Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open

My first and perhaps most valuable assignment in graduate school was deceptively simple. It was to do nothing but observe. “Make yourselves invisible,” we students were told. "Be a piece of furniture in the preK classroom. Do nothing -- just watch.” I had a similar assignment in a social science methodology course. We were asked to select any one of several everyday social settings. I chose the meat department of a supermarket. My task was to take notes about the sequence of behaviors of two or three meat shoppers. I thought just what you’re thinking right now: What could there be to say about such mundane behavior? Remarkably, though, I had a full notepad in no time. One shopper surveyed the entire meat case, as I might do at a buffet before deciding where to invest my calorie intake. After the once-over, she went back to the chicken section, picked up one or two birds, studied them and their prices, moved along to pork and then several cuts of lamb, and finally returned to the chicken and settled on a roaster, with some hesitation.

She, and most people I observed, carried on a barely audible monologue; they were concentrating solely on the task of meat selection. No one asked me what I was doing there. They were too absorbed. I had succeeded at being a piece of furniture.

It wasn’t as easy to do that in the nursery school. There, my natural instinct was to engage children in conversation — to have fun with them and by the way, show the instructor how “good I was with children.” We were asked to focus totally on only one child -- not to interact with him, but to note everything he did in a 10-minute period. This went on for a whole semester. Our brief observations were soon extended to one whole morning a week.

By the end of the semester we had each closely studied the behavior of one or two assigned children and had collected a remarkably rich portrait of “our kids’” idiosyncratic behavior. Ultimately we could predict what would occur in the coming minutes, having watched friendships grow and antagonisms deepen. We knew what activities were preferred, and which avoided, by the objects of our observations.

A few graduate students complained, “Haven’t we done enough of this?” But the value of observational training became clearer to me as time went on: We were learning to forget ourselves and focus our complete attention on an individual child; to tune in to everything from mannerisms to motor, cognitive, social-emotional skills and styles; and even to the played-out fantasies of “our" children.

In time, it became possible to do that without holding strictly to the “piece of furniture” injunction. I remember the emergence of the skill of “tuning in” with almost as much delight as I remember the realization at the age of 6 that I was really reading. I highly recommend such training in tuning in for all of life’s interpersonal endeavors -- parenting included. But skip the part about being a piece of furniture, please! As parents, we need to observe, listen, tune in, and be engaged. That’s all there is to it. (Right!)

December 18, 2007

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

The comments to this entry are closed.