Category: learning

“GET ME MY DESSERT,” H commands.

“I have found that people are much more likely to comply happily with my requests if I use the word please. Have you found that, too?” I ask him.

“I haven’t yet, but I am learning,” H replies.

File under: Things That Are Good To Know.

We sprouted bean seeds in a jar; started carrots seeds in an egg carton and transplanted them to a pot; and covered scattered kale seeds with a quarter inch of soil. We’ve been watering, watching, wondering, awestruck by our ability to help food grow, and are already plotting what seeds to sow next summer: cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, green beans. We’ve been reading, too:

Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert

Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert

The Big Princess by Taro Miura

To Be Like the Sun by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson

What Kinds of Seeds Are These? by Heidi Bee Roemer, illustrated by Olena Kassian

From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin

A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long

H has had questions about bees recently:

Where are their stings?
Why do they want to eat my dinner?

We went to the library to see if we could find the answers in the pages of some books. Alas not, but we’ve enjoyed reading:

The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela by Cristina Kessler, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins

These Bees Count! by Alison Formento, illustrated by Sarah Snow

The Beeman by Laurie Krebs, illustrated by Valeria Cis

In the Trees, Honey Bees by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Cris Arbo

I am ferrying cupfuls of water from the cabana kitchen to H, who sits with his feet in the jacuzzi. He pours the contents of the delivered cups into the churning water with deliberate slowness, and then jerks his arm with a flourish so that the remaining water arcs through the air before falling like rain.

“More, more,” he implores, handing me the cup. I return to the kitchen, making silly faces at him as I pass the observation window in the hallway. His mouth moves, but the words hit the glass pane between us and fall silent on the floor.

I pop my head back through the door of the jacuzzi room. “What did you say, sweets?”

“Hard to wait,” he says, his tone and volume conversational. He sits calmly, swinging his legs, looking at me expectantly.

Hard to wait. I hear those words, and suddenly H is two again. He is in the living room, frantically pulling at the mesh fireplace curtain, having a hard time waiting for milk. He wants it now, right now, and I am in the kitchen in the middle of a task. Waiting even a second is a challenge, and the frustration of it careers through his body and out the tiny but strong fists jangling the metal curtain, the sound of which I imagine matches the feelings bouncing around his insides.

I am struck by the contrast between H at two and H at three. He is having a hard time now just as he was then, but I would not have known it except for his report. His calm, composed behavior hints at qualities – an emotional self-awareness and nascent ability to choose his reactions – that he did not possess as strongly a year ago. How satisfying it is to watch H’s growth unfold as it has, organically and in its own time. He hasn’t been on his own – I have modeled and coached –  but there’s been no schedule we’ve adhered to, no calendar that pushes him to learn politeness by this date, how to use the toilet by that. And how reassuring, too, it is to come upon these moments. When there is no road map, no formula to follow, no step-by-step instruction manual that will ensure that this child will grow to be a kind, compassionate, fulfilled adult, these moments can feel like guideposts: You are headed in the right direction. You may not be able to see or feel it always, but you are. Keep going.

The path is not linear, the things he learns to do and to be shift in and out of focus as he finds his footing. Sometimes he uses a new tool ably, unleashes a new skill as if he’d been doing it all his life, and sometimes his efforts fall short and it can appear as if nothing had been learned, no gains had been made at all. And this – him learning to sit with the discomfort of his feelings and knowing that he can choose, if at all, how to act on them – is a huge, lifelong project for most of us. I anticipate that there will be plenty of times still that H lets me know vocally and intensely how hard it is to wait – he is three, after all – but he is working on it. And he is blossoming.

“Yes, hard to wait,” I tell him with a smile. “I feel that way, too, sometimes.” And I go to fetch another cup of water.

We slipped over seaweed-draped rocks, huddled around a creamy white jellyfish, prodded sea anemones gently; were introduced to chitons and barnacles and moon snails; saw starfish upon starfish upon starfish clinging to the undersides of overturned tide pool rocks; came home with sand in our boots and the smell of the ocean in our hair and have been reading these books ever since:

Oceans by Cathryn Sill, illustrated by John Sill

Come to the Ocean’s Edge by Laurence Pringle, illustrated by Michael Chesworth

At Home in the Tide Pool by Alexandra Wright, illustrated by Marshall Peck III

In One Tidepool: Crabs, Snails and Salty Tails by Anthony D. Fredericks, illustrated by Jennifer DiRubbio

Ocean Soup: Tide-Pool Poems by Stephen R. Swinburne, illustrated by Mary Peterson

“It looks sort of like an H!” he said, running into the bedroom with two straws, one in each hand.

