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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Hope

Facing Challenges and Playground Ladders

In lieu of a birthday party for my oldest daughter during the pandemic of Summer 2020, my family went camping at a state park. While we visited the playground there, I had the extraordinary opportunity to observe each of my children tackling something hard, allowing me to gain insight into how each approaches learning new things.

The birthday girl's ladder

The day she turned six, my oldest daughter discovered this ladder and chain. Twice in a row, she got about two steps up before deciding it was too hard and coming back down. I said, "I bet you can do it! Let's see if we can figure out a way to make it easier," and offered some advice. She decided she needed to see someone else do it. I scrambled up. From the top, I encouraged her as she tried again. She made it about halfway up, decided it was too hard, and went back down.

I have discovered through repeated experience that it works better to let my daughter process her fears and come to decisions on her own, rather than redirecting her energy towards resisting me as I try to force her to do things. When my initial encouragement didn't work, I let it slide (literally, as I had to get down somehow) and we went on to other activities at the park. I thought we had given up on the chain ladder for the day, but as our park time was ending and we passed by the obstacle again, she said, "Okay! I'm ready to try." She wanted me at the top to encourage her, so again, I climbed up. This time, when she reached that tricky halfway point, I cheered her on with our growth mindset mantra this summer, "We can do hard things!" When she made it up to the top, among my cheers, I asked, "Can we do hard things?" The birthday girl turned to me and responded with her mightiest roar, "I'm six!" With those two words, she let the universe know that she was older, stronger, and able to conquer any challenge that came her way.

The second ladder

The next day, I was at the park with my youngest daughter. She took one glance at the ladder and chain situation, said, "No way, I can't do that!" and found a different ladder to climb up. That latter, although more straightforward than the first, looked really tall in contrast to my tiny child. She made it about 3/4 of the way up before both of us became nervous about the height and she decided, "Nope! Too tall!" She ran around, played on a few other things, and then returned to the ladder. She said, "I wonder if it will be too tall for me now?" and curiously tried it again. She looked more confident, but still turned around to come back down. After a little more play time, she announced, "I'm ready now. I'm not scared anymore," and climbed up that thing like a pro. She was so proud of herself and repeated her success many times before we left the park.

Over the next few days, I had several opportunities to hear both of my children recount to each other, my husband, and perfect strangers how they had "faced a fear." They were both so proud to show each other and their daddy their new skills when we visited the park together as a family. What a brilliant example of how children can feel empowered through their learning experiences! As much as I was trying to turn off "work mode" and enjoy being with my family during our camping trip, I couldn't help but take some lessons as a parent and as a teacher from the experience.

  1. Children learn at their own pace. To be completely honest, I was surprised by which of my daughters was ready to face her challenge and complete it more quickly. Their responses didn't fall in line with the assumptions that I had made about them, based on my previous knowledge of their personalities. I'm so glad that I didn't voice my expectations, which likely would have altered the results.

  2. Pressure from a parent is counter-productive. I knew from past experience that the more pressure I put on my children to complete a task, the less enjoyment they get out of completing it. My role as the parent was to give helpful tips as needed and to encourage them with my unfailing belief in their ability to learn and succeed at the challenge, should they choose to conquer it. My job was not to pressure them, chide them when they weren't mentally ready to go all the way to the top, or force them to do it. I would have provoked greater resistance and fear that way! Yet how often do I practice with them in the opposite mindset?! As Suzuki parents, we think we're helping our children overcome a challenge by saying, "I know you can do it! Let's keep working on it NOW until we get it." In some instances, perhaps it would be more productive to allow our children to take a break to sort it out on their own and return to the task when they're ready to do it. The break could simply be switching to a different practice task; it doesn't mean that we have to quit practice for the day or lose any momentum.

  3. The challenges seemed big to both the child and the parent! When I was worried about the height of the ladder and my youngest child's ability to climb it safely, my daughter sensed my discomfort and became more insecure in her abilities. As a teacher, I need to remember that parents see the violin challenges I present to their children as challenges to the parents too! Sometimes it takes a moment for a parent to build enough confidence to help their child through a new practice assignment.

Who would have known that a camping trip would lead to such wonderful lessons about how my children learn?! Where have you gathered insight into working with your child? I'd love to hear about it! Leave a comment below!

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