Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving, Carving, and Chisels

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 4:09 am
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 Weeks ago, my Dad happily announced . . . “I have a great tool for you . . . a chisel”.  I was so busy stuffing turkeys and baking pies that I never seemed to find time for writing about a carving tool, until the pie was eaten and the turkey carved!  Chisels are, however, a great tool to help reflect on how we treat those dearest to us.

Chisels have particular shaped cutting edges to allow carving hard materials.  There are unique chisels for working with wood, metal or stone.   Unlike carving a turkey, where we are most interested in what we carve away (the yummy light and dark meat), when we use a chisel, we are less concerned with the whittled scraps we leave on the floor, and are most focused on what we leave behind.  Often, in my clinical practice and consulting work with educators, I am asked how to help chisel away negative behaviors children are exhibiting.  Some adults are so overwhelmed and distressed by these behaviors that they are far beyond the delicacy of the chisel and are quite ready to wield an axe.

I wish every parent and educator would be impressed, as I was, by the portrayal of Michaelangelo’s artistry in The Agony and the Ecstacy by Irving Stone.  Though it has been years since I read it, I remember clearly the description of how the great master would look at a block of marble and see its potential; how he would chisel away painstakingly, until the beauty and form that he envisioned and believed to be there was revealed.  Parents and educators are artists, too, and need the vision and faith to recognize the potential sometimes hidden beneath negative and distressing behavior.

Even with surgical precision, and a delicate hand, chiseling away at problematic behavior can be . . . well, problematic!  One of the first lessons behavioral psychologists learn is that you never eliminate behavior without cultivating or reinforcing an alternative behavior.  The goal of behavior change should never be the lack of behavior or emptiness, rather new and improved behavior, growth and potential.  Even when my Dad waxes poetic about the mechanics of the chisel, its use of an inclined plane to make the work of carving easier, he knows the beauty of the tool is only in what it can shape and create.  When adults become focused on chiseling away at negatives, they can sometimes forget the other critical tools of child-raising and education, like hoes and garden shovels, that cultivate and support positive development.

I had the heartbreaking experience recently of speaking at a question and answer forum of educators.  The question that was particularly upsetting came from an educator who stated that when disciplining students it is necessary to “tear down” their self esteem.  I thought again, of Michaelangelo, wielding his tools with love and care, avoiding the sensitive veins in the stone that if disturbed, could cause his creation to disintegrate.  Just as a chisel in the hand of an artist or craftsman can remove unwanted excess without disturbing the integrity of the material, the child-raising and educational tools must allow us to do our work while protecting the wondrous, but delicate souls of those in our care.

As we gobble up the last of our leftovers, and the turkey carcass becomes a thing of distant memory, let’s take care with our chisels and carving tools.  When we look for the potential within those we love and those in our care, and chip away at problems with delicacy and caution, we will all benefit, and have much reason to be thankful.

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