My son will just not learn anything: He always knows better and always has a way he likes better. At 8, he still can’t swim, because he wants to do only his “special strokes”—a lot of splashing and going nowhere. He can’t print well, but he won’t learn cursive either. So his handwriting is this horrible scrawl that takes so much time and effort that he doesn’t want to write at all. He is taking piano lessons, but won’t practise the way his teacher tells him to because, yes, he wants to do it his way. He told me recently, “It’s not about being the best at anything—it’s just about having fun,” which is what I say when he’s being competitive.
Actually he is so competitive he refuses to admit he’d actually like to be good at anything. Because to participate might mean he is exposed as not being good at it. He even denies he is anything but good already: According to him, he loves writing, is a great writer, a good swimmer, a talented musician. I am all for originality, but what do I do with this child?
You really do have a point about trying to get him to do certain things the well-established way, and not waste energy and time on sort of reinventing the wheel. While children do have to learn and experience for themselves, from what you write it seems your child takes this to extremes! You’re also right in thinking that the time and energy is better used learning the next level of whatever it is he is doing, rather than the grandstands he seems to be wanting to perform. And you’ve also read it right that embedded in there somewhere is a big fear of failure.
Terms of engagement: Offer your child challenging activities.
Big, grown people do this too—sticking with what they know and comes easy and then taking much pride in how well they do it. I know college students, musicians, writers, programmers and a host of other professionals who remain extremely limited because of this tendency to hang around safely in the lower reaches of their potential. In all of this behaviour, there is, primarily, the fear of failure.
When you detect this in a child’s way of engaging with the world, the first thing that you would need to check, with honesty, is whether this fear of failure is operant in either parent or any significant elder in his life. Is there an overt or covert atmosphere of always falling on your feet, and showing a good face in public at all costs? Is there perfectionism or very low tolerance for error in the way people around this child function with themselves?
If this is not so, and there isn’t a family atmosphere of overachieving and an emphasis on looking good to people all the time, then it’s currently a personality trait showing up in your child. Perhaps you can just let him keep doing what he’s doing till he’s tired of it. However, do continue to offer or make available more challenging activities. Just don’t try to coax or force him out of his comfort area to get him to see how there are better ways to do things, how he can be faster/better if he would do it differently, among others.
Another factor that could be operating is an inability to concentrate. I hesitate to tell people to check for ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), among others, because it’s over-diagnosed, and some doctors would jump to conclusions on this...but this might be a factor that needs checking out.
One last thing: Keep a check on his sugar intake. That substance is infamous for causing hyperactivity, poor concentration and other behavioural issues in children.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Write to Gouri at firstname.lastname@example.org