From the time of our initial thoughts of living in France, our daughter's reactions to this have swung widely. When it was not even a certainty, she was excitedly bragging about seeing the Eiffel tower to all of her friends. At that point, we tried to dissuade her a little – remind her that it wasn't a sure thing, that sabbaticals were not always easy to get and that she shouldn't get her hopes up yet. Then, when it was approved and we were really going to go, her attitude shifted again. She refused to go; she was worried about everything – friends, language, housing. Especially after the Paris attacks, there were general underlying fears. In terms of language skills, again and again people assured her that picking up the language would be easy. They assured her: “Kids are like sponges, you'll just soak it up. You'll see, soon you'll be more fluent than your parents.” I'm not faulting these individuals – certainly their assurances were well-meaning, and it did go a long way in changing her attitude about France. But learning a language is not easy, even for kids. She's not starting in preschool with a classroom of anglophones who are at the same level. She's in a largely French school – or at least one in which the majority of kids are already fluent in French. (Many of them have a third language as well – Portuguese, German, Czech, Chinese, Arabic, Yoruba – the whole gamut.) She feels singled out, and lost on the “French days” when she doesn't even know how to ask for her lunch.
We tried to give her a head start with online language programs, but even some of these assured kids that learning the language would be “easy” and it would come to them just by playing with French kids on the playground. Last week, after only one full week in school, she came to us in tears saying “I don't know French yet. Why don't I know French yet?” One week. But, this was supposed to be easy, and it's not. Learning a language is not easy – not for adults, and often not even for kids. At the time, I almost laughed it off thinking, “Well, it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time.” But that got me thinking to a broader level – why do we always assure our kids that it's going to be easy? Why can't we admit that many things in school – and in life – are hard, and they will require hard work?
I hear these types of comments often: “Yeah, he's reading Harry Potter books already. It just came naturally to him.” “Yes, I know – she can play a piece once or twice and she'll have it memorized.” I think this is largely rooted in a parents' efforts to deny any personal praise for these skills “Yeah, I don't know how he does it – we're lucky – it just comes naturally.” But to me, this can sometimes instill new anxieties about my own child. I thought that she was fairly musical, but piano did not come easily to her. Reading did not come easily. Making friends doesn't always come easily. And learning French is not easy, despite all the assurances to the contrary.
I know full well that the desire to assure kids that it's “easy” is most often rooted in impatience and frustration. And sometimes kids get whiny over things that are genuinely easy. No, it's not “too hard” to put your dishes in the dishwasher, nor to put your clothes in the hamper. Even tying your shoes can be easy, once you put your mind to it. And when I first listened to my daughter's fears, this was my first reaction - “Why is lunch so hard? You can just point to something and say “s'il vous plait” and that's usually enough.” But I remember from my own traumatic move at age 11 to a new school in a new country – the things that are supposed to be “easy”are usually the hardest. How do you know how to line up? Where do you sit for lunch? What can you do on the playground when you don't have any friends? These things are genuinely hard, so why do we always try to tell our kids that they're easy?
Today was a rough morning. There were many tears both last night and this morning, and we pretty much had to drag her to school. I had to assure her that her face wasn't covered in red splotches anymore by the time we reached school. Thursdays are her least favorite days – for reasons that might seem trivial to an adult. They have to take a bus along the coast and have gym class at the magnificent “Parc Borely” bordered by the mountains on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Sounds rough, right? But this is her worst day. She has to take the public bus and doesn't know where to sit. She has to eat lunch in a different room with French-speaking lunch staff. She was stressed that she has to say that she's finished – in French – and then ask for dessert. (Fortunately today's dessert is not “yaourt”- yogurt - because to properly pronounce that in French, you practically have to pretend you're gagging on yogurt.) This school is so different than anything she's experienced before. Though it's in a beautiful old Baroque building, it's covered in tags. It's urban, it's gritty. For recess, the whole class gets in a freight elevator to the roof of the building to a paltry-looking playground – though it does have a breathtaking view of the city. These changes are hard. And now, finally, I've decided that I will no longer tell her that it's easy.
I see this desire for things to come easily in teaching as well. I love reading papers that flow smoothly; it's a joy to see the work of students who have a natural gift for writing. Teachers revel in the prodigies – it's hard to avoid. It's simply fun to teach really smart kids. And the flip side can be frustrating. It's hard to sit down for many grueling sessions with kids as they try to form their ideas into a decent thesis. It's hard to teach and reteach a concept that they just “don't get.” And I wonder – to what degree does this defeatism lead to learned helplessness? Have kids been told too many times that things should be “easy”so that when they're not, they give up?
As I was dragging her to school today, there was nothing more I wanted more than to cave to her requests – to let her stay home for the day, or even to homeschool her for the rest of the year. It hurts to see my child in genuine distress. (By the time I got home, I was the one with red splotches on my face.) But I have to fight this desire for things to be easy. As I was giving her one of many hugs this morning, while fighting off the tears, I told her again and again “Yes, I know it's hard. Learning a new language in a new school is not easy. It will take time and it will take practice, but it will get easier. Right now, I know that it's hard, but that's ok.”