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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Life is a Learning Journey

There's something vital in the human spirit that dies on the day we stop learning, or being interested in the world. We need to coin a word for that part of the human spirit, the opposite of ennui. Fostering a healthy mental appetite for new knowledge is one gift that will enrich our children's entire lives.

To help us remember the novice's outlook such learning experiences require, we as parents should regularly try our hands at new things, too. The japanese call it sho shi, "beginner's mind", and being able to empathize with how occasionally baffling or humbling it can be helps us communicate better and be more patient with our children.

Remember as you feel clumsy in the dojo, or turn the directions upside down trying to make sense of them, that even walking was once this unfamiliar and frustrating. Notice the attitude of whomever you're learning from. If they are harsh, you will not learn. Comments which magnify a sense of not-knowing (particularly those from the inner critic) serve only to erode your ability, turning your attention to fears of failure. Some things you can only learn through having other people show you how, but most things you only learn by doing them yourself.

The idea is to stretch the boundaries of your way of thinking -- to become more flexible, humble and gentle with yourself -- so that you may summon these qualities for your children. If you notice that you are impatient with yourself, judgmental, or unsatisfied with a rate of progress, set these expectations down. Trust in the process of learning at an organic pace.

If all you take is two minutes of regular time to practice juggling while your breakfast's toasting, it will still surprise you how much difference it makes. A human being can learn a lot of things in a lifetime.

At no time in the last month has this come home to me more clearly than in Keefe's quest to make Yuletide gifts. Last year we made a list in November of who he wanted to give presents to, we talked about what their interests were, and every day or two he'd sit down and draw a picture of something the recipient was interested in. Having done the same when I was almost exactly his age, it warmed the cockles of my heart, and his heartfelt offerings were very well received.

This year the list was longer, and the days grew fewer, and a busy social calendar beckoned, and there was a lot more homework, and karate and guitar lessons, and a play he was in, and... you get the picture. Suddenly we've got a week and a half to produce eighteen pictures, and dad has this annoying concept that if you whip off a sloppy sketch in two minutes it doesn't really show that you care very much; more like "I couldn't wait to be done with this so I could go watch TV." At which point we reach an impasse. Keefe wants to do it, but he's backed himself into a corner time wise, and he gets grumpy about it.

Conveniently, he's got a useful resource available: me. Freelance illustration was a sideline for me for at least a decade. I can't do it for him, but I know the basics, and I can help him get the most out of his efforts. A marriage made in heaven, wouldn't you think?

Not at all. Keefe approaches me like a rival. He asks for my help, but it seems like it's strictly so he can argue with me when I make suggestions. Naturally, he's trying to skip to the finished product, and my talking about the steps that take you there frustrates him. He can't duplicate the images in his head (or, say, the comic book) without those steps, so his confidence is low. His attention wanders, he rushes, and the task looms large. We snark at each other.

It's hard not to feel slighted. He doesn't shout at Sensei Baughan, or Chris the guitar teacher. But despite my own knee-jerk irritation, I can empathize. As I often do, I try to open the door with a story from my past:

"I used to make pictures for Christmas and birthdays gifts, too, you know that. It's how I got my start, really. One year, I ran out of time just like you are. I made coupons that said 'I didn't get time to finish a drawing for you, but it's coming', and gave those out instead. You know what happened? I was making Christmas presents until June. Dumb, right?" Keefe grins, but doesn't want to agree out loud. "The next year I got smarter. I did one picture, took my time and really made it my best, and gave everybody a print. Instead of giving half an hour a piece for twenty people, why not give a few hours to making one thing that's really cool and you feel proud of? I'll help you if you want, but only if you treat me like someone who's trying to help you."

While his masterpiece slowly takes shape, I repeat my mantra: "Take your time, don't expect to be perfect, and keep at it." He tries, he rushes ahead, he slows down again. Sometimes we push each other's buttons and get exasperated. A neighbor, over for tea, sees how hard I'm trying to keep Keefe's attention on the next step, and chimes in "It's like a test in school. You've got to really focus on it, because there's not a lot of time and you need to get everything perfect." This is well intended, but I cringe, and search for a better metaphor. "No. It's more like a video game. You can't be Spider Man and beat the bad guy by just pushing buttons while you watch what's on TV in the next room: he'll clean your clock. You can pause and walk away but when you pick the controller up again you've got to be into it, present to it, because that's the only way to win."

Finally, after all the tears, shouting, and reticence, Keefe gets out of his own way and his best slowly pours out of him. When Janice gets home from Christmas shopping, he vibrates with the urgency to show her what he did. It was all worth it.


Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh (3) and Keefe (9).  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


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