Let beginners experiment unbothered

The Climbing Daddy and I were at the climbing gym the other day, and there were some parents with a young child on the beginner wall. The kid was maybe a third of the way up the wall, and the parents were yelling all sorts of suggestions and directions up at her.

I turned to The Climbing Daddy and said, “More parents on the slow curve of learning how to be quiet and just let them climb.”

It’s true. You see someone—not just a child—on the wall and looking stuck and you want to yell up at them where the holds are or how to make the next move. But if you think of it from the climber’s perspective…

Let’s assume they actually are a little stuck (and aren’t just slow or resting). They’re already a bit frazzled from getting stuck. If they’re new to climbing, there’s a solid element of fear involved in there (or they likely wouldn’t be stuck because they’d just grab and go). And maybe some self-consciousness because people are watching. (I don’t usually have this, but every now and then, it’s really bad.) And then someone starts yelling stuff up at them. Maybe two someones. Which maybe adds a component of trying to please (shout out to the people-pleasers!). There’s a lot of input to a brain that’s already overloading. It’s overwhelming.

So what I do my best to do (though I’m still not perfect at it) is to tell the climber (whether it’s The Kid or anyone new I’m climbing with) that I’m happy to help, but I’m going to let them ask. I’ll talk through that move, and then let them climb unbothered unless/until they ask again.

It’s hard sometimes.

The Climbing Daddy was on the wall, and there was a great foot hold that he was missing and could have used; he was struggling a little. But he was also still working and was focused. I didn’t say anything; it would have broken his concentration. If he’d been in a different mental space, I would have pointed it out. But we’ve been climbing together enough for me to be able to tell those things by just watching.

Sometimes, “stuck” and “thinking” look alike.

The thing is, this is true for people learning pretty much anything. Give them enough information to get started, and let them try it. See how it feels. Experiment. Get stuck. Get unstuck. Figure stuff out.

I have been teaching beginners for decades. It took a while before I learned that sometimes, they need to make mistakes without me immediately jumping in and correcting.

The Climbing Daddy and I took some dance lessons, and one of his frustrations was the teacher trying to help after every pass, when he wanted to just try it a couple of times, see if he could make it work, and then get correction.

It’s a normal teacher thing to do. (I’ve had explicit training at work on ways to avoid it.) But it’s often not helpful.

I’ve started giving time in my classes to let kids practice on their own. 30 seconds here, a minute there. I’ve found it to be more productive than working together as a group the whole time.

When working one-on-one with a student, I’ve taken to asking, “Do you want me to stay with you while you practice this, or do you want to try it on your own and show me in a minute or two what you can do?” I’ve never had a student ask me to stay, but I’ve had many students come back a minute later with a skill they’ve figured out, or questions about the skill they couldn’t nail yet. Either way, they’re deeper into the process, and they’re learning to self-assess.

My job is to make you not need me any more.

This applies to parenting. To kids learning how to do chores. To kids learning to dress themselves. To kids helping with food preparation. Yes, they’re slower. No, the end result isn’t as good, usually. But they need time and space to try it and to practice. (And for the end result to be “good enough,” relative to developmental stages.)

The absolute best way I’ve found to stay empathetic to people learning a new skill is to be a beginner at something. Added bonus if it’s an activity that you struggle with, that doesn’t come easy.

Because learning to play an instrument is so physical and requires so much coordination (before we even complicate it further with reading music), my empathy is found in floundering through physical skills. Being a novice at Sudoku or something mental wouldn’t draw parallels as strong. (But if you’re trying to teach someone an academic or intellectual skill, then learning a new physical skill might not be as useful as an empathy tool.)

Let beginners flounder. Make yourself available to help. Jump in sometimes. There is so much learning in the struggle. The sense of achievement is stronger after slogging through the struggle. Finding the balance between letting them struggle and giving the answer is tricky, but it’s our responsibility as teachers and as parents to look for the balance. We’re the ones in the lead.


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