I screwed up the other day.
It all started two years ago, when Logan was four and my wife and I decided we'd get the jump on teaching him to tie his shoes. Logan's a smart kid, and we figured he'd take to it and have it figured out in an afternoon. A weekend, at most. We sat down with him, sat a shoe in his lap and went through the motions of tying one of his shoes while he followed along. I tried to show him the way I learned, and it went something like this:
"Okay buddy, make an X with the strings. Now wrap the top one around the one on bottom, and pull both ends. No, not like that. That's not the top one, is it? There, that's the one. Loop it over the other one, tuck it back under, and pull."
Logan pulls and the strings come apart; he sighs.
"Nope. Try again."
He tries again and pulls the strings apart again. My blood pressure is like that stupid yodeler on the Price Is Right. The little bastard is climbing the mountain past ever increasing blood pressure values. 130/82.... 135/85... 141/90... 155/95. Yodel-oh-ee-dee. Logan tries again and barely gets the first part of the knot to work.
"Good! Good! See? This is easy, right? Now, make a loop."
He stares at me.
"Remember? Like this." I take the string and make a loop. "Now wrap the other string around the loop, but leave a little room at the bottom."
He stares at me. Diddly-odel-oh-ee-dee...165/98... 170/100... I do it for him.
"Okay now push the other string through the space at the the bottom, pull the loop through, and..."
He pulls the wrong string and it all unravels. He huffs. We repeat the process five or six more times with the same results. Yodel-oh-ee-dee-ayee. Here comes the cliff edge. 180/105... 185/108...
"I can't do it!" He yells.The yodeler goes off the cliff.
It wasn't so much that he wasn't grasping the concept (which he wasn't), but that it was hard as hell to try and explain how to tie a knot to a four-year-old. Eventually Nikki and I - and Logan too, I think - got too frustrated and decided on the simple, kick-the-rock-down-the-road solution.
We bought him Velcro shoes.
Two years and two pairs of Velcro shoes later Logan was prepared to enter second grade and still didn't know how to tie his shoes. Enough was enough. Armed with the knowledge that this was going to be monumentally harder than we'd anticipated two years ago, we searched for some teaching aids. There is a video on Youtube that shows how to tie a shoe in an infinitely easier way than I had learned back in the mid eighties (I posted it below, for the parents who are currently living this nightmare). Nikki, Logan and I watched the video and he exclaimed "That's easy!" and asked for his shoe.
Hey, guess what? It wasn't easy. The video is extremely helpful - I'd recommend it to anyone - but seeing and doing are two different things. The strings of his new shoes were made of a material that does not lend itself to tightening easily into knots. It wasn't elastic enough, I think.
When we started I was patient. I probably deserved a medal for how calm and understanding I was in those first five minutes. I was certain we were about to have this problem solved. I watched Logan leaning over his shoe, carefully working the shoestrings one over the other, and every time he tried it would fall apart in front of his face.
"It's alright," I'd say, and each time Logan's breathing would get heavier as if he were revving up some internal engine. "Try again." I punctuated each mistake with statements like "Don't rush" and "It's okay you're doing fine."
The frustration began welling up in him as time after time the knot unraveled in his hands. Less than ten minutes in, Logan exploded.
"I can't do it!" He yelled.
"Yes you can. Try again."
Remember the yodeler from before? That guy was back, and he began his ascent of Mount Blood Pressure.
I guided Logan as best I could. Eventually after a lot of anger and frustration, things began to turn around. He made the first part, the pretzel, flawlessly. He got to the second pretzel, made it, and prepared for step three, the loops. The loops always foiled him. His fingers grabbed the loops, pulled outward, and the strings slipped like limp noodles out of the knot.
Logan growled. Seriously, growled like a wolf. "I can't do it!" He yelled again, and the tears came.
"I know you can do it." I went through the whole diatribe about how smart he was and how easy this would seem once he gets it right.
Logan wasn't buying it. He clammed up with his arms folded. I was agitated myself, in part because now he was so mad he was trying to mess it up. I was more mad though because I couldn't really tell him what he was doing wrong. My agitation grew as his did.
And then I screwed up.
Out of my own frustration I said "Do you want to be the only kid in second grade who can't tie his shoes? Do you want to be made fun of?"
It just popped out. I didn't think he'd even heard it, to be honest. I figured he was so mad he wasn't hearing anything.
Two days later we were getting ready for work and school and Logan was still struggling with his shoes. I heard him lose his temper and then I heard crying. I walked into the kitchen where Logan sat on the floor with his shoes untied.
"What's wrong?" I asked, knowing damn well what was wrong.
Nikki walked up to me and, out of earshot of Logan, said "He's afraid the kids will make fun of him because he still can't do it."
It hit home.
At that point I became the Incredible Shrinking Man. The Hubble telescope wouldn't have been able to see me if it had been hovering outside my own front door, I felt so small.
I couldn't stop thinking about Logan that day. I thought about what it was like to be a kid. I remembered feeling confused a lot. Not intelligent enough, not fast enough or tall enough or thin enough or whatever other "enough" that people try to use to measure a person's worth. If I recall correctly I was one of the last in my class to learn how to tie shoes. I don't know why my mind held onto this, but I remember holding a paper cutout of a shoe with holes punched in it, and laces looped through the holes like a real shoe. We were supposed to tie them in class, and I had to whisper to a friend to help me because I couldn't do it.
When you're a kid you're still trying to find your place in the world. A lot of it doesn't make sense (hell, it still doesn't as an adult) and sometimes it's scary or uncomfortable or lonely or confusing. To this day I sometimes have this suspicion that everyone but me is in on some sort of understanding about life that I'm not privy to. Maybe we all have that, though, and some people are just really good at hiding it. Or maybe that suspicion comes from my own inadequacies, perceived or actual. I'm not sure but I can say this, though. However frustrated I get, I will never again suggest that fear of shame or embarrassment is a good motivator to learn how to do something. It's hard enough to get along in the world without having to worry whether or not you measure up to someone else's idea of what you should be.
Well that got deep, didn't it? Sort of like a closing monologue on an episode of The Wonder Years. Read it in a Daniel Stern voice, if you don't mind.
Moral of the Story:
1) Kids hear what you say more than you think they do.
2) Self esteem is more important than aptitude. There is a quote usually attributed to Albert Einstein that says that everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree, he'll live his whole life believing he's a failure. Whether Einstein said it or not, it's something to think about.
Read that in a Daniel Stern voice too. In fact, read all these posts in a Daniel Stern voice. Those vocal chords are a national treasure.