October 21, 2014

You're no good, you're no good, you're no good, baby, you're no good.

One rainy afternoon a few years ago, I gave each of my kids a puzzle to complete. Noah had picked out a Spiderman puzzle and promptly set the box before him, ready to study it. Brow furrowed, he tackled the work starting on the corners and the edges like a good left-brain thinker. Isabel, my right brained child, started with the most random pieces, singing as she worked, and when I tried to show her the box so she could be guided by it she exclaimed indignantly: "No, mami! I want to be surprised!"

I should have known then what our journey through homeschooling would be like. Isabel draws on every paper and she devours books. I can't keep the bookshelves full enough for her. Noah sees everything as a problem to be solved and categorizes the world in terms of which parts of it can be built out of Legos. She is all creativity and he is all logic.

It is not surprising that math has been a struggle in our house from the beginning. One curriculum did not challenge Noah enough, while it brought Isabel to tears of frustration daily. Finally I had to choose two different curricula, which can be challenging, but it has restored the peace and love for learning in our home.

I still have to sit with Isabel and work through the math lessons. She and I spend a good bit of time each day hunkered down over the math book, playing with manipulatives, drawing the problem out, and such. With Noah all I do is give him his work and send him away to do it. He comes back if he has a question but for the most part he only comes to show me what he did and get his many check marks.  

Which is why I was so surprised a few weeks ago when they came home from church with a little "About me" quiz in which one of the questions was: "Are you good at math?" Isabel had answered "yes" and Noah had written "no" and I was utterly confused. That is until I thought about our math journey and had an "aha" moment.

I know Isabel struggles with math and I know how discouraged many girls become about their math and science skills by the time they hit middle school. So I have been telling her day after day how good she is at math because she does not let it defeat her. My mantra to her has been: "You are good at math because you work hard at it!"

I realized that while Isabel hears this day after day, I had not told Noah he was good at math because I assumed he knew this to be the case since it comes so naturally to him. But because I did not spend as much time working with him and telling him how proud I was of his efforts, he thought he was not any good at it.

So we re-defined what "good at" means in our home. You are good at something when it comes naturally to you, but you are also good at something when you don't let it beat you, when you work at it until you master it, when you don't give up. We decided you are not only "not good" at something when you don't even attempt it.

This morning I found an article that resonated with me and with the approach we've been taking. Here is the link for the article in its entirety: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/11/struggle-means-learning-difference-in-eastern-and-western-cultures/

The author talks about the difference in Western and Eastern cultures' understanding of struggle.  In our culture we think of struggle as a mark of lack of skill or intelligence. If you struggle with something then you are obviously not good at it. Eastern cultures view struggle as a "predictable part of the process of learning" (Spiegel). You're supposed to struggle. Everyone struggles some time. In fact, their academic lessons are designed slightly above the pupil's skill level. They believe it builds character and emotional fortitude.

And I'm beginning to agree.

I don't think there is anything wrong with telling your children they are smart, but when it comes to academics our family does not value being intelligent as highly as we value being persistent, hard working, teachable, and giving your best effort. A child who is willing to work hard and do their best, even if the work is difficult, will learn much more than a a child who is smart but refuses to do anything that does not come easily to them.

We are not filling our kids' heads with the song: "You are good at everything!," thus creating children who don't understand their limitations and have an unrealistic sense of their own selves. We are simply teaching them that just because something is hard they should not stop trying with the excuse: "I'm just not good at it." Of course our kids attempt, almost daily, to get out of something by whining: "This is haaaaarrrrrd!" I guess they expect me to say: "Oh, my darling, sweet baby, then you don't have to do it, my love" But they have learned it just does not work with this momma.

We understand that life and God will have a way to help the kids hone their interests, discover what they are particularly skilled to do, and put them in the path they should follow.  But while they are under our care, we will not put confines to their potential and dreams by pigeonholing them into only pursuing what is naturally easy for them to do. 

October 13, 2014

Any Ordinary Monday

It is the ordinary days that are the most terrifying because they dawn so innocently. It was just an ordinary Monday. A common Monday in September. It came as all Mondays do, with the morning sun. It was, just like every other Monday, slow to start, grumpy, and ready to fight. We woke up, got dressed, had breakfast and thought nothing of it. Just a Monday among Mondays. That is why the news shook us to the core. Because nothing bad is supposed to happen on a plain old Monday in September.

But it did.

The call came and we dropped everything. Books were left open and scattered on the table. Breakfast dishes were left dirty on the kitchen sink. And when we returned, only to pack for a long and painful week, we knew that such ordinary Monday had turned our world upside down in ways ordinary Mondays should not have the right to do.

It has taken me more than a month to collect my thoughts enough to make any sense of them. I have lived a month of ordinary days that have me scared to the bone. Every unexpected phone call has made me pause, like the weeks after a wreck find you flinching each time a car approaches. 

My life has not been filled with unexpectedly painful phone calls. I've had two so far, and both have shifted me and wrecked me differently. The first one, thirteen years ago, put me in a dark spiritual hole out of which I crawled back tender and more aware of God's presence in the midst of tragedy.

This one has gotten me thinking about numbering my days. "Teach us the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom," says the psalmist (Psalm 90:12). I had underlined this in my Bible at some point and I revisited it this month with new eyes.

That Monday in September jolted me awake to the brevity of life. "Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty. But even the best years are filled with pain and trouble; soon they disappear, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:10). My father-in-law was young by our world's standards, and healthy. Nobody expected him to go so quickly and so abruptly. It sounds trite until it is true: nobody knows the moment time simply runs out. How does God take that knowledge and transform it into wisdom for living well?

I've heard people say that you should live each day as if it was your last. I am too literal and I find this too impractical. I would like to spend my last day in Ecuador, surrounded by my whole family. But that is not a possibility every day. So I've been meditating on what this verse means to me in my everyday life.

Over the last month Matt and I have spent time thinking back on all the "lasts." The last time we saw him. The last time we talked to him on the phone. The last time he helped us fix something in our house. The last anniversary he celebrated with his wife. The last thing he did, the last thing he said, the last minute of his life.

My kids and he had a tradition. He would record Tom and Jerry for them for weeks and when they came to see him, they would sit together and watch episode after episode. The last time we saw him, about a week before he died, Matt and I said no to a Tom and Jerry marathon for reasons neither one of us understands now. Of course, we didn't know it would be the last opportunity but it is painful nonetheless.

Wisdom, for me, has come in taking to heart the concept of "last." I don't want to live in fear or morbidly reminding myself that every moment can be the last. But I do want to live wisely remembering the brevity of life. 

My father-in-law's last words to his wife were "I love you." He may not have known he would be with Jesus not five minutes later, but that was the type of person he was. He never missed an opportunity to say "I love you," to encourage you, to remind you that you were special to him. He counted his days wisely and made the most of them.

And when he died, the hole he left in the world, the depth of pain that was felt, and the crowds of people who came to honor him are a testament of the wisdom with which he lived. Even in his death he left me a legacy of knowledge and love. He taught me to open my eyes to what it means, in my life, to number my days and live each one fully.

It means saying "yes" more often. It means not letting Matt leave without a kiss every morning. It means not going to bed angry with each other. It means not waiting until later to apologize to my children. It means leaving the mess in the kitchen alone in exchange for a few minutes of reading with Isabel. It means taking a moment to "ooh" and "ahh" over Noah's latest Lego creation when I have a mound of papers to grade. It means ending each conversation with "I love you."

And it means so much more. But above all it means cherishing those who are still here. Every day. Every moment. 

Because we don't know when an ordinary Monday will come to shatter our world. 

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