A Pirate's Resources

Engaging Our Kids

Encouragement or Expectation

Recently the mom of a middle school aged son wrote to share that, while her son had initially engaged well with Pirate’s Guide, he was struggling, every day, to put pen to paper and write anything more than the fewest words possible in his workbook exercises. She was very discouraged, and, I think may have felt that her son wasn’t succeeding - or that the workbook wasn’t helping him grow in imagination.

I hear this a lot. So many of us worry that we or our kids are not “creative.” Many of those on the Spectrum struggle with accessing their imagination and playing or creating creatively. And many neurotypical and neurodiverse students alike struggle with writing their whole lives. As a parent, we want to encourage our kids to grow and develop, but sometimes they seem to resent our encouragement!

One sure fire way to squelch imagination is to place premature expectations on them. I wonder if this mom’s enthusiasm and desire to
encourage her son was felt as expectation by him. I wonder if he felt the expectation (spoken or unspoken, from the workbook, from the mom, from himself) that he had to suddenly become creative and use his imagination? This can be very scary for many kids (and adults too). Writing and sharing our imagination/creativity is a vulnerable thing, and that’s one of the main reasons a lot of people (of all ages) shy away from it, esp. from sharing it.

With something like creativity as we are “teaching” it in this workbook, you can take a very laid-back, relaxed approach. Your students can use as few words as they want. There should only be the expectation that they are giving the work some effort - NOT that there will be “success” (at least not in the short term). My own son, who is a Pure Math major in college right now, is not a traditionally “creative” kid. For him, doing
Pirate’s Guide (he and his sisters were our first test audience) was purely obedience to mom (the teacher) and respect for dad (the writer). He put the time in, chose not to write the stories in the “Raise the Anchor” sections, and basically did the assignments to get them done. He was given full credit for the character building of obedience to the assignment. He never really got interested or excited about imagining different options (though, when he did portions of it again in a coop group, his answers were much more interesting because they were shared out loud, and his friends inspired him a bit. Gentle peer pressure can be encouraging). He can, however, have a meaningful conversation now (6 years later) with us about story, and when he finds an unexpected villain in a movie he’s watching, or he finds connections or values that he might have otherwise not been aware of.

I share that to say that our kids may not be ready to be “imaginative” in the way that we define or hope. But if they are willing to put in the time and, however sparingly, complete the exercises (and you as the teacher might choose to minimize those - have them fill out half of each list instead of all, etc), you might find that, over time and without any pressure to meet any expectation, they naturally becomes more adept at it. And honestly, even if that happens primarily within their own head, it will have increased and strengthened that creative muscle, which will help them be able to work out a bit more in other areas of life.
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Seeing friends in a new light

I recently heard from a mother, sharing her child’s experience with Pirate’s Guide. Overall, they enjoyed the material, but one exercise in particular had been difficult: within the “connections” chapter, there is an exercise asking them to list 5 friends. Her child did not have five friends, and so it was an understandably sore topic to work on. It broke my heart.

I immediately went my husband, and shared it with him, and since, when he isn’t being a notorious storytelling pirate captain, he is incredibly insightful, he had a few thoughts that I think are valuable.

It boils down to taking a step back, and redefining what we mean by “friends.” In the context of the connections' lesson, we are trying to point out how we have connections with people, and then what creates or is a result of those connections. We generally define a friend as someone with whom we have a mutual affection. But my husband remembered when our son was 2. He didn’t have many “real” friends at that age, but had a best friend: Goofy. We lived in southern California, and had seasons passes to Disneyland, and so went regularly. His favorite activity there was a dancing stage show starring Goofy. We went every single visit, and my son would sit in rapt attention before Goofy and his friends, and dance along, and then wait in line, EVERY TIME, so that he could get a hug or give a high five. At home, he would wear his Goofy jacket, talk about Goofy, and dance like Goof. He CONNECTED with Goofy, deeply. Goofy was a friend.

We also pondered how much our world, particularly right now with Covid isolation, has become increasingly online and “connected” via social media. We “friend” someone (a verb now) on social media, not because we have a mutual affection, but because we feel and want to be connected with either who they are or what they are doing. Often we don’t know these people we feel a kinship with. Like a character in a book whom we relate to, there are folks with youtube channels or instagram feeds who we respond to and want to “connect with” - even though it is one sided. I take weekly online art classes, and after a year of those, feel like the teacher is a “friend,” that I know her well, even though she has no idea I exist. While this isn’t a traditional “mutual affection” based friend, it does provide a genuine point of connection, something of a modern friend. I think too of all those kids who are playing video games and have “friends” out there in cyberspace that they play with.

