LESSONS NO ONE TAUGHT (and other reminders to trust)

“No. I can do it myself,” the Bug responded when the teacher in our Parent Ed class asked if she could write his name on his picture. When my three-year old took the Sharpie from her hand, I expected him to scrawl some sort of gigantic zigzag all over the page (and possibly the table) but, instead, in the bottom right hand corner, he carefully wrote three of the four letters in his name.

I. Could. Not. Believe. It.

Sure, he has known his letters for ages, identifies the suggestion of letters within the abstract squiggles that he draws, and climbs down from trees to present me with sticks that remind him of letters, but I had only ever seen him deliberately write the first letter of his name. And, in that moment, I was in awe as I watched him write the other two beside it.

What made it even more incredible to witness was the knowledge that he had arrived there completely on his own.

Completely, perhaps, is an overstatement. I answer his questions about letters and sounds. I write down words when he asks to see them. I make sure he has paper and pencils available to write and draw. And, of course, I read, read, read. I am deliberate about supporting his interests. But I am equally deliberate about staying out of his way and following his lead, about creating an environment where he has ownership over his own learning.

And in that moment, he absolutely did.

I was so floored by watching him write his name, that I made a point of jotting down notes, this past week, of new things that I noticed the Bug working on.

Here are just a few of the things I managed to catch:

1. Creating “sound alike” word pairs using the first syllable

While helping me make cookies, the Bug made this announcement: “Hey, Mom! Did you ever realize something? Baking sounds like bacon! They both start with bake!” Both the joy and the urgency in his voice told me that this was a revelation to him. He loves thinking up rhyming words (and particularly enjoys making up rhyming nonsense words), but this was the first time I had heard him pair two words together based on the first sound rather than the last.

We cleaned up and he got out some art supplies to make a spooky cemetery, but his mind was clearly still mulling over his recent discovery. “Craft sounds like crab,” he quietly observed as he glued googly eyes onto a mummy. “Gravestone sounds like gray,” he said, continuing to play with language and sound as he worked.

2. Knowing his left and right

As the kids and I walked through a parking lot, hand-in-hand, the Bug took it upon himself to steer us around puddles. When I first heard him saying, “Left,” and, “Right,” I assumed that, knowing the context, he was arbitrarily saying one or the other as he pulled us from side to side. But when I listened more closely, I noticed that he was using them correctly each time. Still, I dismissed it; perhaps he guessed the first one right and the others just fell into place.

But I have paid attention since then and noticed him using left and right correctly. So it would appear that the answers to his relentless questions of, “Is Babygirl on my right or my left?,” “If I’m facing this way, is she on my right or my left?,” and “Which side are you on, Mommy? My right or my left?” may have actually stuck. Discerning right from left wasn’t even on my radar in terms of something he “should” know, but he was compelled to figure it out. He knew that understanding those words that he hears everyday meant understanding and being able to communicate something new about the world he lives in. Whether or not that mattered to me, it mattered to him, so he persisted until he learned it.

3. A shift toward realistic drawing

Ever since I trusted him with his first crayon, the Bug has loved to draw and — once I cleared the next trust hurdle — paint. His artistic expression has been fascinating to observe because, while I see his peers draw stick figures and houses, I watch the Bug participate in his very own inkblot test. Instead of starting with the idea and then drawing it, I have always seen him freely draw and then look for the image within what he has created. So, while he has shown me pictures of dinosaurs, trees, sharks, and lightning bolts, it has always been clear that his recognition of those things came after the act of drawing them.

But about a month ago, he got an idea for a Halloween costume that he just had to draw: a skeleton coming out of a grave. At first, his drawings were almost unrecognizable. Fortunately, I had a lot of practice with feedback like, “You are drawing so much blue,” “It’s really dark down in that corner,” and “Tell me about that yellow part,” because his drawings alone weren’t achieving the objective of showing me what he wanted his Halloween costume to look like. Day after day, he drew. And, ever so slowly, the drawings began to suggest the idea behind them. But, then he moved on from that idea in favor of dressing up as a tombstone, a costume that he seems more comfortable with my ability to execute without the help of carefully drawn diagrams.

Since abandoning his skeleton costume, he’s been drawing more abstractly again (though he has taken an interest in using collage materials to create scenes like the spooky cemetery referenced above).

On Monday, however, he sat down to paint and, for the very first time, painted a scene that looked exactly as he described: the moon, a tombstone, a skeleton coming out of his grave, green grass with one super tall blade of grass reaching all the way into the sky, a storm cloud, and a bolt of lightning.

4. Counting by 10s

Our grocery story is doing a Monopoly game where you get stickers with your purchase and every customer is left just one sticker away from winning a million dollars. The kids are both obsessed with the game – tearing off the perforated edge of the sticker packet, licking the back, searching endlessly for the right spot on the confusing board, and most of all, knowing that it’s something special they do with Daddy.

“Why do these stickers have a rubber band around them?” the Bug asked about the stickers I handed him this morning as I pushed the cart to the exit.

“Well,” I answered, “I’ve noticed that the cashiers keep them rubber banded in stacks of ten to make them easier to count. That way, when they have to count out a bunch of them, they can count more quickly by tens: ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty…”

I trailed off as I counted, figuring my explanation was going in one ear and out the other of kids who have no idea what counting by tens even is and, just as I did, the Bug picked right up with, “Sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, ONE HUNDRED!”

5. Adding one 

I’ve been amazed how organically both of my children have learned to count. When you think about it, amazement is sort of a ridiculous reaction considering the fact that we are surrounded by math in our day to day lives, but still…it can be hard for me to shake the voices — both real and imagined — telling me that children need to be taught these foundational skills.

But I digress. My children can count.

Lately, however, the Bug’s counting sounds a bit different. He has started to emphasize the final number in a sequence with statements like, “One, two, three, four, and one more is FIVE!,” and even hypothetical ones like, “If we had one more dinosaur, it would be eight!” While he certainly isn’t doing algebra, the shift in the language he is using around numbers tells me that he is beginning to think of them in different ways. Sure, he’s still just counting to ten when he says, “…seven, eight, nine, and the next one’s TEN!,” but he will eventually write that same idea as 9 + 1 = 10.

Nearly two years ago, I posted a snapshot to my Facebook that I often think back on. It was a photograph and a moment that would feel unremarkable to many, but when I looked over and noticed my tiny Bug matching his pegs to the corresponding colored boards, this is the photo I took and this is what I wrote:

I am deliberately an observer in most of the Bug’s play. I participate at his direction, but always let him lead and never suggest a course of play that I think will “teach” him something. I would never dream of saying, “Let’s match the pegs to the boards,” which is what makes returning from the kitchen to find scenes like this so much more special. I love trusting his process and his play. He doesn’t need me to teach him anything; he’s going to play until he learns it all.

I don’t think that I had any idea, then, how true those words were and how much that moment would come to define me as a parent. What I witnessed wasn’t Earth-shattering. It wasn’t evidence of some sort of genius. It was, like seeing your child draw his very first tombstone, simply a reminder to listen and trust.

I am so, so thankful that my children continue to give me those reminders. Listen. Trust. Listen harder. Trust more.

6 thoughts on “LESSONS NO ONE TAUGHT (and other reminders to trust)

  1. I love this! I found your blog through word of mouth and have really enjoyed reading it for a few months. I am taking the same approach with my daughter (17 months old). I love those colored peg boards, do you happen to know where you got them from?


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