My mind automatically filled in the missing bar to connect the two straw stems. “Yes! It does!” I replied.


I’ve sung the ABC song to him plenty, but not much lately. I’ve heard him sing all the letters from beginning to end in order, but he doesn’t do it much and never when I ask him if he wants to sing with me.

He has a set of beautiful cut wood letters stained in bright colors. I occasionally put the basket of them out where he will see it, but he hasn’t incorporated them into his play much yet. He does thrill when he finds the H though.

I spell out words for him with the letters on his square blocks, mostly his name and a random assortment of others I can make from the letters that fall into my play space, but I don’t know if he pays much attention. Mostly he stacks the blocks as high as he can before they come tumbling down, and then he starts again.

We read. Lots. Every night before bed, sometimes first thing in the morning, often in the long stretch of the afternoon.

He asks about specific letters sometimes when we are reading or if he finds one in the wild that he recognizes. We talk about letters then: Letters make sounds, sounds make words, words have meaning. Usually this conversation lasts all of seven seconds.


“F,” H said, peering down at the depth marker on deck at the shallow end of the pool. “T.”

My mom and I looked at each other over his head, two sets of eyes grown wide.

“F, T,” he said again to no one in particular.

“Did you teach him that?” she mouthed to me.

I shook my head. No.

“Did you?” I whispered back.

“No,” she said.


I don’t actively teach him the alphabet. I don’t coach him. I don’t push letters. I don’t drill him.

And he learns. He has an amazing capacity for learning. Children are like this, I believe. Given an environment rich in learning opportunities and the freedom to explore their world through play, children learn as much as we could ever hope to teach them. Likely more.


“There’s an H!” he tells me. He sees them everywhere. On my laptop keyboard, in books, on signs, in branches and sticks, in the incomplete form of two held straws.

He sees learning everywhere.

“There’s a dead pigeon ahead,” my mom points. We stop when we reach it and huddle around the corpse.

“Why is the pigeon dead?” H asks.

“His body stopped working, sweets. That’s what happens when a person or animal dies,” I explain.

“How did the pigeon die?” H asks.

“I’m not sure, my love. I didn’t see it happen. I could guess,” I tell him.

“Guess,” he says.

“Maybe he was injured somehow. And it looks like he got run over by a car. Maybe he was injured by a hawk, and then a car ran over him. I’m not sure though.”

The pigeon’s entrails spill onto cracked grey asphalt. Bloody tire tracks begin three feet from the dead body and quickly fade away.

“He was injured by a hawk. A car ran him over,” H repeats, solidifying the story.

“Poor guy,” my mom says. “So sad.”

“Why is the pigeon sad?” H asks.

“I don’t know if the pigeon is sad or not, sweets. I don’t know how animals feel after they die. But I know that people who are still alive usually feel sad after someone they love dies.”

I contemplate the pigeon viscera spilled out of the gash in its chest. The feathers around its shut eye are dirty and matted, and although its head is not obviously smashed, it seems misshapen. The pigeon is lying on its side, one wing draped over its body as it would have been in life, the other at an awkward angle, obviously broken.

I point out the organs to H, wondering aloud what each of them might be. I can see clearly its intestines, and also maybe a heart or a kidney. We talk about how the pigeon’s insides have come out, how that can make a body stop working. After we have talked for a while, H becomes interested in his original target, a gate at the far end of the parking lot we are standing in. He tugs my hand in that direction.

“H opens the gate!” he informs us. “Grandma, don’t open the gate!”

“I will not open the gate,” my mom assures him.

H opens and closes the gate several times, maybe studying the mechanics of the thing, maybe enjoying the labor involved. He insists on locking the gate after awhile, and I anticipate going home.

“See the dead pigeon again,” H requests instead.

We walk back across the parking lot hand in hand and stand over the pigeon.

“Why is the pigeon dead?” H asks.

