Trusting in the Choices of Children

This past week, well-intentioned mother that I am, I took my sons to our book-filled, joy-filled local library. The space is inviting, and the book collection is enviable. It’s a space that inspires a readerly life. Picture books are organized in accessible bins with the front covers facing out. Colorful murals adorn the walls and encase reading nooks. Series books are organized by title and character to make it simple for early and middle grade readers to find a series they love.

I led my seven-year-old to the early reader chapter books area. I gathered an armful of books that I thought looked the right mix of sentence-length, page layout, and text complexity–what the field has historically called “just right books”. The books looked well-worn from previous readers and included a lot of animal characters that go on adventures with an unlikely friend. Maybe this would have sparked my son’s interest a year ago before he could read them. But my attempt to build a book stack of “just right” books was a bust. My son read one of the books with me alternating pages but it was a lackluster experience. Nothing about it felt joyful. My choices, driven with academics in mind, turned my son away from reading that day.

We got home and, unprompted, he went to his room and came back with a book stack he inherited from his brother. He picked one as his independent reading book, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot by Dave Pilkey. He proceeded to astound me with his reading of the first chapter. I had made a mistake. I had underestimated him with my carefully curated book stack of suggestions. Sorting through the books on his own, he also found our next read-aloud, The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, a book I wouldn’t have chosen about zombies and monsters in a post-apocalyptic world. His instinct for story was right. It’s been our favorite read-aloud this summer making me question why I wouldn’t have chosen this book as a read aloud at home or in my classroom. The writing is clever. The characters are memorable. My own book bias was getting in the way of my son’s joy with reading.

Feeling in control of our own destiny, or having agency, is critical to finding and sustaining our own happiness. I know the research: give children access to books, provide opportunities for choice, and over time, children will identify as readers. It sounds almost too simple. So what got in my way in the library that afternoon? Well intentioned coddling on my part, stemming from anxiety that we weren’t practicing reading aloud enough this summer. I don’t think I’m alone in believing in the agency of children but sometimes forgetting to live that belief in practice. It takes constant intentionality. And sometimes we get it wrong.

What I needed to do instead that afternoon in the library was give my son space to make his own choices. I needed to trust that his choices would be the right ones. I needed to start with joy, not with decodability. In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivate Us, Daniel Pink aptly reminds us, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” (108). When we limit the choices of our children they cannot help but wonder, Is this all there is?

To be a self-driven reader, writer, and person is the ultimate goal of literacy experiences at home and in school. Our children should be able to internalize the question–What do I want?–and be able to make their own decisions coming to adults for guidance when they feel they need it. Not when we think they do. Empowering children to be self-driven about books and about their life’s choices is, ultimately, an act of care.

At home, we can trust our children to make choices by:

  • taking them to the local library and avoiding the urge to build their book stack for them
  • praising their decision-making with statements like, “You made a great decision. Tell me about it.”
  • asking “What do you want?” and trusting them to answer for themselves
  • modeling our own decision-making about books and about anything else in life

At school, we can trust our students to make choices by:

  • expanding what counts as “school” texts (graphic novels, comic books, magazines, wordless books, apocalyptic stories)
  • praising their decision-making individually and collectively
  • giving opportunities for choice-driven partnerships and social literacy practices
  • modeling our own readerly lives and sharing our book stacks
  • organizing our classroom libraries to make access and interest the biggest drivers; using leveled libraries for our own instructional purposes not for student book choices

Emphasize Experiences Over Accomplishments

When my husband was in college, he made an Olympic Trials swimming cut in the 200 meter backstroke. But he didn’t go. He decided to go back packing in New Zealand instead. To him the experience of working in a hostel with his best friend in another country was a more important life experience than swimming at Olympic Trials. He has no regrets about that choice, and I don’t think many would.

Like my husband, I grew up as a swimmer. We met on the pool deck and exchanged smiles as the frequent last two swimmers in the water at our college practices. Now our two sons swim and they are in the midst of an exciting summer season. Our ten-year-old has won every race in his summer league this season and has a slew of blue ribbons to show for it. But he doesn’t display them on his swim bag or seem to treasure them very much, and I’m happy for that.

As parents, we have been conscientiously emphasizing experiences over accomplishments. We know our boys will find greater fulfillment and happiness if they avoid the never-ending string of achievement-chasing that childhood can sometimes turn into.

Research shows that success does not create happiness, but happiness can create success. Research also shows that we make ourselves happier if we buy experiences, not things. But, young people aren’t trying to buy their way to happiness. They are trying to earn recognition from adults and their peers assuming that will get them happiness. It’s an easy trap to fall into when trophy cases and record boards are on display. Or when awards are given out. Or when grades are overemphasized.

