Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Their Better Judgement

The children were playing with our big wooden blocks, wooden boxes, and cardboard boxes. I had started things off with a few planks spanning the space between the wooden boxes, creating an L-shaped elevated walkway. Usually, the first child through the door dismantles my constructions, but not on this day.

The first few who tried balancing on the walkway were cautious. The planks were not secured in any way, there was nothing to hold onto, and I did not offer my hand, nor my words, for support. The kids were only 18-inches in the air, a height from which most of them are normally willing to jump, but no one approached this challenge as a daredevil, choosing instead the path of self-preservation, the path most young children choose when they've already had the opportunity to learn that the world, even the world at school, isn't necessarily designed with daredevils in mind. There are edges and heights and pokey bits to consider. There were no adult hands being offered that would allow them to perform physical feats they were not otherwise capable of performing. As they shuffled and crawled back and forth along the elevated L, they demonstrated varying levels of confidence, until, after several minutes of testing, most of them, at least the ones who attempted it (and not all did), were moving back a forth with relative ease. It was then that new blocks began to get stacked atop the walkway, making it higher, and yes, more risky.

This is when I renewed my vigilance, but so did they.

Then, after much hemming and hawing and consideration. After a long pause to summon up the courage to try something that needed to be done because it was there, this happened . . .

I did not say, "Good job!" or "Way to go!" but I did say, "That was cool!" a genuine expression of my feelings about how he not only jumped into the box, but then got himself out by tipped the whole thing forward. I quickly tried to backfill my empty expression with a little actual content. "You found an easy way to get out of the box."

In retrospect, I wish I'd said nothing, but what can you do? Once the words are out there, they're out there, and it's usually best to then just shut up and not try to fix it. What I'd done was draw attention to one boy's experiment. And adult attention, in turn, tends to draw the attention of other children, serving as a kind of endorsement. The first boy who attempted the jump-and-tip had judged correctly, without outside influence, that he was physically capable of handling it, but I had less confidence in the clutch of kids who now gathered around for their turns. By saying, "That was cool!" I worried I'd managed to cloud the judgements of kids who were now motivated to elicit a similar comment of approval from me, rather than listening to their own internal voice of caution.

Fortunately, my fears were not realized. Yes, several children gave it a try, some managing it just as competently and confidently as the first boy, but others had just allowed me the power to bring them to the edge where their better judgement, their inner voice rather than my external one, took over.

And that's the way it should be.

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