Today has been all about the threshold of frustration.
I watched Sam work with paper polyominos for over an hour this morning, trying to get them to fit into various shapes, moving them around and flipping them and lining them up before scattering them over the table, mumbling “nope,” and starting all over again. His frustration mounting, he started to crumple up some of the pieces. Suddenly, the corner of his mouth twitched and a ripple of understanding spread over his face. Eyes gleaming, he started moving the pieces very quickly into place and sat back hard, his chair making a satisfied “bang” on the hardwood floor.
“Did it,” he declared simply, and got up to get some water.
Meanwhile, Lucy was on the driveway, pushing her bike slowly along with her toes, stopping every now and then to sigh heavily and shove the pedals around to get them out of her way. Her little brother zipped past her every few minutes, now on a tricycle, now on his new balance bike, whizzing so close to her leg that he ran over her foot one time. As he and her twin sister rode circles around her, she kept trying to pick up her foot and put it on the pedal. She would get it partway there, wobble back and forth, and then put her foot back on the ground with yet another gusty sigh.
I bit my tongue, resisting the urge to give her pointers.
She hates pointers.
Finally, after almost an hour of persistent effort, she dragged the bike back up to the top of the driveway where there is a slight incline. As she coasted down the tiny hill, balancing, she managed to pull one foot up to the pedal and start it going around. Her other foot swung uselessly in the air for a second, then made contact with the other pedal…and she rode. With both feet. Pedaling a bicycle. All by herself, with no help from me or anyone else.
This from my girl who waited eighteen months to the day to take a single step is a huge accomplishment.
It’s pretty amazing for a Monday- two instances of frustration overcome, persistence paying off, and goals achieved. As I watched them both struggle, trying to stay out of their way and fighting the urge to “help” them, I reminded myself that homeschooling (and parenting in general) is often more about learning to tolerate my own frustration than helping them learn to tolerate theirs. While they are working hard to solve problems and develop skills, they are building up their frustration threshold. Every time they work through that frustration before having a breakthrough moment, they’re learning that it is worth it to struggle with things that are hard. They’re learning that they are capable. They’re learning that they can persist and be victorious, even if it’s not easy. This learning doesn’t depend on me at all- they’re coming to it on their own.
The worst thing I could do in these moments is to jump in and “save” them. I’m working just as hard as they are, breathing through my own frustration, learning to watch them flounder a little without offering advice or telling them what they could be doing better.
Sometimes, the hardest part of teaching our kids is letting them figure something out on their own. Of course we often know a different way, a better way, a tip or a trick that might make something easier. But before we jump in with that helpful piece of knowledge, why don’t we let them struggle for a bit and see what they come up with? It is so hard to see them biting a lip, rocking a chair back and forth, drumming their fingers on the table or chewing a pencil. If we can take a deep breath, though, and see that frustration for what it is- the sign that real work and learning are happening, independent of our sweeping in and making everything okay- we will be allowing our children to learn that they are capable of figuring things out. We’ll be giving them the chance to try and fail while the consequences are still relatively small. We’ll be providing them space to struggle safely…and when that breakthrough comes, we’ll be giving them the chance to feel the rush of joy and satisfaction that comes with knowing they did something amazing.
And we’ll be there in the front row to cheer them on.