Monday, January 14, 2019

"Yes, I'm Savoring It"

On Saturday, our school held an open house for prospective families. Among the snack spread were a few sweets, including small meringue cookies. I noticed one boy carefully carrying a single meringue on a large paper plate. It required concentration because both the plate and the confection were slippery. It caused me a small measure of anxiety by proxy as I couldn't help but anticipate him tipping his plate slightly or being jostled or in some other way losing his treat to the floor. It was clearly valuable to him, likely the one sugary snack his parent was allowing him.

I lost track of him for several minutes, but when he again came to my notice, he was still balancing that cookie on his plate. When I remarked him again some ten minutes later, he was still carrying it around. I said to him, "You've been balancing that cookie on your plate for a long time. You could put it down on this counter." I was referring to the counter upon which I was seated. He took me up on the suggestion.

I said, "You've been eating that cookie for a long time."

He looked at me thoughtfully. "Yes. I'm doing that because if I eat it fast it will be gone and I won't have it any more. If you just take little bites, you get to have it for longer." That's when I noticed that indeed he had taken tiny, almost imperceptible nibbles from around the edges. He went on, "If you get to have it for a long time, then you don't want another one so fast and then someone doesn't tell you that you can't have another one."

He had used a lot of words to say that he was "savoring" it, or "making it last," but because he didn't use those more common adult expressions, I knew that he had worked this out for himself: he had re-invented the concept, and by re-inventing it I knew he also truly understood it. As adults who work with children, we so often try to "teach" ideas and concepts to children from the opposite direction: we give the lecture, we provide conventional words, then expect them to construct their understanding from there. We do it with mathematics all the time, for instance, providing the algorithms then expecting them to learn the concepts afterwords. As the great developmental psychology pioneer Jean Piaget wrote:

Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.

The boy took a tiny nibble from his cookie. He let it sit on his tongue, allowing it to melt there as meringues tend to do. I watched him move the flavor around in his mouth, enjoying every nuance of it. He clearly understood what was happening, he had articulated it in his own way, he had constructed it himself, so I figured now, and only now, was the time to offer him the efficiency of a single word. I said, "You're savoring it."

He smiled at me, nodding, but not for a moment losing touch with the deliciousness. Finally, he swallowed, saying to me, "Yes, I'm savoring it."

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