Putting Our Children on Stage

I had a chance recently to be with a wonderful couple and their young daughter, who was just taking off into language fluency. She kept repeating new words that she heard--and remembering them. Her vocabulary was increasing by the hour, doubling by the day. Her parents, needless to say, were thrilled.

They would ask her to repeat things, ask her to name the people there, parts of the body, items of clothing, things on the table. She would oblige, providing the right answer an astounding number of times. And the adults would be delighted, laughing at her baby pronunciation and applauding her success.

It was truly an amazing process to watch--a stunning indication of the capacity of the human brain. And she was certainly a delightful child. Yet something didn't sit quite right. I kept feeling like I was at a performance. The adults were staging a show, feeding out cues--and the child prodigy was wowing the audience.

Maybe that's the easiest way we can figure out to pay attention to our children--encouraging them to perform in an area that we know and care about (whether it's language, sports, arts, or chores), and applauding them as they succeed. Lord knows I believe in paying attention to children. And it sure is better to focus on their accomplishments than to ignore them or berate them for their faults. If the children care about the same things, it's even better. But I'm even more interested in learning who they are separate from me, what they would choose and how they would learn and explore without adult prompting. I kept wondering what this little girl was like when she wasn't performing. I kept wanting to quiet the applause, remove all the cues, take her off the stage, and just watch her as she lived her life. I don't think it would have been a bit less amazing. I can't imagine that her interest in language would have decreased as a result. But maybe I would have gotten more of a sense of who she was for herself. And I think I could have delighted in her more fully with the spotlight off--knowing that I was seeing the whole child, and not just a single facet.

It also got me thinking about how close such a performance is to a test. We, as adults, give out the questions to which we already have our own answers, then judge whether what they say is "right" or "wrong." We are the ones in control; they are expected to produce. The obvious delight these parents had in their daughter, and their total lack of censure when she gave the wrong answer, took the sting out of the interaction--but it was still a test.

What would it have been like to stop the asking and just listen, and then respond, to her questions? Noticing what our children are trying to figure out, and offering information that they can make use of, requires us to think too--observing closely to identify the question, then considering what they already know and how they learn. Thus, we and the child are engaged in the process together. The stage is gone. There are no "right" answers. Anything they do or say is just another bit of information we can use in our voyage of discovery about this new human being in our lives.