208. Whether to Help

I’ve often heard a certain kind of advice that has given me pause for thought: “Don’t give that child attention; that’s just what he/she wants.” It always seemed to me that if attention is just what the child wants, that’s a good reason to give it. I tried not to give too much attention for behavior I wanted to discourage, but if a child cried or looked upset, I tried to help. I couldn’t just ignore it.
I’ve seen teachers who “teach by the book.” Of course, there are many books by which to teach, and many were written by experts who disagree with each other, but I like to think I teach by the child, not by the book. No matter how deeply I believe in the efficacy of an approach, I believe more in the efficacy of paying attention to the child, and putting aside my philosophical guidelines when a child is crying out for help.
But now I work with Barbara Rothenberg, a teacher who is teaching me to take a second look at the cries for help that have always tugged at my heartstrings. She is a very nurturing person, who communicates her caring in a way that cannot be missed by any child. She knows the children in her class, and has a good sense of when to help and when not to. Sometimes, I see a child who is crying out for help. I start to move to help, and get a signal from Barbara: “No. Don’t help. That child, in that situation, needs to learn independence, and can learn it best by having to solve her/his own problem.”
Not helping goes against my grain, as it goes against the grain of most adults I know. We remember points in our own lives when we wanted help – maybe needed it. If people helped, at those points, we have warm places in our hearts for those people. We may or may not have such warm places for those who didn’t help when we wanted help but didn’t need it.
But here I am, well beyond childhood, wanting someone to find me an agent or publisher. I have many nurturing, caring friends, all of whom are giving me the same message: “If you want to find an agent or publisher, look for one. No one is going to do it for you.” I want someone to do it for me, just as the child who is weeping wants someone to come along and solve his/her problem. But I’m being forced, by all these caring, nurturing friends, to learn.
Please don’t attach a moral to this story. Barbara Rothenberg does not teach “by the book.” If a child in her class cries out for help, she responds to the situation and the child, rather than reacting to the tears. She doesn’t have a hard-and-fast rule: don’t help a child who is crying. But she’s taught me sometimes not to. I guess you’re never too experienced to have a mentor.

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