A toddler learns about life and death

My mother in law’s house is in a great location – close to the park, close to town, but it’s also right next to the water plant. That means water, in the South, in the the summer. That means mosquitoes. It’s like her little sloped driveway leads to a valley which houses a protected mosquito population.

So when I go to pick Maya up at the end of the day, part of our dance is getting the car doors open and closed quickly enough to keep as many buzzers as possible out. It never works. Once Maya and I are all buckled up in the car and pulling up the driveway, we roll down all of the windows and pick up speed to hopefully cause the blood-suckers to catch a ride on the wind wave.

Inevitably, there is always at least one that manages to maintain its in-vehicle spot for the duration of the ride home. My theory is that he tucks himself in down by my feet and the pedals and gets all warm, fat, and happy feeding on my ankle flesh. I have the “itchy bites” (as Maya calls them) to prove it.

The other day, we were halfway home when I realized there was still one stowaway buzzing around in the car. I opened my window and Maya’s rear passenger window to strategically create an air stream. I thought it worked, so the windows went back up and the AC back on. But then, Maya starts crying hysterically and yelling “Mosquito!! Mosquito!!” I thought her reaction to getting bitten was a tad on the strong side for a girl who has more itchy bites on her arms than teeth in her mouth.

But then I realized that when she felt the bite on her foot, she instinctively slapped at it, and there on her perfect baby-child foot, lay a flattened and dead mosquito. This sudden awareness that she had taken life broke her poor sweet heart!

My first reaction was, “Good job, babe! You got it!” but then I thought for a bit; she was so upset, and here I was – cheering her on for flattening a bug.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still promote the smacking and flattening and smushing of mosquitoes, cockroaches, and some other undesirables, but I became totally aware that my reaction was building a link in her between smashing and cheering.

Okay, okay, I know I’m being a little dramatic, but I have thought a lot lately about how we form kids’ attitudes and how important semantics are in how children perceive things.

So what angle do I take to begin the discussion about life and death? How do I say it’s okay when some things die, but it’s also okay to be sad about it? And while I may start with the mosquito, I’m really thinking ahead to when we will have to have the “Your dog has been sent to the farm” conversation. I don’t want to lie; I don’t want to whitewash it. But I don’t want to freak her the F out either – I mean, her heart was broken by a mosquito, and I love that it was; it shows how untainted she still is by this world.

Any advice about how to have this serious talk with a toddler?

Having a serious talk with the baby
Having a serious talk with the baby

Our Words Shape their Worlds

Often, I find myself saying, “Wow, Maya, you are so smart!” because she astounds me. The things she knows, the things she can do. I quip that I don’t know where she got it – as far as I know, neither Sean nor I were baby geniuses, the way she appears to be.

But what I am seeing is the learning process: the growth of which all humans are capable. It is one of the many joys of parenthood – to bear witness to this “miracle” of the human brain.

But by praising Maya in this way – to tell her that she is “smart”, I am implying that intelligence is a fixed asset – she is either born with it or without it – as fixed as her eye color; when in reality, intelligence is as malleable as any other muscle. I need to watch what I say to her.

Muscle training
Muscle training

When students/kids are learning, if we were to focus all of our praise on the process of learning: on the risk-taking, the trying, the failing, the trying again, then our kids would be come more resilient and begin to see struggle as a necessary part of growing and achieving success.

My view right now
One place of learning

If we establish the belief that success is reachable, but only through hard work and trial and error, then there’s nothing our kids couldn’t do. Falling down, or not knowing the answer right away, wouldn’t cause them to quit. Making mistakes and learning from them IS how we grow. Trying is how we stretch.

Another learning environment
Another learning environment

Here is a TED talk that illustrates some research in this idea.

Writing the Curriculum, ahem, Writing. Writing the Writing.

And here we are. The beginning of another school year. I get so nervous the night before, I can hardly sleep. Eight years into teaching and still…

But this year there is something new: I am “teaching” a Creative Writing class. I put ‘teaching’ in quotes just there because it is not the same as other classes. I am dancing (dueling?) back and forth between freedom and structure, and I am in the middle: an emotional wreck.

You wouldn’t know it in class – I seem (I think) to have it all planned out, to have a vision, but really I am sticking a toe in, withdrawing; tasting, testing, spitting it out. Questioning myself a lot.

Prompts, genres, lessons, free writing, feedback. It seems against creativity to put a framework to it, a schedule to it, but I also know that’s a lie. Discipline, learning, trying things outside of our natural tendencies – these are all good for creativity. So is a bottle of wine and some jazz on low in the evening light – but I won’t bring that into class. Ha.

I’ve brought flowers in and am putting pictures on the wall:

Ryan Sheffield Art

Maybe some beanbags? A tea station has been requested…

But how do we warm this cold, cinder-block-public-school-room with words? I’ll keep looking…