Back when M was 3 or 4 years old, we’d sometimes do puzzles together. And almost every time, I couldn’t help thinking that she might be mentally incapacitated.
I know, I know: she was little. But it’s not like these were thousand-piece puzzles or something. They were toddler puzzles. Extraordinarily easy, I-could-do-this-blindfolded puzzles. So I’d sit there, keeping her company, maybe nursing J on my lap, and I’d have to actively fight the urge to put the damn pieces together myself. Eventually, I’d break down and offer up a little bit of coaching. I explained the age-old puzzle technique of putting aside the pieces that have straight edges, then lining up the straight edges to figure out which pieces go together. And my sweet little daughter would look at me, then at the little pile of puzzle pieces, entirely baffled by the notion of identifying those pieces with a straight edge. It’s like I’d suggested that she do long division or write a sonata.
M was (is!) a smart cookie. But somehow her brain just hadn’t clicked on this yet. Years later, I was complaining about some math concept that one of the girls wasn’t getting, and my teacher friend shook her head. “It’s a brain development thing. That homework isn’t developmentally appropriate for that age.” Ahhhh. So that’s it.
Other times, there’s something so obvious that it seems crazy that I need to teach it, like using a can opener or understanding that a towel that is hanging will dry more quickly than one that’s wadded up on the bed.
When we encounter these little stumbling blocks, whether it’s due to their just-growing-into-them brains or their lack of life experience, it can be joyful and exasperating. Recently I help M solve two problems based entirely on my Mom Common Sense, and it felt fantastic.
J, meanwhile, is struggling with the obvious in spite of my coaching. It’s vocabulary and reading homework. She is always expecting it to be more challenging or complicated than it is, and the result is that she tortures herself. Like, an essay about the Wright Brothers might say, “This glider was sleek and light” and then a follow-up question will be “Why did the glider stay up in the air?” and she’ll be pondering aerodynamic concepts when what she’s really supposed to say is “It stayed in the air because it was sleek and light.” Or she’ll read paragraphs in her vocabulary notebook about Harriet Tubman that will have statements like “Harriet Tubman yearned to be free.” And then one of the questions that’s supposed to be answered with a single vocabulary word will say, “How did Harriet Tubman feel about slavery?” and J is trying to decide between using prohibit or liberate or bondage or some other vocabulary word. And I say, honey, you just have to spit back one single word, and the word is bolded in the text. “Wait, do you think I’m supposed to say, ‘She yearned to be free’?” she asks. And I say, yes, yes, that’s what I think that you’re supposed to say. And she protests that it’s too simple and obvious and there has to be more to it than that and I say, they’re just trying to make sure that you can read and understand, and I think it’s supposed to be obvious. We have had this conversation so many times, and yet she doesn’t ever seem to absorb it. Every time she reads something she wants to bring in her outside knowledge or her personal beliefs and she’s trying to fit a little essay into one line, and I remind her that she’s supposed to be spitting back an exact phrase without embellishment.
It’s especially funny because M has this whole school thing figured out. She’ll do her best, but where there’s leeway on opinions or things to do, she predicts what the teacher wants to hear and will feed it to the teacher in a pretty dish with a cherry on top. And I think it’s a skill, really, to know how to please your audience, so that’s great for M. But J is not there at all, and it feels pretty stinky that in order for her to succeed in school I’ve got to tell her to stop thinking so hard.