Hal’s frustration when he encounters difficult words is sometimes matched by his dad’s frustration! Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, reflects on what can happen.
Watching Hal slowly acquiring the skill of reading I often look back at my own experience of this stage and try to remember what it was like. But probably because it is just too distant I seem to have no memories at all of this period of life. I have a tiny handful of childhood memories that must come from a pre-reading era but none at all to do with learning to read.
This makes me wonder if I was one of those children for whom reading seems to suddenly fall into place. This in itself is a fascinating phenomenon. What has happened to make reading suddenly click? I think what is probably going on is that the knack of remembering words somehow falls into place – connections between visual appearance, and the sound and meaning of a word work easily for this kind of child allowing them to graduate permanently from the painstaking world of sounding words out syllable by syllable.
For many other children acquiring reading is not a question of a sudden, road to Damascus-like, conversion to literacy. There are, I am sure, many for whom building up the personal lexicon of words known is a gradual, bit by bit process. Possibly these children do have a moment when it all comes with a whoosh as well. But it is much later in the process.
Hal is certainly still at the painstaking, gradual word acquisition stage and it annoys him dreadfully at times. ‘I’m never going to be able to read’ he wailed the other day after a frustratingly difficult page where he kept getting things wrong. ‘You’ve got to try and try again,’ I kept saying. ‘It takes time. Have another go.’ But Hal had had enough. The frustration had got too much for him and it was the end of reading for that day.
Frustration is an interesting one too. What makes some children better able to deal with it than others? Psychologists would probably argue that there are several bits to this. To begin with there is what you are born with. Some of us are innately better at coping with things not going right, with having to slog away at a problem.
Then there is the question of how you are supported during your frustration. Hal’s tenacity is very noticeably greater if he is praised and encouraged when he gets something wrong when reading. If, on the other hand, the person helping him seems to get frustrated and starts to go down the you-really-ought-to-know-this-by-now route, he is likely to get upset and throw in the towel. I’m ashamed to say the former is more likely to come from Jo, the latter from me. Something I definitely need to work on.
The last piece of the jigsaw is what the child witnesses of how the people around them deal with frustration. Children absorb the behaviour that is modelled by their parents and carers. If a child sees a parent plugging away patiently at a problem until it is resolved they build up a sense that this is the way things should and can be done. But if parents start slamming doors and shouting as soon as they are frustrated then this is likely to become part of the child’s internal culture of behaviour. On this count, again, I’d have to put my hand up and say sometimes guilty. I’m perfectly patient when unstressed, less so when stressed.
These factors then are, I think, the key issues behind Hal’s frustrations as he slogs up the foothills of literacy. Some of the frustration is simply him. But a fair bit of it is influenced by us too. So plenty to work on for me this month as well as Hal.