By emphasizing experiences in life, we know that our sons’ accomplishments will follow, but accomplishments won’t be the goal.

Here are a few ways to focus on experiences over accomplishments in your family or classroom. Your children and students will be happier for it:

  1. Model paying attention to what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel throughout the day, especially on joyful days.
  2. Cultivate experiences together that you can reflect on and remember. Tell stories that start “I remember when…”
  3. Emphasize the joy of watching children as they strive to be their best selves. “I love to watch you swim” is my go-to phrase for the end of every meet. In the classroom I used language like: “It is fun to watch you choose your own books and read” and “You really worked hard to problem solve today.”
  4. Acknowledge that competition is natural and in many ways built into our DNA. But, avoid compare-despair mentality. Help children to cheer on and compliment teammates, friends, classmates, and siblings.

Story Puzzles Make Waiting More Joyful

Life is full of waiting. Dr. Seuss even has four pages dedicated to the necessity of waiting in Oh, The Places You’ll Go:

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting. (18)

When you are a kid, life can feel even more full of waiting. Waiting on line. Waiting for your turn. Waiting for dessert. Waiting to reach 5 feet. Waiting for teachers. Waiting for parents. Waiting for siblings. Children learn early on, that life is full of waiting.

The nearly wordless picture book, Wait, by Antoinette Portis reminds us that sometimes children are our best experts on waiting. We often need children to remind us there is value in waiting over hurrying. When we reframe waiting as more than an inconvenience, or fact of life, but as a gift to see the world a new way, we make ourselves happier in the process.

Like life in a classroom, life in a family requires waiting. But there are ways to make waiting more joyful. Lately, my husband has introduced story puzzles to our boys especially when we are waiting in restaurants. Story puzzles, also called lateral thinking puzzles, are just like they sound–a hybrid between storytelling and puzzles. Some information is given about a strange situation, but you aren’t given the full story. Someone is the storyteller or quizmaster, and everyone else is a puzzle solver. Listeners can ask yes or no questions to try to explain the situation. Quizmasters can answer with yes, no, or irrelevant. Here are two of our recent family favorites:

Story Puzzle 1: A man was heading home and saw someone in a mask. He turned around and went the other way. What happened?

Answer: The man was a baseball player and the person in the mask was the catcher.

Story Puzzle 2: It was a good thing Betty died in the ocean. It was a bad thing Carla died on land.

Answer: Betty and Carla are hurricanes.

Story puzzles turn waiting into a time to play and connect with one another. Try one the next time you are waiting with someone else and notice the ways the time feels more joyful. You’ll almost be disappointed when your food comes or your wait is over.

Make Joy a Habit

We are creatures of habit. Will Durant (paraphrasing Aristotle) wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” It’s a mantra that reminds us: We are not what we do once in a while; we are what we do every day. For years as a mother and teacher, I’ve wondered how can we use the power of habit formation to bring more joy to our lives and the lives of children?

While the popularizing of habit formation is not new, many of us struggle to stick with healthy habits. We know exercise, even a little of it, can make us happier and healthier, but it can be hard to stick with it. We know that we are what we eat, physically and psychologically, but choosing apples over cookies is hard.

A new field within the science of happiness is looking at habit formation and the power of habit stacking. Essentially, add a new, healthy habit to an already existing one and you increase the likelihood that you will stick with the new habit igniting a sense of pride and greater happiness in the process.

For example, want to read more and encourage reading in your children? Commit to it as a habit by stacking reading on to an already existing habit as a part of your morning or evening routine. For example, while having your morning cup of coffee read for five minutes with your children on the couch. You and your child gain connection and you model the value of reading as a habit to start your day.

Habit Stacking At Home

There are countless ways to bring more joy to our lives through habit stacking. Here are a few ways to make a joy a habit in your daily routine:

-Waking up: Start your day by writing down an “I Am” affirmation. Try not to repeat yourself. Be specific.

-Morning coffee or tea: Read on the couch with your child. Let them choose what you read. Alternate pages if appropriate. Our family favorite is Calvin and Hobbes.

-Brushing your teeth: Think of three things you are looking forward to that day.

-Driving somewhere: Add joy by listening to audio books–our family favorites are The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett, The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Instead of asking, “Are we there yet?”, my boys now ask “Mom, can you please put on the story?”

-Making a meal: Listen to a podcast (my favorite, On Being) or by letting children be DJ (Space Unicorn seems to be the song of the summer in our house).

-Relaxing before bedtime: Write down three good things from your day and something you wish you’d done differently.

Habit Stacking In Our Classrooms

In our classrooms, we can use habit stacking to bring more joy to students as a part of their daily routine by design.

