Building upon Success

I love the outdoors. Walking through a forest is my version of attending Church; it is the closest I feel to a spiritual experience. From the time my kids were babies I’d take them on regular hikes through the beautiful North Shore mountains. But as they grew past carrying age (and I backpacked my boy until he was over 30 lbs) we started having problems. Son (and sometimes Daughter) would inevitably end up whining, having meltdowns, and my frustration with that lead us to where we are now – with kids who claim to “hate” walking through the outdoors (and we have acres of forest literally right next door to us!).

I eventually gave up on getting them out for regular hikes because it wasn’t worth the battle to get them into the car, the battle around why I can’t carry them back to the car when they decide they’ve had enough, and listening to them talk about how rotten the experience was all the way home. I would shake my head in shame: how did I, someone who loves the outdoors so much, end up with two kids who would rather spend all day inside then be dragged on a walk through the woods? Every once in a while I could convince them to go geocaching – the lure of the prizes in the cache helped – and they would start out enthusiastically…

Trying to keep up with them.

…but it would always end in tears and thus resistance the next time I suggested it.

Daughter is 9 now and is able to understand that for me, hiking is amazing and wonderful and I want to share it with her. So even though she claims to not like it she has actually offered to come with me simply because she knows I like it. I think for her it was more her brother’s meltdowns and my obvious frustration and disappointment that made it unpleasant. So there is hope for her yet. But Son is still very resistant.

Well, I recently had an epiphany on this when I realized that my son tires VERY easily. Low muscle tone combined with an overall lack of interest in physical fitness meant he could not go very far. He’d be done when I was just warming up and so I couldn’t comprehend that he was truly tired, plus in my desire to stay out longer I’d try to plead for more time. He’d give in for a while…

A game of hide-and-seek keeps things going for a while...

…but then have a sudden meltdown. I finally realized that perhaps this was why he claimed to hate hiking – it always ended in misery for him. I thought that if perhaps I honoured his signs of being tired right from the start, rather than trying to wring every last drop of conciliation from him, maybe it would be the world’s shortest hike but at least it would be a positive experience for him.

Recently I managed to convince them to give it a try again. We were going geocaching and they do enjoy getting the little prizes from the cache. I threw in a trip to the coffee shop for hot chocolate afterwards, and I let the dog ride in the back seat with them (instead of in the very back). The final incentive was suggesting that DS bring his video camera – he likes to shoot films. I picked a cache site that was close to the parking spot so we found the cache quickly, then as soon as DS gave a hint that he was done I asked him point blank “Are you ready to go now?”. He said yes, and I said “okay, well that is what we will do then”. It was the first time in ages we’ve ended a hike on a positive note. I’m planning to repeat this and my hope is that when DS can trust that we will go when he is ready, he’ll be less resistant.

Being in charge of the handheld GPS is an incentive.

Taking a break to play Rock, Paper, Scissors.

This is an example of a principle I’ve been trying to keep in the forefront of my mind – creating small successes and building upon them. While it applies to any child, I think it can be particularly helpful for kids on the spectrum who tend to build up anxiety easily when situations don’t go well, and can bring the art of resistance to whole new levels! I could try using coercion – bribery, or using some “currency” of say, computer time, to make them do things. But there are two reasons why I don’t. First, I’ve found that my kids – like, I believe, all kids – can smell an agenda being imposed upon them a mile away. When I’ve tried bribery the kids will do what I’ve asked, but they won’t be into it. They’ll grumble and do the minimum required and maintain their opinion that whatever I made them do must be unpleasant or I wouldn’t have had to bribe them into doing it. Second, it can flat-out backfire if they decide that the bribe isn’t worth it. I’m left having to either give up or up the ante, which leaves me feeling rather used and manipulated myself. Instead, by finding ways to make it more fun for them, by distracting them from their anxieties about the newness of it, or past their preconceived notions about how it will turn out, I free them up to make their own minds up about it all. A child who isn’t feeling bribed into something is more free to form their own opinions, in my experience.

My hope is that these small hikes – the last one was less than 30 minutes – are creating positive associations with the experience. In time I’m hoping that they will be able to go for longer periods and will be more willing to come out with me when I ask because they know they won’t be pushed beyond their limits.

Categories: family life, parenting | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Building upon Success

  1. In Suzuki music education, there’s a quote from Shinichi Suzuki, the originator of the approach, that I’m reminded of by your post: “The lesson stops at the first sigh.” In other words, be sensitive to the engagement of your learner, and don’t push past the first moment when you perceive that the engagement is waning. It really makes a huge difference.

    When I’ve had difficulty keeping my kids motivated in their music practicing, and have tried all the creative tricks I have up my sleeve, I’ve always come back to an approach even more radical than “the first sigh.” I think of it as “end with laughter.” For one week, I do whatever fun and silliness is necessary to elicit a full-on smile or laugh … and then we finish right then. Even if we’ve only been going for ten minutes. To leave them wanting more … that’s even more magical than stopping just as engagement wanes. It has only ever taken about 5 to 7 such sessions to instill a positive association. The last memory from an event is the most potent one. If it’s of laughing and wanting to continue, enthusiasm quickly takes root.

    My kids have had less enthusiasm than I would like for hikes and runs and bike rides on the trails here, and I think I need to apply “the first sigh” or “end with laughter” to what I’m doing with them. Thanks for the reminder!

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