A couple of weeks ago, we were making one of our family’s favorite dinners: beans, guacamole, diced tomato, and chips. As usual, Daniel was Mexicanating the beans while I made the guacamole. Nicholas decided, for the first time, that he wanted to help with the guacamole instead of the beans. I showed him how I remove the stem from an avocado, put the point of the knife into the stem hole, cut all the way around, and then twist to separate the two halves. I handed him one half and used the other to demonstrate how to squish the avocado pulp into the mixing bowl.
Nicholas said, “Well. Mom. This is the way I usually do it.” He grabbed an uncut avocado and began sawing at it with the paring knife, narrating in an instructive tone.
My first instinct was to laugh. I mean, the kid is three-and-a-half years old and had never cut an avocado before in his life. What does he know about it? How can he claim he “usually” does this? His method clearly wasn’t working; the knife wasn’t penetrating the avocado at all.
But I know how nice it is to feel competent, to know how to do things and how to explain them. I thought about how much of my writing is about The Way I Usually Do It and how good I feel when somebody tries my technique and it works for them. I know how it feels to be in a situation where other people seem to know everything about tasks you’ve never attempted, and you just want to feel like you can do things, too–and for a young child, the whole world is like that!
So I said, “Oh, that’s a different way. Okay, you cut that one, and I will get this one out of the peel.” Nicholas replied, very cheerfully, “That’s teamwork!”
When I was done with my avocado, Nicholas was still sawing at his and had barely scratched the surface of the peel. I suggested plunging in the tip of the knife. I suggested that a serrated knife would be better for that type of cutting. “No no no! This is the way I usually do it! . . . but, Mama, could you get it started for me, please?” I made a cut in the place he was trying to cut, left the knife in it, and gave it back to him. (Then I got another knife and cut another avocado my way. We were making large batches of guacamole and beans to last for several meals.) Soon he had removed the wide end of the avocado and squished its contents into the bowl. He then picked up the remaining 80% or so of the avocado and tried to squish it.
At this point I realized that my avocado-opening method wouldn’t have worked for Nicholas if he’d tried it. He can’t hold an avocado in one hand and the knife in the other! Just lifting an avocado in two hands is an ordeal when your hands are that small. There was no way he could squeeze hard enough to get it out of the peel. He looked daunted for about two seconds, then announced, “This is the way I usually do it.” as he rolled the avocado against the cutting board, standing tiptoe on his chair to lean his weight on it, to loosen it from the peel.
One of the most wonderful things about having a child is being able to teach him how we do things, making him one of our family by teaching him our ways. But it’s wonderful, too, to see him figure out things for himself, especially when it spares him the frustration of not being able to do it my way. If I’d laughed at him and told him he didn’t know how to do it . . . he might have believed me and stopped trying.
Last night, Nicholas and I were playing Uno (“ages 7 and up”, ha!) and I played a Reverse card, which causes the direction of play to change: If you were taking turns clockwise, now you go counter-clockwise. With two players, that doesn’t have any effect. I explained this to Nicholas. He said, “Well. What I usually do about that is, you and me reverse. Get up. I’ll be you, and you’ll be me. No, leave your cards there.” We switched seats and switched hands of cards, and since I had played the Reverse, now it was “his” turn, which is to say my turn.
What a great idea! It turned “Ho hum, this would be an interesting play if we had a bigger group, but for you and me it might as well be a number card” into an exciting upheaval of the game play. Later in the game, when I’d had to draw half the deck into my hand because of a shortage of red cards, I was able to play a Reverse and stick my opponent with that huge hand! (I’m not one of those parents who plays to lose out of concern for my child’s fragile ego.)
When I think back to the many hot summer afternoons I spent playing game after game of two-player Uno with my brother, I wonder why we never thought of using Reverse this way! I guess it’s because we didn’t have Nicholas around to tell us the way he usually does it.