Thursday, July 09, 2015


As adults, we talk a lot, too much, about children and their milestones, often ticking them off like a "to do" list. Both parents and teachers have lists of things we expect children to do and by when. We boast when they reach them early and worry when they are late.

This isn't to say that milestones aren't important, it's just that the ones we adults focus on are not necessarily the ones that are important to the child. I have a very strong memory, for instance, the day I taught myself to whistle, a milestone that was on no one's list but my own. Snapping my fingers was another, as was successfully performing the "rock the baby" trick with my yo yo. These are things that won't show up on any of the copyrighted lists of milestones, but most of us, even today, have marks in our memories of when we passed them. That's because these were important, these moments of success, these moments when we knew we had learned something that made us like the bigger kids, or even, in some cases, the adults. Despite how our memories have stored them, these moments don't usually come us in a flash, but rather after weeks and months of effort, but it is the moment of success, the personal milestone, that we both set and passed for ourselves.

And, of course, there is learning to "pump." If you hang out at our swing set for any length of time, the subject comes up, and you'll find children at various stages of figuring it out. Adults don't teach this to children, although I've seen some, frustratingly, try. "Pumping," moving the swing under one's own power, is something most children learn because they are self-motivated to acquire the skill. I remember working on it myself, striving to rock my body in just the right way to make the swing move. Not only had I seen the older kids doing it, but I knew that once I'd mastered it, I was no longer reliant upon finding someone to push me. It was a milestone I had set for myself and that I was free to pursue on my own with no adults telling me when or how to do it. My motivation was made up of equal parts aspiration to be like the older kids and a desire for the freedom the skill would give me.

The freedom to pursue the answers to our own questions is the key to all self-motivated learning. And most of what we are motivated to learn is because we seek more freedom, to be more self-reliant, to be more like our older, more sophisticated elders, especially those glamorous ones who are only a few years older than ourselves.

The other day, a younger sister, long frustrated by her inability to to pump like she sees her older brother and his friends do it, was fussily working on her skills, complaining to no one in particular, "I can't do it." In a moment of frustration, she gave up and walked away, only to return a short time later to try again, finding that both of the swing seats were full. To bide her time, she climbed into our pallet swing, where she began experimenting with rocking herself. Soon the pallet swing began to move a little in response to her body. And as slight as that motion was, I heard her say aloud, excitedly, but to herself, "I'm pumping!" It was like a she had shouted the word, "Freedom!"

So far, she's barely moving, but it won't be long before she's soaring with the big kids.

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1 comment:

Nancy Schimmel said...

I remember exactly where I was when I learned to whistle--hanging onto a parking meter outside my great-aunt's store on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz That has to be over seventy years ago.