Observe, Act, Observe, Reevaluate

I was talking to a friend the other day about changes that have been in the works in our local school system. I didn’t know this, but apparently for a few years now the elementary schools have been working under a new grading system, where they don’t rank the children by numbers or letters. Instead, the reports simply state whether a child is achieving grade level, or not achieving grade level in whatever subject. And I guess this new system is now going to be implemented in some capacity in the older grades too. My friend was uncomfortable with this. She felt it would remove all motivation for her children to try to achieve at a higher level than just “grade level”. How would they amount to anything?

I suggested that perhaps if they were learning all that was required of them easily, and weren’t motivated to push beyond that, they might have more energy to pursue things that actually interested them. Don’t know if that resonated. She’s an interesting friend. I think we are two very similar people with mostly similar existences whose lives have led us to very opposing philosophies in a couple things.

But I digress.

The discussion brought up a question that fascinates me: how are children different than adults? And stemming from that: when, if ever, do they need to be treated differently?

I think the answer is that it’s a delicate balance, and there is no clear answer. But in terms of self motivation, I wonder if the big difference between children and adults is stakes. And perhaps a bit of maturity to understand the stakes. That’s the other thing I told my friend: if your kids are keeping up with grade level now, don’t worry that they’re not trying any harder. One day when the quality of work matters, they’ll pull up their socks and get it done.

Or here’s another one: if you hate cleaning your bathroom, but you have the maturity to know that leaving it too long will result in nasty smells and film growing inside your toilet bowl, well those stakes motivate you to clean your bathroom. And I think there’s a fundamental difference between writing an essay to continue in good standing in a class, versus writing an essay to convince a university to admit you, versus writing an essay to send into your local newspaper on a subject you’re passionate about. Some of those things have higher stakes, and thus will probably result in a better product. Do you have to write a million unimportant essays to be ready for the important ones, or are the high stakes motivation enough to figure it out? Or is the best solution something in the middle of those two extremes? When is it important to impose our own stakes onto our children’s activities, and when should we leave them to manage themselves, trusting them to be able to step it up when it actually matters?

Stuff I stew about.

A couple weeks ago I made a change with E. We had been experimenting for over a year with letting her self-manage computer time. It was interesting. There were ups and downs for sure; lots of opportunities for discussions on what seemed healthy for a person and what didn’t; lots of personal soul searching about my own hang ups regarding the villainized “screen”. But a few times over the year, the tech would become unavailable–either because it was broken, or lost (not the computer–but the phone she uses to skype her cousins), or we moved and took a while to set things up again–and each time she would come alive within the family like she hadn’t been doing. She would invent games to play with her brothers; she would come up with craft projects; she would write; she would bake; she would go for walks; she would play board games. And I thought, I feel like she’s giving up so many of her interests in favour of the computer. I always hoped that she would regulate down, to a large degree because I knew she had other interests that she was foregoing. Sometimes she did seem to be managing her time responsibly: she’d make plans and resolutions and organize her day in advance and set timers even. She would always prioritize time with her local buddies. But I think what drew her back in to computer world was the friends she had there. At first it was just the cousins. But more recently she connected in real life with a Roblox friend, and connected on Minecraft with a pen pal friend. Suddenly she had all these friends to engage with, who all had different schedules, and her FOMO was strong.

So I cancelled it.

One day I just said, “Sorry E. You’ve got to go back on the game time schedule that everyone else is on. This isn’t working.” And here’s what’s funny: my headstrong, impassioned, exceptionally social daughter did not put up a fuss. She did write me the most polite and formal letter I have ever seen asking to discuss reversing my decision. And we did discuss it, and I did not reverse my decision, and she was okay with it. I’ll clarify that it’s not like her opportunities are lacking: she has 1-2 hours most mornings and 3 hours most afternoons to do whatever she wishes on the tech, and outside of those hours a multitude of non-gaming tech-oriented activities are available to her should she desire. But still–sometimes a friend will come on ten minutes before she has to get off, and she wants to stay, and I say no. She might be a little disappointed, but she usually says, “Okay fine” and gets off. No fuss. No histrionics. No theatrics. No complaints.

What’s the deal?

I think, to be honest, that at this point in her life, she wants some external parameters. I really think all young kids do. I imagine that as they age and mature, their need and desire for enforced parameters shrinks, and perhaps that’s the best way I can parent, is to slowly diminish my control over their choices. Right now, with this new-old routine, E has returned to her lifestyle of the past–engaging in all sorts of activities she had been more or less ignoring during the year of experimenting.

I don’t consider any of it lost time, though. This is exactly the system unschooling has taught me: observe, act, observe, reevaluate; over and over again (and yes it is fantastic that unschooling allows me the freedom to do that). To me the important thing is to have the goal of independence and confidence and self-management in mind for my children, and try things out in that light. The other day I taught six year old L to make eggs on his own, but all the factors proved too much: the heat of the pan; the amount of oil; the length of time to cook it for…so he’s not allowed doing that anymore, even though he still asks. But then I taught him how to cook a grilled cheese sandwich, and he’s stellar at it, as long as I turn the stove on and off for him (because he’s too short!).

Observe, act, observe, reevaluate.

Oh–and trust. Kids don’t need number grades to be motivated to pursue their interests, and they don’t need to be micromanaged either. Mostly, they need to be trusted.

Observe, act, observe, reevaluate.

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