Boy woke up at maybe 6am this morning to start working on the Heartlake City Mall Lego set that he started last night. When Girl woke up she started working on her Cinderella castle, too. I got them breakfast, then spent some time online, mostly making arrangements for another homeschool “club” for the kids: this time a bi-weekly math and science club for 10 kids, ages 5-9. I needed an activity for the first meeting next Thursday, and wanted to do Tangrams. The kids Boy’s age can try to solve the problems, and the littler girls can try to match the blocks up to the ‘solution’ pattern on the back of the card. But first I wanted to check that Girl could do that, and that it was fun for her. She could, and it was. She liked the tangrams a lot, actually.
Boy finished his Mall and sat admiring it for a bit, before he ate lunch and then took the dog out to play, though it was cold.
When he came back in, I had to tell him that it was time for us to do some homework.
This is one of those “What am I doing, and what does it mean to say that we are unschooling?” moments. Because Boy did not want to do this homework. So what should my response have been? And really the question is, what is best for Boy?
This class is a Biographies class at our co-op, taught by the moms of its students. It is a class that Boy wants to be in. Each class we cover a different subject, and the teacher for the day reads a short biography, after which the class writes down sentences about the subject, the kids make a drawing for the biographies book they are each making, and then they do an activity. The teacher sends the sentences home, and the kids can copy them into paragraph form, for inclusion in their book. So, today, Boy needed to copy the sentences.
This is a minefield for him. He doesn’t have to do it, of course. There are other options for younger kids in the class, and no one would judge us if I just said he couldn’t do that. But he should. He’s got great handwriting, and this should be easy for him. But if he makes a mistake, he’ll get upset. If he doesn’t like the look of a letter, if it isn’t perfect, he’ll want to erase it. Obsessive erasing. If the paper starts to get messed up, he’ll crumple up the whole thing, or worse, really spiral out of control and start crying and throwing himself around. Or, if I try to grab it out of his hands, he might try to hit me, or throw things. It’s madness.
We both know it, Boy and I. When I say to him, You need to write down some sentences, we both know what’s likely to happen. So I don’t blame him for not wanting to do this homework. But I say, this is what you need to do to be in this class. If we can’t do this, we can’t be in the class. Do you want to try?
He agrees to try. I tell him I will sit with him. We get comfy on the couch, and I try to be very specific about what he needs to do, to minimize erasing. He gets through four sentences with no problems. But then I can almost feel a slight change in the air. Maybe he’s getting tired, maybe when I ask him to leave more space between the words he doesn’t like my tone. But he wants to go back and erase two words that are slightly too close together. I say no, we aren’t going to erase those, they’re fine.
And we’re off. He immediately gets upset saying that this is his work, and he’ll erase it if he wants to. Now, I’ve bought this argument before, but I know (now) that if I agree there will just be more and more erasing, and eventually we will end up with crumpled paper. And this is not a good use of our time.
I know he can do this. And it isn’t just his paper, his homework, his time. For him to be in this class, I have to teach. That’s my time. For him to be in this class, he needs to fulfill his obligations, which in this case, is doing his homework. I need to sit with him so he can do it. That’s also my time. We need to be able to do imperfect work in a timely fashion to be in this class.
And so that is what I tell him. That he needs to decide what is more important to him: erasing that word he doesn’t like, or being in the class. Because he can’t do both. He asserts that he can be in the class if he wants to be. And I tell him, no. For him to be in the class requires my participation as a teacher, I have to give my time. And I will only do that if he fulfills his responsibility, which is to write down sentences, and only erase things that are actual mistakes, if I give him permission to do so.
After that follows much, much crying. And yelling. And time in his room thinking about things, and more blaming me and yelling at me. Then more thinking about things in his room. And then, finally, he seems to really get it that he needs to accept imperfection in his work if he’s going to do this class, and it is his responsibilty to behave appropriately while doing his homework. I agree to sit down with him and give it another shot.
We sit down with the paper…and he immediately erases the word. A look of triumph on his face.
So, I say: You have made your choice. I’ll write to the teacher and tell her that we can’t be part of the class.
