May 12, 2014

Peeling back the cover. Just a teeny bit.

On our computer hard drive is a video of my Mother-in-law (MIL) playing with 7 month old Oyon. He is struggling with the lid of a transparent plastic box full of his favorite blocks. His pudgy fingers are clumsy though, seem to have a mind of their own and the blocks remain tantalizingly close yet out of reach. He lets loose a series of those peculiar baby grunts that are pre-amble to frustrated wails. In our home video, my MIL waits a beat while he makes another futile attempt, then gently takes the box, pries open a lid corner and places it back within his reach. Baby resumes fumbling but now manages to work a fingertip under the crack then peel open the entire lid. A delighted coo follows, then the entirely satisfactory clicking of blocks being struck together then a  droolly silence as like everything else those days, they get mouthed. Between his previous struggles to get at these elusive toys and now, something shifted just enough to let him translate intent into action. I had just witnessed one of his first significant experiences with persistence and innovation, enabled by the natural instinct of a practical woman who might have smoothed his way entirely (by opening the box for him) but chose instead to help him help himself.

I'm deliberately scrapping the more sentimental labels like 'wise grandmother' and 'experienced mother'. She is both those things of course, but primarily she is practical and firm in her belief that independence and confidence are key personality builders. Years ago when her 18 year old son had cracked highly competitive Indian national entrance exams that offered entry into prestigious engineering and medical schools, she and my father-in-law had firmly refrained from advising him. Which way his future lay needed to be his decision. It was. Their parenting lives have been about instilling independence and my son has been the lucky to partake of this invaluable tutelage from them too.

I'm especially reminded of this now that the 'baby' is 7 years old and has graduated from wrangling with blocks to tussling with first grade math. He has a decent grasp of the essential concepts and does fairly well but the occasional fumble shows up when new approaches are taught in the classroom. Like when subtraction problems are presented backwards and in words.

Here's an example of a test where, in a challenge section of new concepts, he had wandered close but then second-guessed on a bizarre tangent and got the answer wrong. In the top right corner - he tried to do it using the rote method where he knew he had to deal with the 2 key numbers. Without clearly understanding the problem, he got the sign wrong and knew it. Below, he then tried an incremental counting method (14 + 10 = 24) that showed better comprehension but lost track along the way:

I'm not too worried though. It seems to me this is just how it should be. New approaches to old problems sometimes take a little mulling and experimenting before they settle down and start working for you. Having figured it out for yourself is a necessary part of the process. If frustration  doesn't get in the way, that is. And there lies the rub: the path to success runs through failure, doesn't it? Repeated, undeniable, unavoidable, harsh failures. My baby's inarticulate grunts have long since evolved and the enthused "Isn't math cool?" of the kindergarten days have sometimes even segued to wails of  "I just can't DO math!"

The temptation is great. I could help him with the process a bit, show him ways to think and supply him with a few key tricks. I had before after all.

"Look, I'm George Washington!"
When he first encountered 'Number Bonds', a key concept in his school's 'Singapore Math' curriculum, it brought on some head scratching. One evening of sitting with me on the floor building LEGO duplo block towers, brought things quickly into  focus. After all, Arithmetic is founded on the idea of numbers coming together and apart in different configurations. Just like the brightly colored bricks. Their clicking sound remains satisfying and they have become terrific delivery mechanisms for essential lessons.

Yet showing him how to adjust his course in the worksheet above, feels like robbing him of some sort of key leap he must make on his own. As if I had popped open the lid on the box of blocks he desperately needs.

Instead, one of these nights I think I'll set him another problem like the one above. Then I"ll watch while he works it out and perhaps ask some leading questions.

Maybe I'll find a way to pry open the edge of the cover. Just a teeny bit.

After finding a dead fish in his aquarium one morning......
Oyon: Quick, get it out, or it'll spread toxic in the water and kill the others!
Me: Relax, it doesn't happen that fast. Think of how it works in the ocean. Often other creatures eat up the dead before it even rots. Sometimes even its friends from the same species.
Oyon (a bit horrified): Why?! Why would they DO that? Eat their friend!
Me: As far as we know, fish don't really have feelings so they may not know it's their friend. Also, in the wild, creatures are always looking for nutrition. It's the food chain.
Oyon: Well, think they eat their friends so they'll become part of them and so they won't miss them.

On being asked if he'd like fried fish tacos for dinner or daal-rice...
Oyon: Shhhh! Not so loud!
Me (in an obliging whisper): Why?
Oyon: I don't want my fish to hear. They might get worried.

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