-Morning Arrival: Invite students to write “I Am”, “I Can”, or “I Did” statements on chart paper while you take attendance. Watch your affirmations grow as a class all year long. Invite one or two students to share what they wrote each day.

-Gratitude Practice: Alongside learning objectives, write down one thing you are grateful for each day. Invite students to turn and talk about one thing they are grateful for before you launch into a daily read aloud or mini-lesson.

-Transitions: Before transitioning to the classroom rug or back to individual seats, invite students to take three deep breaths or to do a power pose to nudge body–mind connections.

-Partner Work: Encourage students to compliment their partner as a habit at least once during their partner time.

-End of the Day: Invite students to write down one good thing from their day that brought them happiness before they pack their belongings.

The Simple Joy of Sidewalk Chalk

No directions. No prompting. No explicit instruction needed.

When I handed a group of fourth and fifth graders a big box of chunky sidewalk chalk, they simply started to write. Dream Big. Anything is possible! Dreams come true! This is what hope looks like.

If you haven’t held a piece of sidewalk chalk lately, I recommend it. It may reignite in you a sense of possibility or maybe even a gnawing sense of doubt. What do I write? Who will see it? Is it any good? The roots of our biggest hopes and deepest fears all rise to the surface with that chalk in our hands. But, what chalk really represents is the sense of freedom that comes from writing or creating anything. Seeing your mark on the world.

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a box of sidewalk chalk in your trunk or a little baggie of chalk in a bag you carry. It’s a simple way to spark joy when waiting for a sibling to finish an activity or in between errands.

Pair sidewalk chalk exploration by reading aloud books like Peter Reynolds’ creatrilogy The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color. This trio of texts celebrate the freedom and pride that comes from making your mark where there is no guarantee. For an extended read aloud, try Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Chalkbox Kid. This early chapter book is ripe with possibilities for discussion about finding hope in unexpected places.

If you are a classroom teacher, stock up on sidewalk chalk for spontaneous days this fall when you take learning outside. Watching what children do with sidewalk chalk gives us enormous insights into the literacies young people feel most comfortable using. Who draws? Who writes? What words do they use? How do they spell them? Who partners together to create? Who asks for help? Make chalk available throughout the year during recess. This also allows students who just want to create a chance to feel as proud on the playground as the student who wins the foot race.

This summer, pick up a piece of sidewalk chalk and see what comes to you. Draw. Write. Dream. Play. Then, carry that joy and energy with you into your life with children.

Better My Brave

“Mom, every day I want to better my brave.”

Jack, age 9

To our sons, the world is a playground. They climb trees (even on field trips when they’re told not to–sorry, Mr. Schwartz). They scale walls. They jump over garbage cans. Watching them, it seems like they have unparalleled energy and unimaginable courage. Over the years, I’ve learned to bite my tongue and erase “be careful” from my lexicon. I’ve learned to trust that they know their own bodies. They know what they can handle. And they will look to me for when they need help.

When our son, Jack, was in second grade his big goal was to climb on top of the monkey bars and stand up on them. Understandably, school wasn’t thrilled with his attempts at this. He came home declaring that all he was trying to do was better his brave. It’s hard to argue with that kind of dedication to self-improvement.

Based on our Jack’s idea that every day we should try to better our brave, we’ve created a summer family challenge (or really, my husband, Chris did–wish I could take credit for the idea). We are each choosing a physical challenge and a mental challenge to “better our brave” over the next few months.

Designing this website and starting this blog is my mental challenge. I’m not particularly comfortable with self-promotion, but I am a big believer in idea promotion. And, I think I have some ideas to share. Mostly stories. Tidbits that may provoke new thoughts for you. Details from my days.

Each week, I’ll be posting brief musings that offer insight into one of the seven pillars I write about in my forthcoming book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.

The seven pillars are simple, research-based concepts to help you find more happiness in your life and to help children create more happiness in theirs. Together, the seven pillars can help you embrace a life philosophy, teaching philosophy, and parenting philosophy to start with joy whenever and wherever you can. Collectively, these blog posts will offer entry points for you to think about the seven pillars in your own life. Which are strongest? What represents a challenge for you? How can the pillars help you and the children in your life to live a happy life? The seven pillars are…

Connection. Choice. Challenge. Story. Discovery. Play. Movement.

Oh, and my summer physical challenge–go camping.

To better your brave and the brave of those around you:

  • respect that challenges will differ for everyone
  • catch yourself saying “be careful”–if anything, it distracts children from doing what they believe they are capable of doing
  • create your own personal or family challenge this summer to better your brave
  • listen to the words of children with care–“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”-Mary Oliver

© Katie Egan Cunningham 2019