On Vulnerability, Teaching, and Doing Hard Things, Part 2
In my Last Post, I wrote about the importance of doing hard things as an adult, and about how that can be an important tool for enabling children to do hard things. But as always, there is more to the story.
If taking on our own hard things were merely a way to get kids to work hard at their school assignments, it would still be fundamentally manipulative (as well as unnecessary; there are easier ways to accomplish this). The deeper reason for taking on our own hard projects is empathy. It’s how we stay constantly mindful of just how deeply challenging it can be to struggle with something. It’s easy to pile challenges on someone else (for some reason, it’s even easier to pile them on children—perhaps because we can tell ourselves “it’s for their own good”). When children get stressed or push back, we wonder what’s wrong with them, try to reduce the demand, or simply find a way to force them through it. What we rarely do is try to really understand what they’re experiencing.
When students struggle with something, especially if they are made to feel ashamed for it, they naturally avoid it. I’ll bet you’re the same way. In my observation children are naturally willing to try new things, and many of them will happily try many times, if it’s on their own terms. But when they feel pressured to keep going on something they struggle with, they start to avoid it, or or conclude, “I’m just not good at X”. Again, that’s totally natural.
The thing is, in many cases, you have the opportunity to drop it. How often do we give children the same choice? We demand they keep struggling. In fact, frequently, we demand they work harder at it than at activities they prefer.
In the education world (and as parents) we go to a great deal of trouble to find ways to help the child get over this sort of academic hump. There are gazillions of different methods for helping children with reading and writing. There is an entire industry of “teacher-proof” curricula, which are supposed to magically cause every child to learn according to schedule, because if you just explain it well enough and drill it enough, the children will learn it (but apparently, teachers aren’t smart enough to do this on their own). Parents hire tutors to practice math with their children. There’s a cottage industry of study skills coaches. Parents give gold stars or extra rewards to children who work hard, try again, or most often, to children who succeed. Teachers work incredibly hard to make their classrooms exciting and interesting. Some of these ideas are even excellent.
What all of these methods have in common is that they focus on the “inputs” to the child. Either they are methods of manipulating the child into doing work or they are ways to adjust the content to “cause” the child to learn it. (Sometimes, a better explanation really does make a difference, but that shouldn’t be our first consideration.) What none of them do, at least officially, is take time to understand the child’s experience.
Let’s imagine for a moment a child who is struggling with some math topics and is avoiding working on them, but isn’t so disengaged with school that they they just don’t care. What might this child be thinking? Here are a few guesses, based on how I feel when I avoid something hard.
This child may be feeling ashamed of her failure. She may be trying to hide. She may wish to struggle in private. She may find the activities boring. Or perhaps, she does’t really understand why it’s such a big deal to learn this and wishes the problem would go away. Perhaps she’s frustrated because people keep telling her to do her work and expecting her to know how. Perhaps the child is actually resisting because she wants the satisfaction of figuring it out herself and wishes the grownups would leave her alone. Perhaps she feels she has more important things to do.
So what if, instead of trying to figure out how to make this child to learn their math or to figure out how to make the work as easy as possible, we start with a different goal: how can I help this child choos to take on something hard and have the satisfaction of succeeding at it? Is there a way I can help this child choose to take this on as a challenge and help him experience the satisfaction that comes with hard work?
This entirely changes the equation. We may still end up sitting down and figuring out together what the child doesn’t understand or end up hiring a math tutor, but this becomes a true collaboration, not the adult’s project. Instead, the challenge becomes, “How can this situation leave this child stronger instead of weaker?” Once we begin trusting the child’s desire to be responsible and capable, they become confident, trustworthy, driven, and willing to take on challenges. That is satisfying work.
Even better, we can begin to appreciate the different between struggling to do something hard because you are required to, and struggling because you choose to. I know my approach to a challenge is very different when I want to do something versus when I’m under pressure to do it. I will work relentlessly to master something I care about. When I feel pressured to do something (sometimes even if it’s easy), my first response is resistance. Obviously, the plural of anecdote is not data, but I suspect my reaction isn’t all that unusual. And why should it be any different for children? This is where Montessori allows an entirely new approach to struggle; in a Montessori classroom the children ultimately choose their struggles, and that makes all the difference.
So yes, the goal is still inspiring children to take on challenges, but we’ve now come at the goal via an entirely different approach: reconsidering what this request means, and considering what will give children the chance to grow in confidence and self-knowledge, not just skills. Even better, the more vulnerable we can be about sharing our experiences with struggle, the better each of us can put together a picture of what the children we care for may be experiencing. What is your experience of doing hard things?