As I have mentioned before, the one thing my wife and I really did with Sawyer early on was to “join” him. Joining is the practice of doing exactly what the child is doing- the idea being that instead of asking Sawyer to stop humming and flapping and beating his chest and join us, we would join him by running and flapping and humming. The effects were immediate: Sawyer went from having five timeouts a day at school to one a week. Yet all we had done was to tell him, in the best language available, that he wasn’t wrong. At the time, it seemed like a small thing. It wasn’t a small thing.
I was talking to Sawyer last week as he worked on an essay that would be a kind of culminating project for this school year. Writing challenges our ideas of write and wrong. The author must decide word-by-word what is right and what is wrong. The answer lies entirely within him; no one can actually tell him if what he has chosen is right or wrong because what he is trying to express exists in a realm beyond anyone else’s perception.
For this reason, writing can be painstaking for Sawyer. He’s expressed how much he wants to write, but when confronted with the blank page his mind jumps to anything other than what he had set out to write. As he struggled to bring his attention to the essay, he talked about school. Sawyer has very strong ideas about school. If asked, he will tell you how the education system is broken, that the kids are treated like cattle, that their intelligence is not respected, that the schools are underfunded and old fashioned. On this day, he began his usual rant, but petered out on it quickly. He looked down at the half-written essay and sighed. “I was always wrong,” he said. “Everything I did was wrong.”
He meant not just the answers he gave in class, but his impulses to soothe himself. At that time he had a limited vocabulary of solutions to the problem of feeling uncomfortable. His best solution was to retreat within himself where he could focus on what he wanted to instead of what he was told to. But, in the world of school and – I must admit – his world at home, this was often called the “wrong” choice. How do you function if your strongest impulse is considered wrong? Where do you look to feel right?
It is simply impossible for me to feel safe and comfortable in the world while simultaneously distrusting my own impulses. When I distrust the silent guidance that helps me choose words and careers and friends I am instantly lost. I have no idea what is right and wrong anymore and I too want to retreat to an island within where nothing can be wrong. Sometimes, however, I do not understand my own impulses, and my translations are awkward and rarely fit easily into the world.
It is as at these times that I most tempted to call myself wrong, and to curse that impulse for it’s wayward guidance. But the guidance is never wrong – not for me, not for Sawyer, not for anyone. It just sometimes asks me to go where I do not believe I am ready to go, or to say what I do not believe I am ready to say. The impulse frequently contradicts a story I believe the world is telling me about good and evil, about love and talent and poverty and wealth and fame and peace. What am I to believe at these crossroads? Obey the impulse and risk being called wrong by others, or disobey it, and know that I will have wronged myself?
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.