. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, insist on wholesome food, and speak to all the animals on our little farm (though I’m still waiting for birds to alight on my arm as they did on Dickon’s). I have Heidi’s passion for reading and Mary’s passion for watching things grow. And I hope I have what both characters had in abundance, the determination to speak up for what they believed was right.

What books made you who you are today?

Did you share any of that book-related inner growth with the adults in your life?

And does looking back at these influences give you a glimpse of your own child’s complex emerging selfhood?

Observe The “Goldilocks Effect” In Action

 learning happens when it's "just right"

“Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skill and comprehension in a way that’s necessary for them at the time. Often children seem to reject what they aren’t ready to learn, only to return to the same skill or concept later with ease. This is not only an expression of autonomy, it’s a clear indicator that each child is equipped with an learning guidance system of his or her own.”

I wrote these words two years ago in my book Free Range Learning. This concept is now being called the “Goldilocks effect.” According to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, humans are cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” It’s the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The study focused on how babies make sense of our complex world. For years researchers have noticed a contradiction. Sometimes babies prefer to look at familiar items, like a toy from home. Other times they prefer to look at unfamiliar items. Turns out this isn’t a contradiction at all. Babies self-regulate by choosing the amount of novelty and complexity that’s right for them at the time.

They also, according to the study, actively seek out the most reliable information and can predict what will happen next based on what they’ve seen. Babies are a great way to study human behavior. That’s because infants aren’t burdened with cultural and patterned responses. Babies indicate what all of us are like in our most basic form.

The Goldilocks effect has to do with learning at all ages. You are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now. Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold the player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a fascination of their own tend to learn more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

How do we see this in action? By looking at children through the eyes of trust.

The little boy who’d rather stomp in muddy puddles after a rainstorm than attend story hour at the library may need that full sensory experience outdoors more than he needs, right now, to sit still in a group and listen quietly. He’d probably prefer hearing stories while sitting in a parent’s lap where he benefits from closeness and can ask questions as they occur to him.

The girl who prefers to draw pictures of animals and fairies rather than run outside to play with the neighborhood kids may need more time for quiet self-expression than other children. Her imaginative art fuels growth in all sorts of areas, one of which may be a sturdier sense of self that will help her interact more freely with others when she’s ready.

The teenager who drops out when she’s reached a high level of accomplishment in an area, say soccer or fencing or designing apps. What she’s learned in that field isn’t wasted. It’s taught her a whole range of skills and empowered her to move on. She may pursue other interests in what look like fits and starts of motivation. Or the learning situation that’s just right for her may look like boredom to others. She may need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within before pushing ahead.

Children naturally focus on what they’re ready to take in and do their best to set aside the rest. Often what they set aside is exactly what adults push them to master. We call this stubbornness but really they show us, over and over, that human nature flourishes best without coercion. Efforts to structure learning too heavily are likely to fail (or more often, the student will fail) if it’s not understood that we’re all cued to learn in the ways best for us.

 

Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

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Sitting down. (public domain by Jusben)

Today’s kids sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling, or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.

Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They climb, dig, and run. When they’re tired they like to be rocked or snuggled. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.

Sensory experience and fun. (CC by 2.0 Micah Sittig)

We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. Academics are pushed on young children with the assumption this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary, it may be contributing to problems such as learning disorders, attention deficits, and long term stress.

Studies contrasting reading instruction at age five compared to instruction at age seven find earlier lessons may damage reading development. By the time children reach the age of 11, students who were instructed earlier show poorer text comprehension and less positive attitudes toward reading than children whose instruction started later.

Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. Why?

why pushing school-like lessons hinders learning,

Children pushed to read early (not those who naturally pick it up) tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.

On the other hand, children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. That’s because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, an approach that is less taxing. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.

developing eager readers,

Developing eager readers (CC by 2.0 Daniel Pink

In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. It includes the proprioceptive sense developed through sensory receptors in the muscles, joints, and tendons: a form of maturation essential for a physical sense of self (even essential for learning how to modulate one’s voice and to hold objects carefully).

Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.

These experiences happen as children play and work, particularly in ways that cross the midline. They includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. They also include fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, playing rhyming and clapping games, using scissors, and playing in sand. And of course there’s the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes,  enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.

how to boost reading readiness,

Play is related to reading readiness. (CC by 2.0 stevendepolo)

These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.

