Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spring Fever Cure #4: A New Perspective

I am smiling this morning at the reaction to my posts on spring fever. There are more ideas coming in next week's articles that will make it feel like Christmas at your house. If implemented, these ideas are sure to make your children think of me fondly for many years -- like a sort of homeschool Santa who bequeaths jolly times and little treats. On the other hand, a few of you may decide that my advice is utterly useless. All of this talk about treats and fun times may only prompt you to affirm that you have absolutely no intention of spoiling your children. They can just obey, do what they need to do, and get on with the rest of life.

Common responses I have heard to the business of joy:

"This is a matter of obedience. They need to learn to obey even when it's not fun."

"Well, they don't get to do this in school. It will give them a skewed view of real life."

"School doesn't have to be fun; it just has to get done."

"What about me? Why is everything always about them? This is just more work for Mom. I am already overworked."

"We have to be more practical. Who has time for all of this?"

Here is a confession. I have said all of these myself at some point in time. When, years later, I began hearing statements like these from other moms in response to some of my suggestions for joy, I knew that I wasn't the only one.

Surprised? I think it more surprising that I changed my view. I was a serious, hardworking, super-responsible, first-born ONLY daughter of a large family. An A student. A workaholic. Introverted. Task-oriented. The only things I knew about fun were that other people seemed to be having it and I didn't understand it. I always felt like I was outside of it -- like a kid without any money who gazes into the window of a beautiful chocolate shop. I couldn't relate to the people I knew who played all the time. What were they thinking? Did they ever get anything done?

I still work hard. I still prefer, when possible, to get my work done before I relax. I still tend to think little of leisure and more of finished projects. I have not become someone else.

What has changed is my perspective. Bit by bit, like the slow and painful turning of the head of an old man with a stiff neck, I came around by degrees to understand that a meaningful life is not crafted through accomplishments. I don't think I was alone in this. I am convinced that most of us in our modern culture live as though accomplishment is the key to what we long for. But when I discovered it wasn't true, I had found a new world.

What I uncovered in my wandering through motherhood was essential to my well-being and the happiness of my family. It is this: what I get done matters less than how I do it and why. I need to ask the right kinds of questions. What does it all mean? Why am I trying to do this? How are we living and working together? What is the quality of our life? How can we make adjustments that will bring us closer to the type of life we long for?

It makes all the difference. The results of living thoughtfully and joyfully change the environment of daily life dramatically, even when nothing on the exterior is different. I found that, by asking the right questions, I could be in the same house, with the same perplexities facing me, with the same children, doing the same tasks -- and yet all could be different.

Here is a small example. I could teach math skills as a task to get done and in the process make my children feel pressure to perform. I could have them fill out worksheets, be timed on their math facts, and complete every single page in the book just to know we had done it. I could study their errors and give them extra work on the skills that are shaky. They would do well on tests and we could consider ourselves successful at math. The problems with all of this were mulitiple: they avoided doing any math that wasn't required as a school assignment; they disliked working with numbers; they had no confidence in their ability to handle numbers; they were not learning to think mathematically. All of the reasons we might value the study of math were left out of the picture. Furthermore, the boys felt anxiety about their performance and that made them dread math. Although they were competent, they never felt that way when measuring themselves against my perfect and unrelenting standards.

After a couple of years, I learned to approach math as an adventure that we all enbarked upon together. I did the math exercises with them and even timed myself. I showed them my own mistakes. We launched an adventure with numbers where we learned together by quizzing each other, playing games, reading books, doing little business ventures, cooking in the kitchen, shopping at the store and, on several days a week, completing a math page just to see how many we can get right. When we played Monopoly, Dollars and Sense (board game), arithmetic bingo, and made up our own math games; when we read books about math, measured and manipulated recipes in the kitchen, and had contests to solve word problems; when we published a children's magazine, ran a lemonade stand, and sold homemade soap at a craft festival, math became part of a very exciting life that we lived together.

We learned to play at math. When the kids were in elementary school, one of our favorites activities was to have "stores" in the house. We could purchase the items we wanted or needed from each room in the house. We "earned" money by doing work or by "selling" something from our own rooms. We then used that money to buy food and beverages. The kitchen was run like a restaurant, complete with a menu and prices. It was a hilarious, rolicking, good time. We had so much fun, that I hesitated to say anything about it for years to people. It didn't seem fair or right that learning could be that much fun.

The end result was that my boys are outstanding at math, confident in their ability to teach themselves, comfortable with numbers and with figuring out how to do new things mathematically. They have also excelled at math on all of their tests. But excelling on tests was not why we did math. It wasn't how we did math. I had to dig deeper to think about why we should do it and how we should do it, even more how we should live as we did it.

Recently, I was helping another homeschooling mom with her math program. Her elementary-grade students were struggling with completing their math assignments. They were making a lot of errors. They were resisting her instruction. They were unmotivated. Everyone in the family hated math.

My son Ben, on hearing about it, smiled and said, "Tell them to get out the Monopoly, Mom."

He still remembers.

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