Some of you will know that I have recently been obsessed with and forcing on everyone I know the book H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald. This is a really unique book. It’s the author’s memoir of the year after her father’s unexpected death. She (an experienced falconer already) buys and trains a young goshawk–a notoriously difficult bird. The book is the story of her grief, of her experience forging a relationship with the bird, a study of another troubled austringer: author T.H. White, and an immersion in anxiety (hers and his) and the primal drive to hide in the wild when civilization seems on the brink of disaster. It’s scholarly, but accessible. Wild, but meticulous. Absolutely undone and stiff upper lip-py. All at once.
Read it read it read it read it read it.
I suppose it’s not for everyone and, indeed, I suspect that most of the folks I’ve pressed it on neither want to read it nor will like it when they do, but it’s been the perfect book for me, at this time. I’ve read it twice in the last six months. Both times, I learned, I wept, I rolled Helen MacDonald’s lovely words around in my mouth, I got lost, I got found, and I felt better as she gave words to things I couldn’t.
Here’s what I didn’t expect: I also, it seems, absorbed child-rearding tips from her efforts to train her goshwak, Mabel.
The Fustible is now just a little over a week shy of two years old. She’s smart and verbal and understands (and can express) quite a bit. She’s also…opinionated…at the best of times and anywhere from exuberantly defiant to bitterly passive aggressive at others (gee, wonder where she learned that….)
I love her confidence, her opinions, her independence, her sense of self, her strong will. She will need them. I don’t want to stomp these things into docility or compliance. But it leaves us in a weird place where at every moment we’re a breath away from an out-of-the blue power struggle.
This week I realized that, inadvertently, I’d been applying a technique that really came from H is for Hawk:
Much is made in the book of the personality of the goshawk, and the need for the bird to be at the perfect “flying weight” before being asked to do anything in particular. Take the bird flying at the wrong weight, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not a question of how smart or well trained the bird is–if it’s not at the right level of energy, focus, interest, and physical engagement/need, they’re not going to respond, and nothing but disaster will ensue. (What this comes down to in reality is much about how much and what the bird has been fed. In the book when Helen has intractable troubles with the bird, it’s invariably because Mabel has eaten too much or too little. But I don’t want to draw that part of the analogy too here, since obviously that’s really not what I’m talking about when I talk about parenting)
What does this mean, then, for me and my two-year-old? It means, I know that my daughter knows intellectually what “Please go find your coat” means, and I know that she knows where the coat is and I know that she is physically able to get it. But depending on the day–how she feels, how tired she is, what kind of a mood she’s in, what we’ve been doing the last 10 minutes, etc.–she’ll either say “OK!” and run off to get her coat or say “NO!” and run to hide behind a chair. This all sounds like pretty typical toddler stuff–nothing too unusual here.
But what I’ve started doing without realizing it, is observing before I ask her to do something whether she’s at her “flying weight.” I also usually know in advance, I’ve learned, whether she’s going to respond positively to my request, or if it’s just not going to happen. And if it’s not going to happen, I don’t ask her. I don’t embark on the 20-minute battle that ends in tears and screaming and me physically chasing her with a coat. I just get the coat myself and put it on her *before* she gets worked up. Or put away the toys, take her socks off, whatever.
This was counterintuitive to me at first. It feels like a cop out or like giving up–doing something for her that I know her to be capable of doing.
But the point is that she’s not yet 24 months old–in these instances she actually is *not* emotionally/socially capable of doing what has been asked–even if she is capable in the other ways. And if I can tell that ahead of time, and I ask her to do it anyway, that’s on me: I’ve chosen an uphill battle.
The outcome, I hope, will be to reduce a pattern of frustrating power struggles and to to build up a pattern of mostly positive experiences where she starts to see herself as capable, resourceful, independent, and helpful. And fewer drawn out battles, where we starts to see herself as my opposition.
Look, I’m not saying we’ll never have battles over what needs to happen. We will. And I’m not saying that when she’s 10 years old I’ll be bringing her her coat if I think she’s not in the mood to get it herself. But for me, it’s about choosing when and when not to push–trying to keep the long view in mind.
Right now, going to get a coat is probably the most challenging, complex thing we’re likely to ask of her–so even though she *can* do it, she can do it only when she’s ready to rise to the occasion. It’s her Personal Best. That won’t be the case forever. When she’s 10 it will be, maybe, I don’t know, preparing a simple meal. Or something. Who knows what will be a reasonable reach for the ten-year-old she’ll turn out to be. At ten, I hope I would expect her to get her coat without asking–or to be reasonably irritated with her if she doesn’t–but I would expect to judge carefully before asking her to cook, perhaps assessing whether she’s ready to pay careful attention, in the mood and capable of using the tools in the right way, and motivated to produce a good outcome. My hope is that each new skill will become gradually learned and assimilated as a neutral-to-positive thing, until it becomes natural. Once it’s natural, it will become reasonable for us to expect her to do it on her own, consistently. But when she’s learning, it’s up to us to ensure that we push her when learning is possible–in other words, not to fly her when she’s not at her flying weight.
I suppose this is nothing new for parents. Guidance for things like potty training–something else we’re exploring right now–are all pretty unanimous in saying, if the child is resistant, STOP!–forcing it will not help anyone, will not help you “win.”
But the image of a human and a hawk–companions, one ostensibly leading and giving the commands, but the other entirely its own self, never subordinate in the way a dog is–and the responsibility of the human to care for and observe and respect the hawk–to take as a given the fact that if you don’t, whatever you want to happen just won’t happen–suddenly made so much sense to me.
And when she is ready? Watch her fly.