There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where play, reading, and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games. Their development is cued to movement. These bodily experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.

raising eager readers,

Reading enthusiasm isn’t magic. (CC by 2.0 John-Morgan)

Portions of the post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities

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Helping out early=long term success. (Image: 2.0 clogozm)

Years ago my two older kids, about seven and nine at the time, were getting ready to wash the floor. A neighbor girl knocked at the door asking to play. When my son told her he was going to wash the floor first she begged to be included. Although this girl had more monetary advantages than my children could have imagined (summer camp, private skating lessons, hundreds of TV channels) she was entranced. She’d never seen kids doing chores, let alone kids in charge of cleaning a floor. She pitched right in as they scooted furniture out of the way, then swept. I gave them a bucket of slightly soapy water and they went to work with rags, scooting across the wet floor on their knees like crabs, giggling as the floor got wetter and their scooting became sloshy sliding. Their method didn’t matter to me. I was holding the baby and diverting the toddler while peeling potatoes and finishing up a work-related call. I was pretty sure the floor would be somewhat cleaner when they were done. They dried it with towels, moved the furniture back with appropriate grunting and groaning, then slumped on the couch. They looked entirely relaxed, as people do when satisfied with a job well done. When I got off the phone I came in to thank them. They were admiring how the floor caught the light and cautioning our toddler to keep his sippy cup on the table.

After that day the neighbor girl asked if she could do chores every time she came over. It seemed funny at the time, but I think now that she recognized she’d been missing the sense of accomplishment and camaraderie found in working together.

The floors aren’t spotless in my house. The bathrooms are also far from perfect. But I’m totally at peace with this. That’s because my kids handle much of the cleaning around here. I’m happy to do the cooking (or more truthfully I have control issues about what goes into the food my family eats). And I don’t mind being the family laundry wench, although I know kids are capable of handling their own laundering tasks. But in the spirit of “we’re all in this together” I’ve expected my kids to handle a sizeable share of household (and farm) work ever since they were small. I still do.

Timing

Start your chefs early. (Image: woodleywonderworks)

Actually, starting young is the key. When toddlers beg to help fold laundry or wash the car with us it’s easier to send them off to play so we can get the job done ourselves. But this is exactly the time to foster a child’s natural helpfulness.

It’s also a powerful way to promote positive development in all sorts of areas. Research shows that children who participated in household tasks starting at age three or four were more likely to succeed in adulthood. I’m talking big success like educational completion, meeting career goals, and maintaining good relationships with family and friends. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities.

And waiting until children were older can backfire. We tend to spend a lot on activities and products for our children assuming this enriches their lives but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.

Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with cooking toys, he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but a child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.

Movement and Hands-on Experience

how movement builds bodies and brains, chores=success,

Movement builds bodies and brains. (Image: spacecadet)

Helping out engages young children in activities that promote movement-cued development. This includes large motor activities like digging in the garden, carrying a watering can, putting away groceries, and sweeping with a broom. It also includes fine motor tasks like using a screwdriver and tearing lettuce for a salad.

Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who regularly engages with manipulatives (arranging veggies on a platter, setting the table, sorting socks) and applies real-world math (measuring and pouring coffee beans in the grinder, taking things apart and putting them together, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts when they are introduced later. These movement-based tasks are also closely linked to the brain development necessary for reading and writing. (Find out more about this in Sally Goddard Blythe’s wonderful book, The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning.)

 

Growing as a Person and a Family

chores build relationships,

Shared tasks build relationships. (Image: Appalachia Service Project)

Children accustomed to flashy toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it they’re bored. The slower pace of yard and household tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried or left out. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, slow down so you can make working together enjoyable. Letting a small child spread peanut butter, cut sandwiches, and pour milk into cups from a small pitcher affirms the value of the present moment. It also makes an ordinary lunch into a tea party.

The benefits don’t end for older children. Hands-on experience in all sorts of tasks and hobbies promotes learning, builds character, and helps to form the basis of our future selves. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers he found many credited their expertise to attributes learned through hands-on activities. In his book, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Wilson emphasizes that resourcefulness and self-definition arise from the use of our hands more than from the dictates of our educational system.

In a way, doing tasks together puts parent and child on more even ground. So often we parents are rushing to schlep our kids to practice or lessons or other kid-oriented events, making them the pivot around which a family’s activities revolve. Taking part in regular tasks together, even if we’re pulling weeds on opposite sides of the garden, affirms the sort of mutuality that advertisers tell us is only found in pricey vacations. Of course time afterwards for a nice game of hoops and some cold lemonade builds bonds too.

