I invite you to my learning!
Unfortunately, I have to admit that I don’t spend much time in the kitchen — though the time I do, when making the few things I know how to, feels quite good! Therefore, I was excited the other day to try and bake apple strudels after my wife tried out an easy recipe with a pre-made dough one could buy from a supermarket – I know, we’re cheating, but the strudels taste great nonetheless and we all enjoy them in the family so much that not one survives for more than few hours, no matter the quantity. ;-)
My older daughter (6) decided that letting daddy do it alone was not fair so she set out to help me — or rather do almost everything herself. I am all for letting the kids learn through experience, but when she reached for the knife to cut the dough I hesitated for reasons I can’t explain — after all, she’s been using a knife for long time and the worst thing that could happen was that the dough pieces would not turn out perfect squares (big deal!).
Anyway, I sobered up and let her cut the dough and do as much of the work as she wanted, standing happily on her side and marveling at the happiness at her face as she was doing it! Of course, being six, her attention got diverted by a new cartoon that started playing on the computer she left running when joining me in the kitchen so after about 5 minutes I was left alone to finish the preparation and do the baking. Still, in those 5 minutes I felt I helped her learn something, though I wouldn’t call myself a “teacher” for what I did!
Yesterday, we bought two side tables from IKEA, which — lo and behold — required assembly. You can probably guess the next thing — my daughter wanted to help me do it! With the baking experience still fresh in my mind, I didn’t hesitate for a moment and let her deal with the bolts, the wrench, even the hammer! We have done IKEA together with her many times, but usually I would let her do the easiest parts, while still maintaining great control over how she did them. This time it was different, for most parts, I was just pointing at the assembly step in the instructions leaflet and only step in when she requested help or couldn’t tighten the bolts enough.
Still, when it came to using the hammer, I felt the same hesitation as with the knife the other day — for the first table I made sure the wood dowel pins are already few millimeters inside the holes before she would hammer them to the required depth. Experiencing the familiar feeling from the baking episode, for the second table I decided to let her do the pins all by herself. Not only that, I also put my finger under the hammer to hold the pins so they don’t roll over as she was hitting them, risking slight injury if she missed the pin and hit me instead.
It was just a moment’s glimpse, but I noticed on her face how my action caused at first hesitation as she calculated the risk of hitting me, to be replaced with relief that I trusted her enough to let her do all the work by herself. I may be wrong and she may have just been excited by the opportunity of hurting me and showing me who’s stronger in the situation ;-), but I don’t think I am wrong in noticing the feeling of satisfaction when we were done – she could create something a lot harder and more complicated than all the paper crafts she’s done before. I’ve experienced that same feeling myself many times in my live, but the times I did it as a child seem the strongest moments in my memory!
I grew up in a small village just outside of a small town at the south-west of Macedonia. As a kid I was highly curious and wanted to try everything, from traditionally boy things to traditionally girl things — my mom used to say that even though she has two boys she feels like she gets the same help from me and my brother as if she had girls, which was a white lie or at least exaggeration in my opinion, but still didn’t exactly made my dad happy. ;-)
The list of things I tried is long, but I’d still try to give you an impression of my curiosity with some examples.
By the time I turned 15, I had spent many hours under my dad’s and our neighbor’s cars, doing everything from changing tires and brakes, to changing spark plugs, even opening the engine block to replace the cylinder head gaskets.
We’ve built our family house with our own hands, with the help of friends and neighbors, so I have got to mix cement, carry blocks, bricks and stones and put them on the walls, help install windows and doors, glue tiles, paint the walls, etc. I vividly remember how the half-built house was the best playground me, my brother and our friends ever had a chance to play hide-and-seek and various other games, while everyone else was resting from the construction work.
With my grandfather, who was a carpenter, I got to use innumerable tools, including a table saw he let me operate myself — luckily I still have all ten fingers on my hands — and a metal polishing work wheel which earned me microscopic metal pieces in my eye that the doctor spent 15 minutes to get out after working unprotected.
As my family had some land we used for growing seeds, vegetables and fruits, I’ve done all sorts of things to help, including ploughing — both the traditional way with a horse and using a two-wheel tractor that my young muscles could barely control — planting, applying pesticides with a backpack sprayer, picking, even making wine and a kind of brandy (rakia) from grapes.
We also ran a small farm with chicken and pigs and at times kept horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, even rabbits — though taking care of them was not always a pleasant job for a young boy, I admit I enjoyed the feast when the pigs would be ready for the butcher’s knife, which was an event usually joined by neighbors and friends. My personal favorite was roasting pieces of fresh meat over slow fire with a long hook I held in my hands.
As I was growing up, I developed love for physics and in particular was interested in electricity and electrical devices, so I got my share of installing power outlets, telephone lines around the house, fixing (at least trying) various electrical devices, even replacing the main fuses in the fusebox, which almost left me blind once after accidentally connecting two phases together :-(
If all of the above experiences would not satisfy my curiosity, my mom would always have something interesting to get me involved with — from baking (cakes were my favorites) to sewing (by hand and using a sewing machine we had at home), embroidery, knitting, even ironing my dad’s police uniform, which I would often try on myself. ;-)
As I said, I can’t possibly list everything I ever tried — and some experiences like shooting from my grandfather’s hunter’s shotgun or my dad’s police gun would make you question my family’s views over raising kids ;-) — but the point is not in the number of experiences I personally had! Honestly, most of my friends shared similar experiences too. The point is about the fact that I had insatiable curiosity to learn about the world in which I lived and about my family’s response to it! Instead of showing me stuff and telling me how they work or how to use them, they let me experience them directly, despite the potential risks and hazards that would sometimes involve — for which I still have a number of visible scars today!
One thing we often don’t realize is that kids are expert learners! We seem to have innate ability and hunger to learn as much as possible about the world around us and we’re really good at it — until we grow older and enough people have told us we can’t learn on our own, we need to have a teacher to tell us what and how to learn, we need to learn at certain times, etc.
Parents have virtually inexhaustible capacity to love their children — unfortunately, the love they practice is of the protective kind! They would do everything in their power to help their kids and ensure they’re out of harms way. This is not bad in itself, but it can get in the way of the kids’ learning.
When my daughter wanted to help me with the apple strudels or the IKEA side tables, she was curious enough to learn and opened up a door to let me in to participate in her learning. The same thing happened over and over during my childhood whenever I was interested in trying something new.
The lesson my parents — and not only them, but their friends and neighbors too, but sadly only few teachers — gave me was that they respected my invitation to join my learning. Instead of using the protective “show and tell” approach, they used the more risky “show and let” version. I believe that required a different kind of love from them — an open and trusting kind that is very different from the protective sort we’re all familiar with.
I believe that the mistake caused by protective love is very common, not only among parents, but also caregivers and teachers involved in the child’s learning. We see the kids as something so precious and pure we instinctively want to keep intact. We want to teach them about the world by showing them how it works and telling them how to behave in it, with a hope that such knowledge will protect them from harm. At the extreme, we deprive them from experiences and do ourselves a lot of the effort in handling the world for them.
We all need to practice more of the trusting love, as the protection we’re practicing is just an illusion. When they open the door to invite us in their learning and we choose not to participate, but give them a lesson instead, we force them to seek the experience we just took from them elsewhere. As they grow older, the door to their learning will stay closed longer and longer, until it shuts off for one last time and we’re left outside forever.
I don’t want that to happen to myself, so instead of trying to be an uninvited teacher, I plan to just be there at the learning door in case it opens! Once inside, my role will be to help when asked, guide when needed, and protect only when harm is imminent! I hope you’ll do the same too!