A Dog in the Barn: Parallels in Teaching and Parenting

Sandra, my two year-old-daughter, has a wooden puzzle in front of her with a series of doors. Behind the doors sit magnetized objects, each corresponding to the image painted on the front: the cow rests in the barn, the turkey cooks in the oven, the bird perches in its cage. Sandra became fascinated with these puzzles when she was about a year old, presenting me with a dilemma: what to do when she puts the object in the wrong box.

I've watched many parents over the years play similar games with their children. Generally what I've witnessed is the child places the dog in the oven and the parent responds, "No, Carlos, the dog doesn't go there. Where does the dog go?" The child looks up, hears the word "no," moves the dog to another location, perhaps the birdcage, and then looks up again to see if Mommy is smiling (she isn't, the dog belongs in the doghouse).

When I became a parent, I'd previously taught in classrooms for 20 years, so I find my parenting largely informed by the choices I've made as a teacher. I've always believed we should nurture children's imagination and help them to see possibilities in their own lives as well as in the world around them. In other words, our work as teachers is about opening doors rather than closing them. Which brings us back to the puzzle. When Sandra places the dog in the wrong location, how do I respond?

There are times in our lives when we do need to know the right answer -- which button to push on our television's remote control to turn it on, for instance. However, we also want to be able to think outside of the box and explore possible options that might be beyond the set of choices that are put before us. Is it possible to have it both ways?

I decided when she played with her puzzle to never tell her she was wrong. When she was one year old, I would play the game with her. As she placed objects wherever she liked, I'd be working on the same puzzle placing them behind their "right" door. But now around the age of two, an age where she understands language and can speak in small sentences, I realized a different approach was possible.

One day, as Sandra began putting all the objects behind various "wrong" doors, I wove an imaginary tale explaining why that particular object, at the moment, is resting in that location:

  • It's nice that you put the lunch in the garage. I'm sure the workers will appreciate something to eat around lunchtime.
  • Oh, the dog is going into the barn. He's a good friend with the cow and I hope they have a nice time together.
  • You're putting the cookies in the gift box. I think someone will love to receive your homemade cookies as a present.
  • The dog's going into the birdcage! Oh no! I hope the bird is somewhere else. I'm not sure if they are friends.

Some might argue, "But there is a right answer. The puzzle came with all the objects in the correct places." It most certainly did, and my daughter mastered that a long time ago. Now it's time for the real learning to begin. By putting the objects in a variety of locations, Sandra creates what psychologists refer to as conceptual blending. When the brain is forced to bring disparate concepts together, it must work harder as different parts of the brain are activated. Once you learn where the objects go, it's quite easy to keep repeating the same activity, but when you place the object in a different slot your brain must think, "Hmm, how can I make sense of the fact that these two images that appear to have no relation are now together?" Now the puzzle becomes infinitely more interesting, even for adults, as we must invent narratives that might explain why the dog is now in the lunchbox. Sandra now enjoys putting the objects in different places and we laugh together at the disjunctive associations.

I arrived at this solution because I simply wasn't comfortable telling my daughter the dog was in the wrong place. Who determines the right place for the dog to take a nap? Such approaches to the simple dilemma of a puzzle mirror the daily choices I make in the classroom. I have the same hopes for my students and my daughter. I hope they are able to see many solutions to a given problem. I hope they approach the world with a sense of imagination and adventure. Perhaps most importantly, I hope they may see things from different perspectives, and realize that indeed, the dog might be much happier resting in the barn.