Friday, May 23, 2008

I Won't! I Won't! I... Uh, Ok.

I've been noticing something about the Pillowfight Fairy. I'm not sure how much of this is due to her particular personality, and how much is due to the fact that she's a five-year-old human, like all the other five-year-old humans out there. You tell me.

Here's one story, from today, that illustrates what I'm talking about.

Our kid has a very nice little bicycle with training wheels, which she likes to use on the patios and walkways in our backyard. She'll start over at the RV pad on one side of our house, then ride along the walkway the length of our yard, then turn onto the patio at the other end, whereupon she does a big loop and heads back the way she came. Now since she's still on training wheels, she hasn't learned how to lean into turns, so sometimes she takes a corner a wee bit too fast and starts to tip the other way. (Which is ironic; it means that cornering is actually more dangerous with the training wheels on than with them off. If they were off, she could lean better. Since she can't, she tends to tip over. Go figure. But that's a different post.)

So I've been trying to teach her how to turn. And I've drilled into her head three rules for turning. If you want to not fall over when you turn, you do these three things:
  1. Make wide turns instead of sharp ones. The sharper the turn, the more likely you'll tip.
  2. Lean into the turn.
  3. Slow down as you approach the turn. You're more likely to tip if you take the corner fast.
And she has these three memorized, although she frequently gets them confused. Today she informed me that she was supposed to take sharp turns instead of wide ones....

Now, her bike is equipped with those back-pedal brakes--the ones where pedaling backward engages the brake on the back wheel. But up until today she was adamant that she didn't want to use it. "No. I don't want to. I'm going to do it my way!" And truth be told, she doesn't often get going fast enough for it to be a problem; all she usually needs to do is stop pedaling and push her feet against the ground to stop, a la Fred Flintstone.

But a few times today she got going fast enough that it took her a little bit too long to stop, so I decided to make her learn to use the brakes, for her own good. So I told her this, and she put up her usual objections, which I ignored.

First, I had her pedal backwards while the bike was perfectly still, until she got the hang of the proper foot motions. Then I pulled the bike in a gentle circle, and periodically told her to pedal backwards. When she did, Lo and Behold, the bike came to a stop! Occasionally it even locked the wheel and put a little tire mark on my beautiful new patio. :-(

So we did this a few times, and then I let her go. And what do you know, but the Pillowfight Fairy was now fascinated by the concept of braking.

She would start up, get going (not too fast, mind you), and would suddenly hit the brake and come to a stop, leaving a little skid mark. Then she would start up again, pick up a little more speed, and hit the brake again, leaving another little skid mark. It was like she'd just learned a new primary color! She was enthralled.

Now while grimacing every time she did this (due to those skid marks on my beautiful patio), it still made me stop and think. Here our little girl was totally against learning what in essence is a new skill, until she figured out what it was for and how she could use it--and until she could see how using this skill was far superior to the old way. This is not the first time my wife and I have noticed the Fairy acting this way:
  • When she was much younger she wanted Mommy to do all the drawing and coloring, because Mommy was obviously so much better at it. But Mommy made her do it herself. Eventually she got very good at it, and now we can't stop her from drawing. We've already caught this little five-year-old occasionally drawing faces in three-quarters perspective.
  • We've been trying to get her to tie her shoes, which has been a real test of wills. The fact is, teaching someone that young to tie a bow knot isn't easy. We adults have the finger motions so memorized we don't often know how we're doing it ourselves, and Mommy and Daddy do it differently, so we have to be careful that we don't both try to "help" her and just confuse the matter. And yet, the Fairy managed to make a couple of decent bow knots today, and it boosted her confidence enough that she wanted to practice even more. I suspect that the better she gets, the more she'll want to practice.
  • Then there's the piano playing. We've put lessons on hold until later this summer, but our little girl will now occasionally get out her book on her own, and play through everything we've practiced thus far, without any prompting on our parts. This is amazing to me, since getting her to sit for her lessons was at the time a little like convincing her to eat liver & beets. But again, the better she gets at things, the more she wants to do them.
  • And then there's her math work. This is one of the subjects that Mommy has been working with her as part of her Kindergarten curriculum, and it's the subject she dislikes the most. Except... that now that we've reached the end of the academic year, she now does math problems for the fun of it. She'll make up problems for us to solve (or her three-year-old sister, which is rather cute, given that her sister reacts a little like when you try to explain Relativity to your miniature schnauzer--very happy and eager to listen, but with a whole lot of wiggles and without a whole lot of comprehension). And the Fairy has been making her own math books with paper, tape, crayons, and pens--complete with lavishly decorated covers and with lots of problems to be worked out.
So I ask: how much of this is just the fact that she's a five-year-old human female with a standard dose of Original Sin, and how much of it is her own particular personality? We don't really have a frame of reference to answer this, as her siblings are still much younger. I suspect that all kids have a little of this tendency, but that it's much stronger in some than in others. Some kids are curious about learning the unknown precisely because it is the unknown, while others only willingly learn if they can see why they need to learn it, while yet others don't want to learn it at all and will only do so by accident.

