For their last work of the morning, W and E chose to do the map puzzle of Africa together. One boy shimmied the heavy rectangle out of the cabinet, while the other found the control map and laid it on the floor.
I was glad they had decided to work as a team. With very few "funny-shaped" countries and none that fill a large portion of the continent, the Africa puzzle is challenging for them. It proved to be especially so that morning. After removing all of the countries, the boys tried piece after piece along the border, unable to fit a single one.
Sensing they were starting to get frustrated, I went over to check they had everything they needed. Yep. All the pieces were out, right side up, where they could both see them. The control map was beside the puzzle map. No problems there.
Without a word, I looked around for South Africa, intentionally fumbling a bit as I did, and put it in its spot. After a brief pause to appreciate the (mostly) empty map, I kissed them on their heads, and then…I walked away.
If there is one thing I've learned over the past six months of homeschooling my children, it is this: When I am confident they can do the work on their own, I need to walk away.
Sounds so simple doesn't it? Just walk away.
It's really not.
When they lock up, what I want to do is explain strategies, walk them through step by step, or (at times) shake sense into them.
But stopping myself, and instead, giving them a kiss or touching their shoulder, before walking away to focus my attention elsewhere has two huge benefits for us all.
One, it stops me from getting increasingly frustrated that they won't JUST GET ON WITH IT! Calm mommy translates to calm kids, and calm kids have an easier time problem-solving and learning.
Secondly, it tells them I have confidence they can do the work without me, while also giving them the space to concentrate and figure it out.
So I walked away from my boys and their continent puzzle and stood outside the open door of our school room, reading through emails and catching up with the world.
I soon heard E find the right spot for one of the puzzle pieces. Then another. Then W found one. They worked happily for several minutes, both looking and both finding.
And then, the bickering began. Again.
"Move! I want to put it in!"
"I found it! I'm going to do it!"
Bickering has become the boys' second language this winter. "Hey, that's my car!" or "It's my turn on the iPad!" starts before breakfast and continues until bedtime, with only short breaks for peace.
I've blamed the ridiculously cold temperatures for keeping us inside (when little boys clearly need to be out) and daydreamed about moving to Florida, or, at the very least, fast-forwarding to the long days of summer.
But, in truth, I know it's partly my fault. I have gotten into a terrible habit of stepping in as soon as I hear the first scream of conflict.
It began with good intentions. I wanted to help the boys talk to each other and work out problems before things got physical. (Of course, there have also plenty of times I got involved because I just didn't want to hear it.) But it the more I have jumped in, the more they have fought, leaving me exhausted and no one happy.
I stood there, listening to them argue, taking a deep breath before entering the fray, when I heard my four year old suggest, "How about this. You let me put that piece in, and you do the next one?"
Stunned, I held myself in place.
His brother countered, "How about, you put the piece in, then I'll take it out and put it back?"
It was a deal. And from where I stood, the scene was beautiful as any sunny day in June.
My boys are young. There will be many times to come when they need my help to work things out. For those times, I will talk them through step by step, the best I know how. But more often, much more often, I need to trust them. I need to let them know I have confidence in their ability, then give them space to figure it out together. I need to walk away.
Several minutes later, I heard them giving each other high fives. "We did it!" they called out, excitedly beckoning to me to come see the finished puzzle.
"Wonderful!" I told them. "You figured it out together! I am so proud!" And I was. I really, really was.