As our children grow, doing tasks together can continue to strengthen our relationships. Moments of meaningful interaction happen easily when washing dishes, folding laundry, fixing the car, or walking the dog together. Working on shared chores helps a child’s contemplative side emerge, prompting discussions that may never have happened otherwise. This is true between parent and child as well as between siblings. I remember my mother bemoaning the arrival of our dishwasher because we no longer took turns washing and drying, ending a relaxed half hour of post-dinner conversation each evening.

It’s easy to make these activities a tradition. Teenagers who have always helped out when a parent puts on snow tires, cleans out the basement for a yearly garage sale, or cans pickles may grumble when asked, but chances are they’d feel excluded if left out too. In part, who we are is defined by what we do. Growing up with hands-on lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, and working towards a goal helps to shape character. And it transforms pickle-making from drudgery to an important family ritual.

Delayed Gratification

early responsibility for success in adulthood,

Labor’s fruits may seen a long way off. (Image: OakleyOriginals)

This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.

We model delayed gratification each time we choose to work for a later or larger goal. This includes saving, making do, and making it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family pitches in to rake a neighbor’s leaves while she’s recovering from a broken hip. We teach it when we let a child see that if he doesn’t do the laundry when it’s his turn, there won’t be a clean team shirt to wear to the game. And we show that it’s expected every time our kids pitch in with the ordinary jobs necessary to run a household.

This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification.

This is pivotal for success. Multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) found that children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals. Delayed gratification is also related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community.

Expecting children and teens to take an active part in running a household gives them plenty of opportunity to gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may seem like returning to the old adage, work first, play later, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

Skill building

give kids real work, make chores meaningful,

Loud chores are more awesome. (Image: Appalachia Service Project)

Regular tasks allow our children to see for themselves how the world works. They grasp principles of science and math as a seed becomes a tree, as boards are transformed into bookshelves, as flour and yeast turn into bread. They develop traits such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors of their own. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as our children become proficient at the jobs necessary to sustain their families, they also see themselves as capable. That perception transfers across all endeavors.

There’s no denying that children who participate pick up useful skills. They see that maintenance is easier than waiting till the car or laptop breaks. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. While they are making real contributions to running the household they’re actively learning how to cook, launder, clean, make repairs, maintain a vehicle, budget expenses, and handle other tasks which are essential for an independent life once they’re adults. Wonderful lessons in cause and effect are reinforced when children complete work and benefit from the results. Seeing oneself as an agent of useful change, priceless.

They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four or 40, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy chopping mangoes, strawberries, and pineapple into tasty chunks, try renaming the result “Sophie’s Special Fruit Salad” for extra reinforcement.

Purpose

meaningful chores for kids, finding purpose in chores, raising responsible kids, teaching delayed gratification, building impulse control,

Wring some meaning from work. (Image: Pink Sherbet Photography)

When we stack firewood to prepare for the upcoming winter, make a gift to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have purpose and value. As our children participate along with us, they feel the intrinsic satisfaction of doing something that has meaning.

So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but kindle motivation.

Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.

Beyond Chores

teaching impulse control, delaying gratification, families working together,

The way we do things in our family. (Image: Evil Erin)

I’m not fond of the word “chores.” It implies that kids and adults have tasks that are set apart from the rest of our lives. Making work around the house and yard a regular part of our lives together seems more natural.

I think it’s valuable to get work done together as much as possible. For me, the simplest way to respond to grumbling has always been, “that’s just how we do it in our family,” without engaging in arguments on the topic. And of course balance is essential. Children and teens (well, all of us) need time for daydreaming, play, socializing, relaxation, projects, and all of life’s other joys.

My kids have their own chores, which they sometimes rotate. They haven’t always done them well or on time by any means. Accepting a floor as clean as a child will get it is part of having children participate. And I’m pretty laid back about things like clean bedrooms. (I remind them we try to adhere to the Firefighter Rule: Could emergency workers navigate a bedroom if necessary?) I understand that kids put less energy into tasks that don’t seem to have much importance. They recognize that a clean bedroom doesn’t affect our family’s functioning, while they know for sure that cutting and stacking firewood will keep our house warm. Hence, the firewood is done right while their rooms are often just short of scandalous.

