Cat sat herself down on the living room floor yesterday morning, and read herself a book. Out loud, and with very few errors. To my knowledge this was the first time she’d found a book and decided to just sit down and read it to herself, and I was pleased. I didn’t say anything to her – I didn’t even bring her attention to the fact that I’d noticed. She’s been working on reading for awhile, and now she can read herself a children’s book. A little check mark happened in my brain somewhere. Aside from making sure that print is readily available to her, I have had nothing whatsoever to do with this. I have no interest in getting in the way of her intrinsic motivation for learning by encouraging her, pressuring her, or providing extrinsic rewards for her success, including praise.
I frequently find myself quite baffled by the tremendous importance our society places on academics. Honestly, I view Cat’s academic development almost in the same way I view her physical growth. I make sure the environment and resources she needs to grow and develop are available, and then don’t think about it too much. I keep tabs on her development. But all in all, I spend about as much of my life worrying about her academic progress as I do about whether her body will continue to grow stronger and taller. I do not force-feed her spinach or make her run laps to ensure her physical development. And I do not require her to do school work to ensure her academic development.
That being said, I do think about her development, quite a lot. Sure, I want her to learn to read and write, but I spend far more time ensuring that she has opportunities to practice empathy and compassion. Arithmetic is no doubt a useful skill, but I believe her time is better spent building skills like creativity, independent problem solving and perseverance. Like reading, she is going to learn math whether we actively spend time on it or not. The areas of development I primarily concern myself with are not the sort that can be measured, tracked, or graded. And they have no finish line. No satisfying check marks of completion for my brain. How could I give her a grade in self-control when it’s something I struggle with myself? Educating this way does nothing for my ego. The teacher / pupil delineation is fuzzy. I’m not really her teacher. I’m a more advanced and responsible student. The world is our teacher, and we’re working side by side, helping each other learn.
So, while I’m pleased that Cat read herself a book yesterday, I’m far more excited about a very different activity that she selected. Around the middle of the afternoon, she climbed on top of the kitchen table, and informed me that she intended to stay on the table for 5 days. She began a list of all the things I would need to bring her to help her achieve her goal. I gently informed her that I had no intention of running a delivery service to her perch on the table, and if she was going to stay there for 5 days, she would need to do some planning first, and gather what she needs so she isn’t dependent on me or her dad to get through her self-imposed restriction. So, she began gathering a fascinating variety of items she figured she would need. Food, drink. Toys. Her tablet. A big glass jewel for some reason. Stuffed animals. Drawing materials. A pillow and a blanket for nights. She talked through plans for managing bedtime, and what she would do on the days when her cousins came to play.
And so she began. I had some large doubts that this little endeavor would last the entire 5 days, so I offered to set a timer so she could see exactly how long she did last. I figured she might want to revisit this activity in the future and see if she can beat her time. I did wonder what her plan was for bathroom breaks, and eventually I had my answer. As bathroom breaks are a critical necessity, they’re apparently within the rules of her game if she runs to the bathroom and runs right back.
I loved it. This was an activity that is just charged with developmental benefits. Huge amounts of future planning, critical thinking and problem-solving. Endurance and perseverance. Independence. Self-control. Her little scheme to set up camp on the kitchen table was just full of all the skills I’m most excited to see her progress in. Did I believe she would actually stay on the table for 5 days? No. But who cares? She was having fun. She was setting goals for herself and working hard to achieve them. In the end, she stayed on the table for 2.5 hours. Longer than I would have expected, to be completely honest. She didn’t seem terribly disappointed to not achieve her stated goal. In fact, I’m not sure she really failed. Her concept of the various measures of time is still a bit on the fuzzy side, so ‘5 days’ was probably her way of saying ‘a really long time’. And 2.5 hours is a very long time to spend on top of a kitchen table. As usual, my primary role in promoting her development was to step back and let her get on with it.