Monday, November 30, 2009

Go With the Flow, Momma!

Just last week, I watched as my 13 month old son gingerly, methodically, joyfully occupied himself for over 15 minutes by removing and replacing the lid of a baby food jar.

This meant a number of things: a) I could eat my dinner without attempting to shovel bites of spring vegetables and pasta into the mouth of a willful would-be toddler; b) he was completely immersed in a task that interested him; and c) to witness the growth of perseverance is a gift.

“Life Skills” is one of those over-packaged, over-used phrases that blandly attempts to characterize (often in list form) the myriad gifts that make us successful humans. I think I prefer the phrase, “Behaviors and Tendencies That Make You Great.”

Perseverance is one of those behaviors. Perseverance, in my mind, finds its beginnings in what I have come to know as “flow”—or as Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi describes it in his seminal work, 'Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience'— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. According to Csíkszentmihályi, we are happiest in these “flow states” where we are intrinsically motivated by whatever it is we are doing—from working on a car, to writing a novel, to gaining enough gross motor control to grasp and release a lid over and over again, to rock climbing, to mountain climbing, to horseback riding…and everything in between.

We have all experienced “flow states”, and those were some of the happiest moments of our lives. These moments are “characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.” (Especially the food part, especially if you are a little person.) And in these moments, when we encounter obstacles, we merely see them as a puzzle/challenge that we GET to overcome. The more often we are presented with challenges while we are in this optimal state, the more we will view obstacles as necessary—and interesting—parts of our path to satisfaction and happiness.

If this has been our experience when we encounter hardships, the more often we will associate hardships with eventual success…so we will choose to persevere to accomplish the task even if it means we must fail repeatedly before we are able to accomplish it. But let’s return to my kitchen table a moment…

I have finished eating my dinner and decide I haven’t been adequately celebrating the Great Triumphs and Astounding Genius of my Miraculous Boy Wonder. So I start talking to him: “Good job!” “Wow, you are A Master of Gross Motor Skills!” “Hooray for you!” (and the like). And, suddenly, he stops playing with the lid. He starts smiling at me, batting his eyelashes for a moment, and then, with a flourish, deliberately jettisons the jar lid at the dog and begins to howl.

So what happened?

I interrupted his flow state. I interrupted his moment of self-generated happiness by trying to impose myself and my annoying verbal nonsense in his quiet, self-absorbed world. His efforts were undermined by my very desire to be supportive. So he quit.

Studies are showing that there are a lot of kids who have self-reported “high self esteem” who give up, quit, or don’t even bother to start something if they think will fail. Why are they so afraid to fail? Because if they have grown up feeling and believing that support, joy, love, and success only comes from others when they succeed in a task (get a ribbon, get an A, etc.), then how will people react when they fail? They think that support, joy, love and sense of success will vanish, and take their high self-esteem right along with it.

But true self-esteem comes from the “self”. And developing a unique sense of self is one of the best gifts a child can take away from a summer camp experience. At camp a child has the opportunity to define him or herself outside of the home environment. It is easier (and safer) emotionally to try and to practice perseverance in the summer camp environment. The peer group is varied, the number of supportive adults is larger, and the entire progression of summer camp emphasizes the process over the outcome.

So, tonight, when my son alternated between inserting and removing his spoon from the jar, as well as continued his lid placing practice, I put on my summer camp counselor hat and merely stated (calmly and occasionally) what he was doing…and then I just watched him practice and practice and practice…and watched him learn how great it feels to grow.

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