“His body stopped working, sweets. That’s what happens when someone dies. Now the pigeon will become part of the earth in a different way.”

“Will he fly again?”

“No, sweets, he won’t fly again. His body stopped working and his wings, too. He won’t be able to fly anymore,” I say gently.

“Why is the pigeon sad?” H asks again.

“I’m not sure if the pigeon is sad or not. But I would be sad if someone I knew died. People who are alive can experience sadness when someone dies. I’m not sure about the person or animal who died though. I don’t know what they feel.”

We turn to walk home.

Later, in bed, H takes a book we have just read and pushes the spine up and down on my chest.

“What are you doing, sweets?” I ask.

“I am cutting mama,” he tells me matter of factly.

“You are cutting mama,” I repeat to him. Something about this makes me think of the dead pigeon. I am not exactly sure why.

“I am cutting mama. Then I will sew you back up,” he informs me.

“Then what happens?” I ask.

He answers my question with one of his own: “Why is the pigeon dead?”

“Oh. The pigeon is dead because something happened. Either he was killed by a hawk or by a car. Something happened that caused his body to stop working.”

H accepts this without comment. We read another book.

When I am done, he asks, “Will someone fix the pigeon?”

“Oh, sweets. No. No one can fix the pigeon. When a body is so broken like that it is dead, and it cannot be fixed anymore. Sometimes when things or people or animals break, they can be fixed. Sometimes they can’t be fixed, but they still live. And sometimes they are broken so badly they die. The pigeon was already dead when we saw him. Nobody would have been able to fix him anymore.”

“Why not?” H is curious.

“That is a very good question,” I tell him.

We are both silent.

“Would you like to sing a song for the pigeon?” I ask.

“Yeah,” H says quietly and requests that we sing the pigeon’s name.

“Pih, pih, pih, pigeon. Pigeon, pigeon, pigeon,” I sing softly. “Pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pih, pigeon.

The tune is Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

I begin humming after several rounds, watching an LED light lying on the floor loop continuously from red to green to blue to white to pink to teal to yellow and around again, throwing color on an abstract painting composed of blues and oranges hanging on the wall opposite the bed. The orange parts of the painting are obliterated by the light when it casts cool greens and blues, and I can see the beginnings of everything in the dark, murky rectangle that is left. In the next moment, the orange parts of the painting are set ablaze, hotter and more alive than in the natural light of day. They glow when the light on them turns red or yellow, heat and warmth seemingly generated from within the painting itself, the orange parts dancing like the kind of fire that mesmerizes, like the kind that would turn on you if it were not contained, destroying and purifying as it devoured what it could. From a distance, it is beautiful. From a distance, it is safe. H drifts off to sleep.


H sat at the dining room table the other day making vigorous marks. He was working with pencil on paper.

“H is making marks,” I observed.

Without pausing his project he told me, “I am writing my name.”

First we had to find the perfect place for brushing. Not this room, that one. Then he had to be lying down, just so, in the spot right next to his grandma. No, wait! On his grandma. Then he needed just a little bit of toothpaste in his mouth before we could start. Just a little bit, and mama don’t help! H hold it himself! I am fairly certain that he wanted suck all of the toothpaste from the tube directly into his mouth, effectively bypassing the brush. He was not, however, in possession of the tube, and after a brief negotiation, he settled on the cap, with which he created an impromptu game. He pushed the cap into his grandma’s mouth, as far as she would let him, and then she popped it out. In he pushed, out she popped. And again and again. It was fun. I could tell by their laughter. There was, however, little brushing.

I observed. I made informational statements. I made polite requests. He rolled toward grandma, the cap game ongoing. He closed his mouth. He opened his mouth, only to start talking before I could get bristle to teeth. He clamped down on the tooth brush, his mouth a well guarded, gated community of sugar bugs. I was gentle. I was patient. I set a limit with empathy and respect. Still, there was little brushing.

Then I was frustrated. I felt it well up suddenly, building pressure as it rose through my body. I wanted to jump out of my skin. I wanted to run away. I wanted to yell. I was skittish and desperate to do something, anything to release the discomfort of the restless energy that had colonized my body.

“I am getting frustrated, sweet pea,” I told him, working at keeping my tone even. “I am going to take a break in the other room for three seconds. When I come back I will be ready to finish brushing your teeth.”

