Two children, almost precisely 1 year apart in age, sit at a table and work on two, nearly identical 12-piece puzzles.

The younger child quickly begins looking for easy pairs, then adding individual pieces on.  He rotates pieces to try them out from different angles, then sets them aside for later if they don’t seem to fit the space he’s working on, quickly moving onto the next piece.  He is happy and engrossed, finishing the puzzle many times, saying “Yay!” and immediately dumping the puzzle out onto the table to try it again.

The older child begs “Help!  Help!”  He puts a piece where he believes it should go, then bangs on it and cries when it doesn’t fit.  He is frustrated and unhappy, unwilling to try new tactics, but also unwilling to let the puzzle go unfinished.

How would you judge these children?

What kind of capacity would you see in them?

What would you imagine their futures hold in store?

The younger child and the teacher begin helping the older child.  At first they put a couple of pieces in place for him, in response to his cries for help.  After that calms him down, they start coaching him.  The younger child sees that a piece the older child holds needs to be reoriented.  “Turn, turn,” he says.  The teacher asks, “Do you see a piece of the cow on that piece?  Where is the rest of the cow?”  The older child puts the piece into place and his face lights up: “Did it!”  He grabs another piece, and completes much of the puzzle on his own.

By lunchtime, both boys complete the puzzles with equal skill, focus, and excitement.

One only needed access to the puzzle.  The other needed help learning the process of spatial problem solving and a boost in confidence.

Both of them got what they needed: empowerment.

Some would have called the younger child intelligent, well-adjusted, self-motivated, productive.  Some would have called the older child needy, easily frustrated, melodramatic, or even ADHD.  But to see them only half an hour later, you couldn’t tell one puzzle-builder from the other.

Why do we judge children based on a few needs in their earliest years?  Why is it shameful to require human, rather than simply material, assistance in order to blossom into productivity and flow?

If one child’s mind is so wired that completing a puzzle is easy, let’s celebrate that.  And if another child has the capacity to accept the help of others in learning to complete a task that once appeared impossible, let’s celebrate that, too.

Together, these boys could make a fantastic team.  I fear the judgments that will soon be placed on them, and that surely have been already.  But in the meantime, I will give them everything I can.  I want so desperately for their lives to be full of that ecstatic expression upon sliding the final puzzle piece into place.  The look of pride, of competence, of independence, of sheer and unadulterated joy.

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