While playing in the sandbox, Theo buried a plastic elephant less than an inch under the sand. Then he uncovered it, feigning surprise that he had unearthed such a treasure. It was a great game. And then I asked if he would like me to bury the elephant.
To my surprise, he agreed, so I grabbed a shovel and got to it. I excavated an elephant-sized hole, deep enough to cover it by several inches of sand. I told Theo this would be great, he would need to really dig down to find where it was hidden. What fun.
When I finished and gave the all-clear, I expected Theo to grab a shovel or rake and start moving some sand. Instead, he pawed at the ground making small furrows above, well above, the elephant. He did that for a few seconds before he stopped, looking defeated.
I handed him a rake and said that we could work together. We scraped away another half inch or two before Theo grabbed a truck and started moving it through the sand. I asked him if he wanted to find the elephant, and he said, “No. I’ll play with trucks.” I asked if he wanted me to help him find the elephant, and he said, “You can do it.”
That’s when I realized I had ruined his game.
I had made it too difficult, putting the reward so far away that it no longer felt attainable. The game was fun when the elephant could be found quickly, and quickly reburied. Rinse and repeat. I’ve mentioned before that Theo appreciates repetition in his work (and his play). That’s his kind of fun. I had made it a challenge and snatched away the joy.
I remember that defeated look in my Intro to Creative Writing students. After I had asked them to write about something other than their high school or dorm room dramas. When I suggested that they try yet another draft of the scene they thought was perfect two drafts ago. Basically, when I took the fun out of the game by putting the goal too far out of their reach.
I’m sure I’ve had the same look too, or at least felt the same way about my own expectations. Sometimes we need to stretch ourselves, to have an objective that is outside our comfort zone. That is how we grow. But if it is so far out that it feels unreachable, we are more likely to give up, to move on to something else, instead of pushing ourselves forward.
A good teacher or coach knows our limits and when we can get more out of ourselves than we believed. They know we can dig a little deeper if we just try. Sometimes, we have to be that coach for ourselves. Sometimes, we have to look for that motivation from others.
Often, we need to set smaller goals, understanding that the major ones will come eventually. By establishing closer, quick wins, we continue moving forward when we can’t yet reach the larger, more impressive goal.
For Theo, there were too many other easy ways to have fun without wondering if he would ever find the elephant. He did eventually. I first had to move enough sand to uncover the top of it, but he didn’t seem to mind.