We’ve never given them an allowance, mostly because we haven’t been able to afford it. Families have counted on children throughout history for work that was reliable and essential. Today we are fortunate that we don’t have to rely on our kids to survive, but we can expect them to contribute. The tasks may not be fun or interesting but they are necessary. They demonstrate to every child that he or she is a valuable contributor to the well-being of the family. And hearing, “Thanks, we couldn’t have done it without you,” feels good too.

I’m pretty sure growing up this way has contributed to how super responsible my kids are now in their teen and young adult years. They see a pile of boxes I need to load for our food co-op and carry them, never waiting for me to ask. They gladly stop whatever they’re doing to pitch in for an hour or all day when help is needed in the garage or barn or back yard. They are incredibly capable people who are far more astute and skilled than I’ll ever be. They can milk cows, fix tractors and cars, cut and bale hay, install plumbing, make meals, diagnose a sick chicken, hang drywall, identify spiders, back up their political opinions, weld, put on a roof, well, you get the idea. Sure, they have busy social lives and enjoy keeping their faces aimed at screens just like everyone else. But they recently spent an entire weekend helping a family member pack, move, and make repairs. They worked hard and displayed nothing but their usual good cheer. After exhausting 14 hour days I asked if they’d rather have skipped this particular task. Every one of them affirmed that it was no big deal. And I heard my words come back to me, “It’s just the way we do things in our family.”

Portions of this article were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Successful Teen Homeschooling: Two Vital Factors

homeschooling teens, meaningful work for teens, responsibility for teens, teen interests,

The teenaged years are actually the most rewarding of the homeschooling years. That’s what we’ve found with our four homeschooled children. And that’s what I was told by many of the 110 families I interviewed for my book Free Range Learning:: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. People in Ireland, Australia, India, Germany, and the U.S. described coming to this realization in similar ways. Their concerns about helping a young child master the basics or their struggles to find the right homeschooling style gradually resolved. Parents grew to trust the process of learning much more completely and, perhaps as a result, they saw their children mature into capable and self-directed young people.

Homeschooling isn’t the cure-all, by any means, for a culture that barely recognizes a young person’s need for identity and meaning. But homeschooled teens are not limited to the strictures of a same-aged peer culture or weighed down by a test-heavy form of education. They also have more time. This provides ample opportunity to stretch and explore in ways that can benefit them for life.

There are a number of pivotal elements in the period we call adolescence. Two significant ones are the pursuit of interests and meaningful work. These factors are just as important for teens in school as those who are homeschooling. But homeschoolers are freer to fill their time with what’s significant to them. That can make all the difference.

INTERESTS

Pursuing interests builds character traits that benefit us for life.


In my family, we’ve noticed that interest-based learning builds competence across a whole range of seemingly unrelated fields. For example, as a preteen one of my sons put together a few rubber-band powered airplanes at a picnic. When they broke, he tried fashioning the pieces into other workable flying machines. This got him interested in flight. He eagerly found out more through library books, documentaries, museum visits, and You Tube. Soon he was explaining Bernoulli’s principle to us, expounding on changing features of planes through the last century, and talking about the effect of flight on society. He designed increasingly sophisticated custom models. He read biographies of test pilots, inventors, and industrialists. He won a state award for one of his planes through 4H and got a family friend to take him for a ride in a small plane. What he picked up, largely on his own, advanced his understanding in fields including math, history, engineering, and physics. All inspired by learning that felt like fun.

This particular passion didn’t last, but the pursuit of his interests continued. He built spud guns with friends, played bagpipes in a highland band, bred tarantulas, repaired recording equipment, and tried his hand at woodworking. He wasn’t always at full tilt (never missing a chance to sleep in). Now a college student, he’s surprised that his fellow students are so turned off by learning.

Interests engaged him, as they do each one of us, in the pleasure of exploring and building our capabilities. They teach us to take risks, make mistakes, and persist despite disappointment as we work toward mastery. Making sure that a young person pursues interests for his or her own reasons, not the parent’s, keeps motivation alive and passion genuine. Research backs this up. Pursuing our interests builds character traits that benefit us for life.

Self-directed young people really take off in their teen years

Long-term homeschooling families know that self-directed young people really take off in their teen years. Comfortable with their ability to find out what they need to know, they often challenge themselves in their own ways. Some add ambitious schedules to previously unstructured days, others seek out heavy doses of academic work to meet their own goals, still others don’t appear to be remotely interested in conventional educational attainment but instead create new pathways for themselves.

