Teaching Children With Gentle Nudges

Last night we watched a "National Geographic" special on the African elephant. Sitting on the couch with my young children - Kenneth on one side, Diana on the other, and Connor on my lap - I felt akin to the mother elephant and her offspring. Whenever the young calf wandered astray, his mother gently enveloped him with her trunk and pulled him to safety. Watching this, I tightened my arms ever so slightly around Kenneth, Diana, and Connor.

Unlike the elephant, we humans in the developed world don't fear for lack of food or attack by threatening mammals. But still, I want to protect my children. Although, as a parent, I must do more - I must encourage them to face and deal with the pressures of growing up.

A few hours after the elephant show, Kenneth returned to the computer to complete his science report. But he had failed to save the document before turning off the power. All the hard work he had "finished" that evening had evaporated. As he walked upstairs to bed - his head bowed, legs dragging - I visualized myself, the mother elephant, pulling him to my underside and taking away the unfairness.

Instead, I sat silently watching a young boy who thought he had finished his first report ahead of schedule, only to be foiled by an unforgiving machine.

Of course, we talked about it. My sympathy couldn't bring the report back, but it gave Kenneth the strength to accept and move on.

Diana comes home from preschool, crushed that the girl she idolizes plays with another friend all morning. Or, Diana's father goes on a business trip for four nights. At 5, she has no concept of time and aches with each passing hour. Why must he go, she wonders - not understanding the necessity of work and income. Her world is small; his presence large. I hug her close, explaining again why parents work and go on business trips.

As children grow, the problems become more complex and the solutions seem less clear-cut. Kenneth had his first Cub Scout pine-wood derby several weeks ago - a wooden race-car competition. The boys sand, assemble, and paint prepackaged kits with their parents to meet specific weight guidelines for the competition. Kenneth's best friend, Matt, won first place. Kenneth didn't place. He dreaded facing Matt at school the next day, certain Matt would laud the trophy over him.

Quelling Kenneth's tears, we explained Matt's need for approval in his accomplishments. This helped Kenneth preempt Matt's bragging by offering congratulations first.

Often, these small acts of generosity lead to joyous occasions. Several years ago, Kenneth asked to remove the training wheels from his bike. After hitting a few rough spots, he wanted them screwed back on. We understood his fears but asked him to give it one more try. We invited one of Kenneth's friends and his dad over so the boys could learn together. And they did - up and down the parking lot until they were whizzing by with only a few teeters, beaming into the camera.

Now, a few years later, I watch Kenneth learn to read music and play the piano. I took lessons for many years and understand both the joy and tedium of practicing. But what pleasure it is when he asks to give us a "recital." Grinning from ear to ear, he plays simple tunes, incorporates the rhythm, and blends it all together with thoughtful dynamics.

Now I'm starting over with Connor as he, at his own pace, navigates the world. He's cautious and late in learning to walk, but I know he yearns to balance on his two feet and scamper after his brother and sister.

Several weeks ago, he was resting next to the couch and momentarily let go to scratch his face. As he did, he balanced alone for a few seconds before lowering himself to the floor.

I clapped my hands and hugged him. He squealed with delight over his obvious accomplishment.

Each day this learning continues. I offer words of support for every challenge, trusting they will form invisible beads of wisdom and courage that Kenneth, Diana, and Connor will draw on throughout their lives.

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