Once upon a time...

Sorry to continue to debrief my reading with you, but you may have to put up with it for a couple of weeks while I get my non-fiction stack back down to manageable levels.

I've been thinking about this all day.

"Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act." (p. 52) from Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What if it is not just enjoyment, but also true learning that also happens in this thin space between anxiety and boredom? I think this is so thought provoking to me today, because once again, I had the experience of trying to teach a child something I knew she could do, yet she wasn't sure herself.

H. reads quite well. Sometimes. Last week she zipped through a Dr. Seuss book with nary a problem, and she enjoyed doing it. I've caught sight of her sitting and reading the same book to herself over and over. Since that book went so well, today, I thought we should try another easy reader. I know she really likes it when we read 'real' books, as opposed to readers, so I went and found one that I was pretty sure she would have no trouble with.

She read the title, The Cow in the House, with no problem, and laughed at the title, eager to start reading. (It's a great easy reader, for those who have children at that stage, by the way.) Well, now I know that the first word in a book has got to be one that she can read with no effort. The first word of this book was 'once'... as in 'Once upon a time..." She stumbled on 'once' and never got back on her feet again. We eventually, after a few attempts which become more and more random and ridiculous as her brain went further and further off-line, put the book down and moved on to something else. No forward progress, or anything positive actually, was going to happen.

So what went wrong? I've been doing triage on it ever since. First, we came smack up against a cultural issue that any native born child would have sailed through. If you are given the word 'once' at the very beginning of a book, the vast majority of children who spent their entire lives here, would know in an instant that the three following words will be, 'upon a time'. They wouldn't even need to sound them out, and probably they wouldn't even really look at them. How else would a story start?

H. doesn't have that knowledge. While we've certainly read our share of fairy tales (and re-read and acted out and re-told) over the past nearly six years, it has not been enough to ingrain the phrase into her being. 'Once' is not always followed by 'upon a time'. In fact, it's anybody's guess as to what would come next. H. sees the phrase as four separate and distinct words, whereas many of my other children would see them as one inseparable phrase.

The second thing that went wrong, is that by choosing a book she didn't have immediate success with, I triggered her anxiety about her ability to actually be able to read it. She may have lived with us for nearly six years, but she still has lived the majority of her life somewhere else. A somewhere else that was not always kind to her. A somewhere else where she learned, and learned very well, that unless you are very sure about something, it is far, far better not to try at all. A somewhere else that taught her she was not capable. It is very slow and painful work to show her that she is capable, that trying is of value of not something to be afraid of, that we are on her side.

When we read the book again, I will spend some time talking to her about the phrase, 'Once upon a time'. We will read some easy words, probably in something else. I'll probably also write the phrase, 'once upon a time' out and we'll practice finding the words, and figure out how to read it. Only after we have done all of this will I get the book out again and have her attempt to read it.

And I know she can read it; it's why I picked it. But once she determined that she couldn't, or she might get something wrong, or she might make me unhappy or disappointed in her because she couldn't read it right away, then it might as well been Finnegans Wake by James Joyce for all she was going to be getting out of it.

Let's go back to that quote I first shared. Anxiety or its emotional compatriots... fear, shame, anger... are very close to the surface in our children from hard places. They are the default emotions for a great many situations. It takes years of a child feeling safe before these emotions are not the first ones out of the box. If enjoyment, and I would add learning, since true learning is so closely tied to enjoyment, can only occur past the edge of anxiety, then is it any wonder that our children struggle so much with learning? That their learning appears so mystifyingly jagged? That there is the constant feeling that they could do so much more if they only would?

We want to push. We want to make up for the lost years, and not have them lose any more time. It is a worthy goal to want a child to succeed. But what if the most healing option is to do just the opposite? To give them time to learn what safety and love feel like. To keep things simple as they learn they are capable and they don't have to be anxious about every single thing. To let them go back and get a giant do-over for all the things they missed over the years. To help them understand that to hear the words, "Once upon a time..." opens up a world of wonder and adventure that they can participate in.


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