New skills need practice but eight-year-old Hal’s tenacity is in short supply when it comes to writing homework. Computer games might offer a solution. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Last weekend Jo was away working and so, on Saturday morning, I decided to take Hal down to a local court for a game of tennis. Hal is very much a beginner at tennis and doesn’t control the ball as he would like to. We played for about 20 minutes, me knocking the ball to Hal’s forehand and him whacking it back with various degrees of success, but his tolerance of not doing as well as he wanted began to fall off after a while and he started to get frustrated. ‘It’s like anything,’ I tried to say. ‘Any new skill is difficult at first but if you practice, if you work at it, you will get good.’ This made zero impression on Hal. He missed a couple of shots consecutively and then tripped over lunging for a third. This was too much. The racket was hurled down and Hal stomped off into the bushes in a fury.
We get something similar, at times, with his writing. Every week Hal has to make up and write out sentences which incorporate words that he is learning for spelling. Unfortunately he doesn’t always know how to spell some of the non-prescribed words in the sentences he thinks up.
‘How do you spell it?’ he demands.
‘Think about it,’ I will say. ‘Have a go at working it out.’
‘Just tell me.’
‘You try first.’
‘JUST TELL ME’ he roars. And if you don’t, it’s liable to be tennis court behaviour again.
These experiences reveal a lot, I think, about how Hal thinks about difficult ‘tasks’. What strikes me most about this is what isn’t happening in Hal’s mind. What he doesn’t seem to have is an internal mental model that tells him that if he keeps trying at something he will get there in the end. I have touched on this point in earlier diaries and the more I look at this side of Hal, the more this aspect of his thinking seems critical. Like most kids he wants to be good at things. But he’s not too happy about what you have to do to get good.
From conversations I’ve had with the parents of Hal’s mates I can see that he is not unusual in this. I expect there are some tenacious eight-year-old boys around who graft away until they’ve mastered whatever they are trying to master. But I imagine that the instant results or no results type is more typical. So what kind of experiences would help a boy like Hal learn that sticking at things will bring results? What would help him to see that capacity to plug away at something is a really useful life skill?
Oddly, the oft reviled world of computer games might offer one kind of solution here. A year ago Hal got a super Mario game for his DS which he found really difficult. There used to be constant tantrums when Mario died and a level had to be started all over again. Now, a year older and with a lot of Mario hours under his belt, Hal can cope with the game much better. He sails through things that completely defeated him before and feels very proud of himself for doing so.
Here, then, is an experience of how practising at something has brought results. The difference? Well Hal would much rather play super Mario than write sentences or play tennis. He will put in the hours when he really wants to and so perhaps a lesson about working consistently at things is being laid down in his mind. Perhaps I should stop fretting. Hal is learning things about tenacity. We just differ about what’s worth a bit of tenacity.