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What Our Kids Can Teach Us About Trying Over

Children’s future happiness is not tied to how well they behave or whether they will be able to hold a job. It is tied to their ability to create with their minds and their hands.

The author's daughter, Saoirse, wearing her re-knit sweater.

Saoirse gaped at me in horror this past fall when she submitted her first written report, and I returned it to her with penciled-in notes scratched about the pages, along with instructions to re-write it.

I assured her that the work was good, but the next step in the writing process was to make it great. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish as she tried to think what to say, staring at those marks that marred her work.

Then she picked up an eraser, and began erasing her errors, along with my comments, then writing in her corrections.

She needs to understand writing intimately as a union between her mind and her hands, before she lets a computer interfere with her process.

“No,” I told her firmly. “You need to re-write.”

This brought on tears of frustration and shame for her. It brought on a serious case of self-doubt for me.

The hardest subject for me to teach my kids is writing. I thought it would be the easiest, owing to the fact that such a large part of my livelihood is derived from this particular craft. It turns out the opposite is true. I care so much about the subject, I feel as though I have no gauge on what constitutes good work for a fourth grader. And I want so dearly for her to love and feel empowered by writing, that I find myself blinded with fear at the thought that she’ll hate it on account of my instruction.

And here I was, criticizing her work, and assigning her something that seemed like busy-work--the arduous, unfulfilling task of writing a second draft of a perfectly adequate report.

In my own work, I have the luxury of a word processing program. Edits are easy. Highlight, delete, re-type only those parts that don’t work. Spell-check handles a lot of the type-errors. The printer spits out a new draft instantly.

But I won’t let Saoirse use the computer yet. I feel that she needs to develop a grasp of good, efficient penmanship before she learns keyboard skills. I feel like she needs to understand writing intimately as a union between her mind and her hands, before she lets a computer interfere with her process.

But what of her idea to simply use the eraser and squeeze in her corrections? I will admit that it seemed reasonable, but I wouldn’t cave in. I didn’t have solid reasons at that time, only a gut instinct that somehow, in my own learning process, re-drafting by hand was critical to my development as a writer. I wouldn’t give in, although I had serious self-doubts.

I want so dearly for her to love and feel empowered by writing...I fear the thought that she’ll hate it on account of my instruction.

I didn’t abandon her completely to the labor. I stayed in the room with her as she worked, hoping my presence would calm her and enable her to focus. I picked up my knitting. It was a new project. Late last fall I decided to teach myself Fair Isle knitting, and my newest endeavor at that time was to knit an over-sized sweater for Saoirse, using colors she’d chosen.

That sweater accompanied me through a lot of Saoirse’s re-write projects this fall and winter. She continued to fight my insistence on the process, but the arguments got progressively shorter as she realized that I wasn’t changing my position. She also seemed glad to see me chipping away at the sweater that she was eager to have. As I worked, she’d periodically walk over and pet the wool, running her hands over the knit patterns with a smile on her face. It did seem to work as a salve for us both.

Incidentally, as her arguments about re-drafting grew shorter and shorter, the sleeves on Saoirse’s sweater grew longer and longer.

I finished knitting it two weeks ago, and proudly placed it in her lap one morning when she came down for breakfast. She beamed at me, and quickly pulled it on over her pajamas. The sleeves were, indeed, a bit of a problem, falling well below her thumbs. I grabbed the sweater and quickly folded back the cuffs. The arms still fell below her thumbs. I folded them again. And again. There. Now the length was right … although she now had two inches of extra wool circling in a wad at the top of her hands.

“The sweater was supposed to be oversized,” I reminded her.

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Saoirse is an infinitely thoughtful girl. She struggles to say anything that would ever hurt my feelings. This time was no exception. She just nodded and smiled at me weakly. In spite of the smile, she was unable to hide the disappointment. The sweater had been something she’d been dreaming about for some time … and she hadn’t visioned it quite like … this.

“You’re growing so fast, you’ll be glad to have those extra-long sleeves in a couple years,” I tried again. She nodded. Then she became enthusiastic.

“You’re right, Mom. I can just put it away until then!”

Oh, crap. I could read the subtext in that one. I stared at her.

“Turn around.” I grabbed my pincushion, unrolled the sleeves and began experimenting with ways to shorten it. Perhaps I could sew along the seams where the sleeves joined the body, taking off a few inches and hiding them beneath the sweater, only to be let-out later? I thought about the big bulky cuff that would rub her arm. No. That wouldn’t work. I stared at her.

And then I thought about all that knitting I’d done while she was re-writing her papers for me. What was I teaching if I didn’t show the same commitment to re-doing my own work, when I expected it of her?

“I know what to do,” I finally concluded.

“You can fix it?” Her eyes brightened.

“Yup. I’m going to take the sweater apart, unravel all the extra length on the sleeves, then put it back together again.”

“No!” Saoirse began to cry. “I can’t let you do that! Not after all the work you put in!”

I took her in my arms, and we snuggled down into a chair together.

“Sweetie,” I said, kissing the top of her head, “If I don’t re-do my work, then all of it will be wasted, because the sweater will be useless to you.”

“I’ll wear it! I promise! Just like it is! Don’t undo all that work! The sweater is beautiful!”

And here, in this pile of knitting, was my chance to give a good writing lesson. “But it’s not right. It can be better. And I know how to fix it, and so I will. It’s just a little more time. Give me back the sweater.”

What matters is that [kids] are confident enough in their skills, their ability to continuously learn, to know that they can always re-do and make it better.

She hugged herself and kept the sweater away, crying at the thought that she would reject something I’d made for her, that she’d send me back for a re-do.

“Saoirse. Look at me.” Her wet eyes met mine.

“Do I make you rewrite your essays and reports?”

“Yes.”

“Then I can remake your sweater.”

She thought about it for a moment, then took the sweater off. Two days later, she had a new sweater, with sleeves that were a perfect length.

A few days later, while I was giving a knitting lesson to a friend, Saoirse joined us in the living room and began a new project of her own, a knitted headband. Still awkward with her needles, she dropped a stitch here, picked it up a little later, and had a piece of knitting at the end of two hours that was 80 percent glorious.

“What do you think?” She asked me.

“Well,” I examined over her work. “Can you see what happened over here?”

“I dropped a stitch,” she admitted. “But I fixed it later, see?”

“But that makes it wobbly. Is that what you want?”

“Are you telling me I have to pull it out?”

“Absolutely not. This is your project. If it were mine, I’d pull it out, because I’d want my headband to be just right. But this is your headband, and if you like it the way it is, then that’s your choice. All that matters is that you like it.”

She stared at her work for a few moments, then yanked out her needle and began to unravel the wool. At the end of the day, she came to me, beaming, with a perfectly knit headband.

A simple re-do. And there’s the greater lesson, bigger than writing, bigger than knitting.

I feel very strongly that my children’s happy future is not tied to how well they behave, or whether or not they are able to hold a job. It is tied to their ability to create with their minds and their hands. They might be making something that they need for themselves, they might be making something that they will gift, sell, or trade. The key to taking pleasure from such a life is that their work will meet their own expectations, that they can have a vision in their imagination, then bring it to fruition. And if that doesn’t happen the first time, what matters even more is that they are confident enough in their skills, in their ability to continuously learn, and familiar enough with the process of creation, to know that they can always re-do it, and make it even better.

And so, in the teaching of this lesson, I am forced to learn it myself.


Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmetand The Farmer and the Grill. Her newest book is Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover's Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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