Children as well as teens tend to have lengthy pauses between interests. A boy may not want to act in any more plays despite the promise he’s shown, a girl may not choose to sign up again for the fencing team just when she was starting to win most of her matches. During these slack times they are incorporating gains made in maturity and understanding before charging ahead, oftentimes toward totally new interests. The hiatus may be lengthy. They need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within. They need to be bored and resolve their own boredom.

Decades ago educational researcher Benjamin Bloom wondered how innate potential was best nurtured. He was convinced that test-based education wasn’t bringing out the best of each child’s ability. So he studied adults who were highly successful in areas such as mathematics, sports, neurology, and music. These adults, as well as people significant to them (teachers, family, and others), were interviewed to determine what factors led to such high levels of accomplishment. In nearly every case, it was found that as children, these successful people had been encouraged by their families to follow their own interests. Adults in their lives believed time invested in interests was time well spent. Due to their interests, these individuals developed a strong achievement ethic and a drive to learn for mastery.

This makes sense. We recognize that young people gain immeasurably as they pursue their interests. And not only in terms of success. When caring adults support a teen who loves to play baseball, study sea turtles, and draw comics, he’s likely to recognize, “I’m okay for who I am.” The interests well up from within him and are reinforced by those around him, so there’s coherence between his interior life and exterior persona. This reinforces a strong sense of self. All of us need sturdy selfhood to hold us in good stead while so many forces around us emphasize unhealthy and negative behaviors.

Interests have a great deal to do with promoting a young person’s feelings of worthiness. There’s an enhanced quality of life, a sense of being completely present that’s hard to name but recognized by those who “find” themselves within a compelling pursuit. A girl may love speed skating, or writing short stories, or designing websites. When she’s engaged in her interests, she knows herself to be profoundly alive. That feeling doesn’t go away, even when she has to deal with other tasks which are not as entrancing. Everyone needs to belong, contribute, and feel significant. The teen who knows his or her interests provide fulfillment is already aware that self-worth doesn’t come from popularity or possessions.

MEANINGFUL WORK

Teens want challenges and the accompanying responsibilities.


A group of homeschoolers touring a rural historical society noticed that storage areas were stuffed with uncataloged documents, some crumbling from age. They offered to digitally scan and reference these materials with the museum’s coordinator. Several other teens researched the requirements for a dog park in their suburb. Working with a group of interested citizens, they petitioned city council for a permit and eventually won a grant to construct the dog park. Another teen started a business fixing and modifying bicycles. He also earns revenue from videos of his mods. These examples from my book indicate how young people eagerly take on challenges and the accompanying responsibilities.

Throughout human history teens have fully participated in the work necessary to help their families and communities flourish. They were needed for their energy as well as their fresh perspective, and they built valuable skills in the process. Working alongside adults helped motivate them to become fully contributing adults themselves. Most of today’s young people are separated from this kind of meaningful work. They have fewer opportunities to encounter inspiring people of all ages who show them how to run a business or foster a strong community. Now that teens aren’t needed to run a farm or shop, they also don’t get as many real world lessons in taking initiative, practicing cooperation, deferring gratification, and working toward a goal.

Ideally young people have taken part in real work from an early age. Many studies bear out the wisdom of giving children responsibility starting in their earliest years. In fact, having consistent chores starting in early childhood is a predictive factor for adult stability.

Although work is largely valued for monetary reasons in our society, the kind of meaningful work I’m talking about has inherent worth. Chances are it is unpaid. (Here are dozens of service ideas for kids.)Through this work young people learn that it’s the attitude brought to any task, whether shoveling manure or performing a sonata, that elevates its meaning. Often an endeavor that’s inspiring doesn’t always feel like work. It may include establishing an informal apprenticeship, developing a small business, traveling independently, or volunteering with a non-profit.

It’s the attitude brought to any task that elevates its meaning.

What is meaningful work may be different for each person. A homeschooled teen may put up a shed for a neighbor, make a documentary with fellow parkour enthusiasts, perform puppet shows at a nearby daycare, help a zither club record their music, become a volunteer firefighter, assist an equine therapy program, coach a kids’ chess team, tend beehives, walk puppies at a dog shelter, or help a chemist in the lab. Through such work they tend to get more involved in their communities and connect with inspiring role models.

