January 15, 2006

Skating and Raising the Bar

Last week we took the kids skating for the first time at a pond in beautiful, nearby White Park. (Actually the pond was a lot more beautiful before some zealot from the DOT decided that the playing fields needed to be snowplowed in order to provide parking for the skaters, but that's another story.)

Nathaniel was a natural on ice. Jessica cried the first time she felt unsteady on her legs, immediately fell down and threw a tantrum, and spent most of the outing on her belly. Seeing her took me back to my own childhood when my brother and I went skating. Neither of us was a natural, like Nathaniel. I just sulked and refused to skate. My brother followed Jessica's example, crying and sitting on the ice.

My parents were sympathetic and protective, and I never did learn to skate--not well, anyway. I wonder if they did us a disservice?

My wondering points to a fundamental question of teaching: to what extent should we pamper our children and ease their learning, and to what extent should we push our children and urge them beyond their capabilities?

Public schools fail to raise the bar for most kids just because they teach to a point that sits slightly left of average on the bell curve. (I'm sure some would dispute this claim, but I'm convinced of it from my own teaching and schooling. Anecdotal evidence from other public school teachers confirms my opinion.) A teacher with 27 students who are struggling to subtract isn't able to spend much time encouraging the 3 who are almost able to divide.

Homeschool teachers can more easily raise the bar. We can more easily lower it, too. If Johnny is an “actual-spontaneous” learner (an energetic, hands-on type who dislikes bookwork), Mom faces a real temptation. After all, she could customize Johnny's education so much toward his strengths and away from his weaknesses that Johnny never will learn self-discipline, or read for pleasure, or be able to wait for something worthwhile. On the other hand, in an effort to overcome any weaknesses in Johnny's personality, Dad might push too hard, until Johnny despairs and believes himself a failure.

I conclude that this question of raising the bar is a balancing act. We have to watch our kids, weigh their triumphs and failures, and decide when and how hard to push.

. . .

Or so I thought.

The end of this story belies my reasoning. Camille took the kids skating again the following day. Nathaniel, aggressive and cocky on his second day out, fell hard and broke his clavicle: he's out for the season. Just before skating was aborted for a trip to the hospital, however, Jessica, under pressure, on her own time, perhaps feeling a competitive urge to match her brother's performance, started skating. She has been out for a third time, and she's really taking off.

So Nathaniel, whom we didn't push at all, tried so hard that he literally broke himself. And Jessica, whom I worried that I was pushing too hard, is flourishing. If this means something, I don't know what it is.

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