He looked at me intently. I wondered if he was feeling the intensity of my feelings. I hoped he was not feeling hit with it, the way I can sometimes feel hit by the emotional energy emanating from others.

I went to the kitchen. I took one drink, then another, of cold oat straw tea. I breathed in and out deeply, and then I went back to his grandma’s bedroom, where I had left them on the floor together. We finished brushing teeth without struggle or incident, and I consciously slowed my breathing again to align my body with an intention for a gentle, relaxed last stretch of bedtime.

Our bedtime routine has shifted and changed over time within a comfortable, familiar framework as he adds and subtracts elements, discarding things we have long done in favor of improvisations that stick. I have found myself improvising, too, the two of us riffing on bedtime, responding to one another’s flourishes, running with the music that delights us and gets us to our destination.

One night, I found myself taking measure of him. It’s a riff that I have made a permanent part of our bedtime routine. Almost without fail, he sits up and reads our last book after I have read it to him, turning pages, sometimes reciting the text, sometimes pointing out characters and objects, sometimes lost in his own reverie. He reads, and I memorize him as best I can. How his cheeks are still round and full like one of those vinyl baby dolls, how large his eyes still are, how small his nose. I feel how easy it is to wrap one hand around his upper arm. I imagine his deltoid, how small it must be underneath his baby soft skin, wrapping around and inserting into a humerus that matches the length from the heel of my palm to the tip of my middle finger. I push up the long sleeve of the pajamas he wears now that summer has turned to fall so that I can see his wrist. It feels so delicate in my hand, like I am holding a newly hatched baby bird, and magnifies his smallness. His feet seem so big now, but they are a fraction of the size of mine and a fraction of the size they will be when he is grown. He has outgrown the clothes we were given when he was born that were sizes ahead of where he was, the clothes I looked at then and swore would never, ever fit him. I could not conceive that he would ever be so big, not in a million years. And yet here we are, those once too big clothes now too small. He has grown so much since he was born, yet he is still so small.

I took measure of him the night we struggled with brushing teeth. I studied him so that when I closed my eyes his image flashed in front of me as from a projector, until the looking put things in perspective. I had wished that brushing teeth had not taken half an hour. I had told myself that I wanted that time back to spend on something more enjoyable, but there was something darker underneath that wish. The brutal truth is that I wanted it back so that I could do it over, because some small part of me was sure that if only I had been different, if only I had been better, we would not have struggled. If I had been better, he would have brushed teeth with joyful ease and enthusiasm. I felt bad that I had had to step out of the room, that I had not been able to remain serenely unruffled through his resistance. The truth is that I was burning with the shame of feeling not good enough as a mother.

Studying him, I could feel all of this melt away, and I could see both of us and what had transpired in a more nuanced, generous way.

He was tired. He had had a too-short nap that day. We had spent a total of about two waking hours together, which is much, much less than usual. He had experienced more than the usual number of transitions from person to person and house to house. I was tired. It had been the day of one of our longest separations yet, something that may be as hard or harder for me as it is for him. I had nearly cried on my way to work, and then again in front of a second grade class. We had had only a sliver of time to reconnect before it was time to brush teeth.

He is small. He has taken in and learned a remarkable amount in just over two years. He is working on self-regulation and boundaries and learning how to be an independent and interdependent human being. He does well, really, really well, at this stuff, and he is allowed to be exactly where he is on his path. Immediate, easy compliance is not what I would want from him at any rate, even if it would sometimes make teeth brushing easier. Wishing away the struggle and resistance would short circuit his learning, keeping him stuck in place, and dishonor his wholeness as a human being.

I am bigger. I have taken in and learned a remarkable amount in forty years of life. I have things that I am working on, I am growing still, and I do really well, sometimes, and sometimes I stumble. Sometimes I find myself sprawled out on rough ground, having taken a spectacular nose dive, but I am learning that it is all okay. Perfection is a cloak I am working on shedding. It leaves no room for me to be exactly where I am on my path without harsh judgment and self-recrimination, things that short circuit my learning, keeping me stuck in place. It dishonors my wholeness as a human being.

There will never be a point at which either of us are done learning and growing, and in this process, there will always be struggles and successes, steps forward and steps back. Here we are together, two souls having met for a time, growing and learning together. And sometimes struggling to brush teeth.