Meaningful work may not always be interesting, let alone fun. It has to do with putting in sustained effort to get results, even when the hours become long and the endeavor doesn’t feel rewarding. Through this work young people gain direct experience in making a valuable contribution. They know their efforts make a difference. That’s a powerfully rewarding experience at any age.

  Learning of the highest value extends well beyond measurable dimension. It can’t be fit into any curriculum or evaluated by any test. It is activated by experiences which develop our humanity such as finding meaning, expressing moral courage, building lasting relationships, channeling anger into purposeful action, recognizing one’s place in nature, acting out of love. This leads to comprehension that includes and transcends knowledge. It teaches us to be our best selves.

Originally published in Lilipoh Magazine, Winter 2012

Pride Goeth Before Tiny Bite Marks

raising non-compliant kids, non-conformist kids, when kids bite, biting toddler, kids labeled, parents learn from kids, parents don't know everything,

Image courtesy of biohazard-101.deviantart.com

I don’t take credit for my children’s many accomplishments. They are their own remarkable people.

As a new mother I didn’t have this quite figured out. Yes, I recognized that babies arrive on this planet with all sorts of traits wired in. I knew it’s up to us to gently nurture them, shelter them from harm (including the damage cynicism can do), allow them to take on challenges, help them learn to trust themselves, and let learning unfold in delight.

But I had a few early years when I thought, probably with obnoxious smugness, that my wonderful parenting had something to do with how well my kids were turning out. They were very young and so was I.

My oldest, a boy, was thoughtful and clever. He liked to take my face between his little hands and call me every superlative he could think of (“dear, sweet, wonderful Mama). Isn’t this positively swoonable? He rescued insects from the sidewalk, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he picked up from one of his favorite picture books. When his father and I tried to talk over our little one’s head about issues we thought he shouldn’t hear, we used Shakespearean language to obscure our meaning. We had to stop, because our toddler began regularly using words like “doth” and “whence.”  What made things work fascinated this little boy, from the bones in our bodies to the engine in our cars, and he insisted on learning about them.

My next child, a daughter, was assertive and talented. She drew, danced, and sang made-up songs of such pure wonder that, I kid you not, birds clustered in trees near her. The force of personality in that tiny girl led us all to laugh at her improbable jokes and enter into her complicated realms of make-believe. Born into a home without pets, her drive to be close to animals was so intense that she kept trying to make worms her friends. Entirely due to her persistence we ended up with several pets by the time she was three.

Although our beautiful little children had medical problems, we had money problems, and other crises kept popping up I felt as if I lived in paradise each day. There’s something remarkable about seeing the world anew through the eyes of the planet’s most recent inhabitants. It’s like using an awe-shaped lens.

But I still had plenty to learn about parenting.

I recall being quietly horrified at a Le Leche League meeting when one toddler bit another. I thought about it for days, wondering what sort of parenting resulted in such an impulsive child. All the parenting books I read, all the non-violence courses I taught assured me there was a right way. Of course my comeuppance would arrive.

My third child was born soon after. This endearing, curious, and constantly cheerful little boy possessed relentless energy. By the time he was 14 months old we had to twine rope around all the chairs, lashing them to the table between meals, otherwise this diapered chap would drag a chair across the room to climb on top of furniture in the few seconds it took me to fill a teakettle. Before he could say more than a few words he’d learned to slide open our windows, unclip the safety latches on the screens, and toss the screens to the ground. He liked to grab the hand vacuum for experiments on his sister’s hair, houseplants, and other normally non-suckable items. He watched with fascination as drips from his sippy cup fell into heat vents, the hamster cage, the pile of laundry I was folding. We had no idea he could climb out of his crib till the evening he opened all the wrapped Christmas presents I had hidden in my room (keeping them safe from him) while we thought he was in bed. The look of complete joy on his face nearly made up for the hours of work it took me to rewrap. I found myself making up new rules I never thought I’d utter, like:

“Don’t poop in Daddy’s hat.”

“We never run with straws up our noses.”

He became a little more civilized by the time he was three, but not, as you might imagine, before he bit a few children.

Utterly besotted by the bright-eyed charm and endless curiosity of this dear little boy, I never suspected the labels doctors and schools so easily affix on non-conformist kids might be slapped on my child.  I never realized how much he would teach me about what real motivation and learning look like. And I never imagined how much he’d show me about what it means to pursue success on one’s own terms.

Today he is one accomplished young man, in part because he continues to see the world through an awe-shaped lens. And I am still learning from the remarkable people who came to this world as my children.