Dr. Montessori believed that normalized children were joyful, self-regulated people who could make choices, concentrate, and work together respectfully. She said that the ultimate aim of the pedagogy was to get children back to this state, wherever necessary. If you saw something in a child that was a ‘deviation’ from this state – inability to focus, reluctance to stick to their choices, a lack of confidence, regular meltdowns, people-pleasing behaviour – it was important to understand why it was happening so that it could be addressed. You know that quote from Anna Karenina about each unhappy family being unhappy in its own way? I believe that each deviation from norm that you observe in a child has a specific cause, given the context of their life.
Let’s look at G and the risk-aversive behaviour she was exhibiting. A child who is hesitant to take on work, who breaks focus when things get hard, is clearly deviating from the ideal norm. So, as I said in my last post, we began to observe – both her, as well as ourselves.
1. What seemed to trigger her?
G would challenge herself on things she was comfortable with, like expanding her vocabulary, or remembering stories. On the other hand, she would approach unfamiliar experiences with a lot of trepidation – reluctance that went beyond common self-preservation, and into the territory of freezing up. Seeing less than perfect output also seemed to be a big trigger. G reacted strongly to things that she believed were not okay, like blocks that didn’t align, or too big a mess to clean up. Order is a developmental need for children at her age, but she seemed to really need perfection. This made me wonder – had she ever seen her dad or me happy with anything but the best? Did we even attempt things we weren’t good at? Did we move out of our own comfort zones?
During one of our rambling conversations, the husband told me, “What you need is to fail spectacularly, at least once, if not a few times.”
He was speaking from experience. All class toppers end up at IIT, but obviously they can’t all be toppers there. Some are relieved to find they are still average (according to IIT’s quantification scale, anyway). There are others who realize, with a rude shock, that they are suddenly among the least bright in the room. (Again, I’m going to emphasize that this is only per IIT’s academic benchmarks). Imagine finding out that you’re at the bottom of the class after being consistently told you’re a genius!
It is, to say the least, character building. It lets you consider what success actually means, and to stop taking yourself quite so seriously. It enables you to consider what your other strengths may be, if you’re no longer deemed to possess the conventional ones. Most importantly, it liberates you from living up to expectations which only keep getting higher and higher.
Failing early, and failing often, is something that the husband highly recommends. When we had this conversation, I couldn’t think of a time that I’d failed at anything, other than in the first grade when I shifted schools and didn’t yet know my multiplication tables. This is literally my biggest grievance to date, and something I still bemoan. So clearly, I don’t handle rejection well. It simply hasn’t happened often enough for me to get used to it.
When I was younger, maybe this was because I really did work hard and have an unusually strong support system. As I got older, the real reason I didn’t fail was because I never took any risks. I always had a safety net, and also put frantic amounts of energy into my undertakings to ensure my track record held.
Given his life experiences, the husband, on the other hand, decided that he would take on what he was semi-good at, dig his heels in, and study it relentlessly until he mastered it. He doesn’t believe you ever play anything for ‘fun’, you play it to get better at it. He finds a higher leagues of players to emulate in anything he does, and no league ever seems high enough, because there’s always another one he then wants to conquer.
We are, in short, faaaantastic role models for a child. Not. But hey, at least we realize it. Ever since, both of us have made a conscious attempt to model discomfort, perseverence, resilience… even failure. We played many a board game, and we didn’t ‘let’ her win for the sake of it.
There were meltdowns, obviously. G is a single child, and the first grandchild in the family. She is very used to things working out in her favour. She would stomp away from games shouting about never playing with us again. We’d wait for her to come back and remind her that we always cheered her on when she was leading. Then there were were showdowns with our parents who believed we needed to let her be a child and cut her some slack. Once the storm died down, a few months later, there was a child who was very zen about the fact that every game has a loser, and sometimes it may be her. Snakes and Ladders/Ludo are particularly good games for this; the burn of being taken all the way back to the start when you were so close to winning really challenges your generosity of spirit.
Additionally, I set myself the personal goal of attempting one thing I’d feared each year. (I tell you, raising a child is like re-raising yourself!) I’ve always believed I would never drive. I bought a car and took lessons, quaking and doubting myself all the way. Yeast has always scared me, so I held my breath and dove into bread baking, even though it needed me to patiently wait for hours to find out if my endeavor had paid off.
Each time, I spoke to G through it all – I told her about my uncertainty, and about why I felt it was important to try anyway. I expressed my disappointment when that first loaf eventually emerged too yeasty… and went back to try again. I wasn’t just faking it for her benefit either. Believe me, she would have known. These were projects I’d actually put my heart and soul into, and it showed.
I could have just read G books about resilience; I did, in fact. But at a certain point, especially when children are younger, you have to walk the talk. They may or may not pick up on lessons from a story. Books may sometimes only have an impact in the long run after they’ve been processed and internalized. Seeing you, their role models, do something consistently really drives it home. Also, and this is common sense, how can you expect them to do something you don’t do yourself?
Somewhere along the way, I realized that there is literally nothing I can’t do, if I put in enough time and effort. I had a heartburst moment when I overheard G say, “Thatha’s really good at carrom. When I practice, I will be too.”
It turns out failure-proofing our kids isn’t about preventing them from ever having anything bad happen to them. It’s about letting them fail early and often, so that they develop resilience and coping mechanisms.
Part two coming up tomorrow on addressing G’s aversion to physical activities specifically.