Parents Must Learn Skill of Passive Observation

Before a child enters school, even preschool, he is a passionate learner. Life is full of places to explore, questions to be answered and lessons to be learned – all done fervently.

For example, toddlers, now able to walk independently, are bold explorers. So thrilled at their ability to move unaided, they climb stairs, furniture and more to see what they can find. If allowed, a toddler will explore a common object, a leaf or an insect, for extended periods of time. Chasing a butterfly is an enthralling occupation.

Indeed, a toddler’s entire day is a wonderful adventure. We don’t have to teach a child to explore. They do that instinctively. We simply have to nurture such curiosities.

As parents, we need to observe this initial stage of passionate learning – watch our children in hot pursuit of a young bird or in deep thought over the pages of an upside down book – without interfering. The presence of an inconspicuous observer offers our children comfort and provides safety while also offering distance and a sense of independence and acceptance for their passions.

While our children are young, they will display cues to their interests and delights. We need to recognize them so we can provide opportunities for such passions to grow as the child does. For example, a toddler drawn to scribbling – another skill we don’t have to teach children – might benefit from an easel and paints to further develop this interest. For this child scribbling or drawing generates feelings of pleasure and pride that we want them to acknowledge and then generate again in academic situations once formal schooling begins, so learning remains a passionate endeavor for them.

It would seem easy for an adult to observe a child in this way. It requires no special skills, no materials – just patience, perhaps. In reality it isn’t easy to be a passive rather than an active participant. Especially, in this day of easy access to the world through our phones and tight schedules for us and our children, it is not at all easy to be quite simply present.

For us adults, there is a deadline to meet, a house to clean, an errand to run or an office to return to. Our minds race toward our to-do lists. How do we balance it as parents?

Young children need time and space and materials to continue the adventure of each day – to pursue the joys of learning – even if we have to schedule it into our adult lives. To some, it may feel negligent to be nothing but an observer as our children dictate their adventure. In truth, the period of independent exploration is a precious developmental stage, and our presence on the sidelines displays our support and encourages the child’s curiosity.

Soon enough it will be time for school and leisurely pursuits at the park will morph into free play during recess. Finding a school environment that extends this atmosphere of joyful learning creates a safe place for the mind and the heart of the passionate learner to grow.

A classroom that allows the child to engage in the interests you have already observed allows those feelings of pride and pleasure to emerge during school hours and therefore offer a sense of passionate learning, even if the passion comes from discovering a bird’s nest during recess, or drawing a self portrait during art or dancing freely during music.

If we achieve this skill – being ‘present and yet not present’ as Kierkegaard advised years ago – when our children are young, then backing off as a parent of an older child is easier to achieve.

Watching our young child trip and fall on the rough ground as they follow a squirrel through the park elicits a response to protect the child. Yet the child will jump right back into the adventure without us.

So it is true of the older child who trips and falls socially or academically at school. In the moment we want to intercede, make it better, fix the problem, but bounding back into the adventure of elementary school might be a better skill for perseverance, independence and problem solving and being true to one’s passions in the long run.

Linda Krulock graduated from West Liberty State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education and early childhood. She teaches senior kindergarten at Wheeling Country Day School. Elizabeth Hofreuter-Landini is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education.