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Supporting the Battle - helping an unschooled child learn a difficult skill

Supporting the Battle
When a child chooses to learn a new and difficult skill

Written by
Melony Beens

Melony Beens

Melony is a Canadian military wife and mother to two boys, who were ages ten and eight when this article was written in 2013. Their family has been life learning since the day their oldest was born. Melony spends her days supporting her two busy boys as they follow what excites them. Right now, this means fostering animals for a local animal rescue, setting up aquariums, and discovering the history of the automobile. She also leads a local naturalist club for home learners and has recently reconnected with her love for writing and hopes to do more of it as the boys begin to need her less. She has also recently taught herself to crochet, which, like learning the piano, has more than once left her ready to scream.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon as I sit, sharing a piano bench with my ten-year-old son. I stare out my living room window and watch my other son running in the park behind our house with his friends. The room is filled with the sound of angry fingers poking the keys too quickly and sighing. I look at my son’s face, red and sweaty. His eyes are wide and his chest heaves in and out rapidly. He’s going to scream in a moment. Only he doesn’t. He just plunks harder on the keys.

“Do you want to take a break, or just stop?”

“No” he grunts out to me.

“Do you want me to give you some space?”

“No, stay here,” he says quietly and then suddenly begins to play a song that he made up before he ever went to piano lessons.

There we both sit for a little while longer. My son goes back to fighting the keys and I stay beside him, feeling helpless, unable to help ease his frustrations.

"As a parent, I feel quite distressed watching his new and intense frustration build. I was not prepared for the idea that sometimes the willingness to learn and the actual act of learning are not quite in synch."
The old piano he plays came to us a few years ago, saved from the axe. It has been a part of our living room ever since. Sometimes it would go many months without anyone touching it. Sometimes someone in our family would play it frequently for a week, and then let it be. A while ago, an opportunity came to us for our children to have lessons at a music school at an indoor playground. Both boys enthusiastically agreed to try lessons. My youngest son tried lessons for two weeks and decided it was not for him right now. My oldest son seemed to be hooked right away.

At the beginning, I was happy to support my son as he learned his simple songs and fingering. He seemed very happy and eager to learn more. Throughout our days at home, I would periodically hear songs float through the air. I happily smiled and inwardly confirmed that when the willingness to learn is present, learning happens. My son was not pushed into piano lessons and here he is, delighting in his newly acquired skills.

But with new skills come new challenges. A month in to lessons, my son now must trick his brain into allowing his hands to play two different sequences at the same time. It isn’t an easy challenge. There are no more smiles. As a parent, I feel quite distressed watching his new and intense frustration build. I was not prepared for the idea that sometimes the willingness to learn and the actual act of learning are not quite in synch.

I’m sure I’m not alone. Many parents have stood beside their children and witnessed struggle and frustration. Piano lessons can be replaced with shooting a basketball, knitting, gaming, or anything that the child deeply values. The drive to overcome struggles is exhausting and sometimes distressing to witness. Often, as parents, we want to end our child’s suffering and make whatever is unpleasant go away. We want to offer empty praise, ridiculous clichés (guilty!), or on a bad day, we may even feel angry and frustrated ourselves as we watch the whole drama unfold.

I learned that my role is not to fix the situation. As a supporter, I need to be emotionally and physically available and to supply what is needed, when it is needed. Most importantly, I am to be genuinely calm and trust the process."
It helps to see the moment through fresh eyes. When learning a new skill is very important to our loved one, all energy is focused on overcoming this one big challenge. Negative thoughts battle the drive to overcome. Physiologically, the body is releasing chemicals, muscles become tense; it is a very tiring process. I have been there myself at times; we all have.

As a parent, learning how to support our children through their battles requires a willingness to take time and discuss what our son or daughter is feeling and thinking. According to Dr. Jim Taylor, a professor at the University of Denver, a specialist in psychology of sport, business, and parenting, one of the first things a parent can do is talk with our son or daughter about their goal. Such a simple suggestion can sometimes uncover unrealistic goals. Perhaps the frustrated person is engaging in too much negative self-talk? Are they comparing their progress to others? Is the goal in question truly theirs? Has the goal been imposed from an outside source? Should the goal be broken into smaller, more achievable chunks?

Talking to the frustrated person is a good thing as long as the language is supportive. Never downplay or minimize what the other person is going through. Appreciate that the goal is deeply meaningful for your son or daughter. Imagine yourself in their position. As Joyce Fetterol from www.joyfullyrejoycing.com has been quoted as saying, it’s much better to be their partner than their roadblock.

In the role of a supporter, I have learned a lot through this experience. I learned that my role is not to fix the situation. As a supporter, I need to be emotionally and physically available and to supply what is needed, when it is needed. Most importantly, I am to be genuinely calm and trust the process.

It has been several months since that difficult September afternoon. My house is once again filled with songs. My son now plays with ease what once seemed so difficult to achieve. I admire his ability to play the piano. I also marvel at his drive to learn and overcome a challenge. The willingness was there and although the path to the goal was tricky and overwhelming, the drive to overcome triumphed. I am grateful for this process.

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