I found this scribble in an old notebook which encapsulates my year in a few lines:
Another year has slipped away,
Another year has gone.
A slimy frog escapes my grasp
Into a slimy pond.
The favorite homeschool advice of a friend of mine was to eat that frog.
By this, she meant that you should always encourage your child to do the hardest task first, the one they are least excited about doing, just to get it over with. That would make the whole day better. I think there is a book to that effect, though the title escapes me. (Perhaps Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy?)
The logic of this advice defies you to disprove it. And yet, I was given equally sage advice by one of my first employers. He said, do the easiest tasks first, and just get them off your desk. And, every day, touch everything on your desk.
This was in the days when your work actually was on your desk. Not hidden, layers deep, behind an impenetrable screen. It, too, seemed like good advice at the time.
Yet how could two statements that are so contradictory both be true?
I think it may be a question of perspective.
A Matter of Perspective
Any art student is sure to remember the moment when they were first introduced to those magical radiating lines of perspective. A geometric, mathematical concept had swooped in to the realm of art to solve an aggravatingly subjective problem. The problem of seeing, and therefore rendering, things in a disproportionate way.
In a child’s drawing, the house is as big as the cat, which is as big as the sun. All appear to occupy the same plane, and to be equidistant from the viewer. With a touch of perspective, the piece appears to have depth, and objects take their rightful place. There is an order to things in terms of size, importance, distance and dearness.
We talk about perspective not only in terms of drawing, but in terms of opinions and points of view. We talk about standing in another’s shoes, imagining, for instance, what the Founders thought about a constitutional question, or wondering what our audience might think, when we make a provocative statement in social media.
We can most easily take the perspectives of those who are closest or most familiar to us. We can usually guess the reaction of a close friend or family member, a child or a spouse. Things become more difficult when distance or strangeness are thrown in. What were the terrorists thinking when they plotted their attack? What does a behavior, so well-meaning or universally accepted in our culture, say about us to another culture halfway round the world?
The president’s wife going to a Muslim country, where the headscarf is the norm, scarf-less: is it a statement of feminism or an insult? It is a matter of perspective.
Child vs. Teacher
From the perspective of the parent or teacher, telling the child to do the hardest work first is preferable, at least in theory. While the child is fresh, full or energy and excitement for a new day, he is more likely to finish the hard thing (if nothing else) and in comparison, the rest of the day will be all downhill (in every sense of the word).
From a child’s perspective, doing the easy things, the “fun” things first, and then summoning the courage to take a peek at that beast of a subject, is far more desirable.
Perhaps from a child’s perspective, the frog IS as big as a house.
But even among adults, who wants to wake up and have to work at top speed immediately? I know I like to have my cup of coffee first, a few minutes of the news, a shower or cold splash of water on my face. So I can get my bearings before I tackle the world. Who among us has not put off that awkward phone call, that tricky email, or that dreaded doctor’s appointment?
No one likes to do the most horrible thing first.
Yet we see no problem telling our children, our students, to do just that.
I have seen it backfire more than once. Math lessons that went on for hours, just because the child did not want to do it. Writing assignments that never budged past the first sentence.
Somehow knowing that more desirable subjects are coming is not enough to speed the child toward completion. Having to work so hard on that one dreaded subject just seems to sap his energies for all else. The day is wasted, and the relationship impaired as well.
Tastes Like Chicken
Maybe the answer comes from human resources: the time-honored “sandwich technique.” When you evaluate an employee, you are supposed to start with a positive comment, then state your(negative) criticism, and then close with another positive comment.
Similarly, if we start the day on a positive, fun note, get to the meat of the hardest topics midday, and then finish with a relaxing and well-liked subject or activity, we’ll have less friction, more buy in, and actually get it all done! One can hope anyway. Something worth trying in the new year.
Although I can’t say that a frog sandwich sounds particularly appetizing.