Still, that's just my guess; and the Fairy is our oldest, so she's the one we get to make all our mistakes with. ;-)

But this has ramifications for anyone who wants to teach her anything. One buzzword you hear a lot of in educational circles--especially homeschooling circles--is "student-directed learning." The idea is that it's a whole lot easier to get a kid to do something that they already want to do. So, for example, if your kid is interested in--say--animals, you build a curriculum around animals. You give them literature about animals to read; you give them writing and research assignments about animals; you teach them lots of animal biology; you have them study artwork about animals; you have them practice drawing animals; you have them raise animals; and so forth.

And there's certainly merit to this idea. For one thing, this kind of educational approach can be useful in helping a student find his or her calling in life. Some people were just born to be farmers or ranchers or veterinarians, and this kind of education can complement their natural talents and inclinations.

But in the case of the Fairy, I'm afraid we'd be asking for trouble if we tried this approach. The things she loves doing now, she only loves because we made her do them, by force, until she got good at them. She loves drawing and coloring in no small part because we refused to draw things for her; she had to do it herself--which she was not always inclined to do--until she got the hang of it, and now we can't stop her. Several of the videos that she wants to watch all the time now were ones that she had no interest in seeing, when we bought them new; we had to tell her, "Tough. We're going to watch this anyway;" and then she watched them with us, and got hooked on them. She likes riding her bike now; she didn't want anything to do with it when she got it as a Christmas present. We practically had to make her ride it.

"Your grandparents got you a perfectly good bike, and so you will ride it, and you will like it!" Geez, I've been starting to sound like an old fogy lately.

The funny thing is, those old fogies appear to know what they were talking about. She did ride it, because we made her, and she did like it. Had we not made her, there's no telling how long that bike would have stayed in our garage gathering cobwebs.

So while I'm hip to the idea of finding the Fairy's interests and talents and weaving our curriculum around them in such a way as to bring out her true nature, we have to remember that we're the parents, and she's not. We're the ones in charge, and while we're not perfect, we know a whole lot more than she does. We know a lot of what she's missing, and while no one can predict with absolute certainty what a kid will like or won't, we can make some pretty good guesses. We also know something about the skills she'll need to know whether she cares for them or not.

So yes, little Fairy, you will do as we say, you will finish your work, because it is good for you, and you'll like it. And we don't care if you think we sound like a couple of old geezers when we say it. ;-)


Phil said...

Ah Ha, I have found you. Now that I am on blogspot I can keep track of all the great and funny stories. Elephant, elephant, do not lay your hand on the boy

B. Durbin said...

Yeah, my objection to "student-directed learning" is precisely because some things aren't fun the first few times. Of course, then you might just see someone catch fire.

(Personally, I'm very good at math... once I've learned it. I think if I'd been allowed to avoid math I wouldn't have that as a source of fun these days.)

Zayna said...

Thanks for this post. We've been homeschooling our daughter for about 18 months now and moved from school at home to unschooling and are now heading back.

I understand the philosophy of "child geared" learning but my recent experience is that unless I insist that she give it a go, she won't bother at all.

And I'm beginning to wonder how many of those precious "light bulb" moments I've missed.

Anonymous said...

Its the same with learning a musical instrument. It can be pure tedium for the first year or so because what fun is it to struggle to play anything recognizable? The key is to keep them in lessons long enough that their playing becomes more fluent and then,hopefully, that will be self rewarding and motivate them to continue. But, alas, most parents allow the kids to quit too early, saying "Johnny didn't like guitar, clarinet, etc..."

sunniemom said...

My take on child-directed learning is that I use what my kids love to do to introduce them to things they say they don't like. For example, my dd says she doesn't like history- but she does love cooking. TA DA! Now we are doing the history of cooking, and whatdyaknow- she has learned all kinds of things about history and culture and technology and geography, and she has no idea. By the time she figures it out she will know everything I wanted her to know! It will be TOO LATE! Muahahahaha!