So, in the context of the specific lessons on friends, what if friends was redefined in a way that each of us could relate to? Are there characters in a book or show that we connect with or feel close to? Special people who aren’t peers but that connect with us? Any of these might be considered friends, and looking at it in this light, might really turn it on its head - where we once struggled to find five friends, we might now have 20!

I don’t want in anyway to minimize the importance, value, or necessity of having in person, mutual friendships. But there are circumstances, seasons, and realities that may make that something rare in our lives, or in the lives of our children. Being open to viewing friend connections in a broader sense can open us up to receiving the gift that these “friends” can be.

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Interest Vs. Praise

So, you’ve got a creative child, who’s churning out story after story, or piece of art after piece of art. Or maybe you have the opposite - your child painstakingly creates something once in a blue moon. And then they show it to you. What do you do??

Most of us dive right into PRAISE. Oh, you did such a good job. I love it. It’s beautiful. You are so creative.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? We want to encourage our kids to keep creating, so we praise them and tell them they are wonderful, and their art is wonderful. But growing research demonstrates that this kind of praise actually backfires. I’ll leave you to google all of that, and focus here on what we can and should do to actually encourage our children and their creativity.

It’s simple really. We want to engage and connect with them. The art becomes the context for that. When it comes to interacting with our child about their creation, we want to have an openness with them. If what we say shuts them down, we want to avoid that. We want to open them up, and get to know THEM better, have a conversation with them. Typically, the creator - of a short story, a painting, or a model car - is interested in their own creation. Something sustained them through the entire creative process. In sharing it with you, they are hoping that YOU will now be interested in their creation.

Does praise (“you did a great job”) pronounce interest or judgment? Interest isn’t expressed in statements, but through questions and dialogue. Asking questions is, generally, what we do when we are interested in something. “How did you think of that?” “The colors you chose are interesting, what inspired you?” “This is an unusual word, what made you think of it?” Note that we are not asking leading questions - we do not want to have a yes or no answer, as those don’t lead to conversation. So, using the interest we have in their work and their process and, ultimately, THEM, we talk with them. We ask about their process, their experience, their creation. And hopefully, they want to talk about it.

Just because we ask a good, conversation starting question doesn’t mean our child will answer. They may feel shy with their work, or have been burned when someone criticized it, or just feel, well, moody. Don’t give up. Don’t press them, but demonstrate your interest with real questions, and let those seeds fall where they will. When they answer, gently keep going. When they don’t, gently back away, and hope to do more in the future. Don’t give up!

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Expressing Interest through the Right Questions

I wanted to write a quick follow up to my post on praise versus interest. Hopefully you were encouraged to look for new ways to communicate your interest and care in both your child and their creativity/creation. My own daughter is in the process of writing a short story for her homeschool class, and so I had opportunity to put into practice my own advice, and I was so surprised by the results.

I stink at it.

I learned that asking truly interested questions requires not only interest (though without it, it’s nearly impossible - more on that in a later post), but also a retraining of my way of asking questions. Even when I was most interested - I truly cared not only about the piece of work she was creating, but also her - I struggled with asking questions that opened up conversation. Too often, I ask leading questions. A leading question, in case you don’t know, is a question that is leading towards a certain response. In a court room, a leading question is a question asked to get a specific answer, often a yes or no answer. “That short story took you a long time to write, didn’t it?” is a leading question - it is likely to only get a yes or no answer, and then, well, the conversation stops. “How long did it take you to write?” isn’t much better, though it will get an answer that is hopefully more than one word.

The weird thing about leading questions is what they are really doing. Open ended questions allow the person answering to tell their story - to share something they want to share. Leading questions, on the other hand, allow the one asking questions to direct the story. It gives a subtle control of the conversation to the question-er, rather than opening up conversation. Since I want to know others better, I want to open up that conversation, not shut it down . . . Even if it means that I am not “in control” of where the conversation is going to go.

So I’ve begun to listen to my questions before I ask them, and make sure that they are opening the way to more conversation, not leading my daughter (or anyone) to follow my lead. It sounds silly, but it’s proving to be surprising effective (despite my awkwardness in doing it). Take a look at the questions you are asking, and hopefully your own conversations will be richer for it!

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