Taking on the Ocean

By: Tanya Ward Goodman

At the end of the first whole week of school, my daughter told me that she wanted to go back to first grade.

“Last year,” she said, “when I finished a worksheet, my teacher said hooray.  This year, my teacher just hands me another worksheet.”

I’m glad she’s in second grade.  Glad she’s gotten off the parade route (as delightful as it was) and a little further into the real world. And let’s face it, second grade is still pretty cushy.  She’s not going to have to sew a shirtwaist or work in a gravel pit.  She’s got a great life, but she needs to learn to read.  She needs to learn to do math and the only way this is going to happen for my daughter is to hit the books hard.  This is real work for her and as a result, she is exhausted and cranky and, for the first time in years, does not wake up in the morning desperate to go to school.

My son, on the other hand, wants to go to school.  He’s got a new, fun teacher who has found the right balance of discipline and eccentricity and he’s eating it up.  Almost immediately, he teamed up with classmates for an extra credit video project on the ocean and demanded we head to the library.  Thrilled by his engagement, I put ten books on my card and promised to help with planning and editing.  I agreed to hold the first creative meeting at my house.

This meeting was chaos.  Three nine-year-olds have enough combined energy to power a small city and this energy was unharnessed and focused on everything but the ocean.  For a time, we, the parents, tried collectively and separately to push our children to make good use of their time.  We suggested outlines and charts and modeled brainstorming tactics.  We were met by eye rolling and shrugs and the question, “Why should I use my free time for school work?”

And so we stopped.  It’s not our ocean project.  It’s extra credit.  We don’t need one more deadline on our calendars; none of us feels a driving need to shoot grainy footage of Venice Beach.   We told the children that they were on their own.  “Play,” we said.  “Do whatever you want.  But know this: if you want to do this project, it is on you.”

Half an hour later, they came to us and asked for help.  They were calmer and a little more willing to work.  We were adamant about our limits.  And they started to make an outline.  They are enthusiastic and excited.  The ocean is huge.  They could write a book, but all they need is a short script.

The meeting was a good lesson about limits for me and for them.  It is my nature to take charge of a situation – to organize the project, type the outline, and research the ocean.  But I have a book to re-write, I don’t have time to think about the ocean.  My kid needs to learn to set his own limits — to take charge of his own projects.

My son and daughter are learning a little at a time that they will have to make choices, that life isn’t always a parade.  They are learning that success (or competence) comes as a result of work.

I am learning the same thing.  My husband has already informed me that when I finish this book, I’d better be ready to start another.

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Tanya Ward Goodman

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