And I do. I write that. Now of course, unbeknownst to Boy, this teacher, our friend, immediately starts to give helpful work around solutions. And I don’t know why I chose this exact moment to make a stand with him, but I do. Something inside tells me that he can do this, he just needs to decide to. That some part of him wants me to clearly put this choice to him: Erase, or be in the class. Not both.
Boy howls. At this point, Girl is also crying, saying Please, please, Mumma, let [Boy] be in the class! I tell her that I want Boy to be in the class, too, but only he can decide.
But I go and wash dishes. The crying and pleading go on and on. I never get angry. I never even get impatient. I only say, again and again. You made a choice. You have to take responsibility for your choices, and stop telling yourself that Mumma is making this happen.
I get down right in front of him. I say, You’re in control. Only you. You have to choose if it’s more important to you to erase letters you don’t like, or to be in this class. You want to do both things. But which one do you want to do more? You can’t do both.
He goes off for a while and comes back. He is tearful and sorry, but more importantly, he says, I want to be in the class more than I want to erase those letters. Can I be in the class? And I tell him again that’s up to him.
So we sit down again. Before I hand him a pencil I tell him to really, really think about what he wants to do. He leaves the letters. He writes the next word. He finishes the sentence.
And we work our way through the rest of the sentences. When he makes an actual mistake (wrong letter, omission of a letter) I erase it for him and let him fix it. But if there is a letter that he doesn’t like, I say he needs to leave it, and give him the same choice as before: Erase the letter, or be in the class. Not both. Which do you want to do more?
You can see that it’s almost physically painful for him, he wants to erase those letters so badly.
Every time he has to go off in his room and think about it, and I wait patiently on the couch. But there is no more crying. Sometimes he says, I decided I want to erase the letter. What should I do? I tell him, What I think is, when you’ve made a bad decision, you don’t have to stick with it. You can change it to a good decision. And he changes his decision. Over and over. Like a really great play that just keeps getting replayed on the sports news: he wants to bask in the glory of his good decisions. I can do this. I can choose NOT to erase a letter.
And then we’re done. Twelve sentences. More than a page of writing. More than he’s written since the beginning of last summer. We sit and we pick out nouns and verbs. Even adjectives. He’s relaxed and happy.
It took us over two hours to do that assignment.
Then it’s time to practice violin. (Sheesh.)
We start to play a version of Twinkle, he makes a mistake, but he won’t start back where he was. He cries out angrily that I don’t tell him what to do, and he’s starting at the beginning. (Obsessive starting at the beginning of songs at any mistake is what has run him into trouble at his lessons. No bueno.) He starts playing at the beginning of the song, and I get up and leave the room. He plays to the end and calls to me happily, “I played it perfectly!”
I come back in the room, and I think this time I sound very stern. I say, Playing it perfectly is not your responsibility in practice or in lesson. Your responsibility is to start where your teacher and I ask you to, to do your best, but do what we ask you to. You can’t learn violin by yourself. You need other people. You can do what you want, but no one will teach you, and I won’t practice with you. When you do things with other people, everyone has responsibilities to each other. If everyone just does what they want, it doesn’t work. So you need to make a choice. You can start at the beginning when you want, or you can have lessons with your teacher and practice with me. You can’t do both.
Boy looks kind of surprised to find himself back here again, but this time he understands right away what the choice is. He asks me to practice with him again. He makes mistakes. He doesn’t meltdown when I say something, and he starts playing what I ask him to. He plays great. And he knows it. I’m not kidding you, he sounds really good!
At the end of practice, just as we’ve decoded some terrible notes of mine and played the first line of a new mystery song, Papa arrives home. As soon as Papa gets his uniform off, while I’m making dinner, Boy asks if he’ll play with his Lego Friends mall with him. So they sit at the dining room table, Boy on Papa’s lap, pretending to be customers and shop ladies at all the different places: sports store, pizza stall, spa, bridal shop. I cannot explain how sweet it is to listen to Boy very earnestly pretending to be a lady in a spa, or a bride getting ready for a wedding. And his Papa right along with him. I take a peek around the corner. Boy looks happy.
And I’m just exhausted, but I feel kind of happy, too. Almost exhilarated, like after a big crazy hike, when you’re a mess and one knee is all bashed up, but hey, you’re also on top of a mountain. Did I do the right thing? Ask me next week when we have to write down the damn sentences again.