Coloring Outside The Lines

I had my tonsils out when I was thirteen.

That’s significantly beyond the normal age to have tonsils out, don’t you think? I seem to do everything when I am older. ☺

My mother, to keep me occupied during the recovery, gave me a paint-by-numbers set. I loved it. Just follow the numbers and out came this gorgeous (that might be an exaggeration) painting of a horse.

For many years, I lived my life by ‘painting the numbers’ or something equivalent.

You want to make chocolate chip cookies? Here’s the recipe. Just mix the right ingredients in the right order…and my father loved them.

You want a college degree? These are the requirements. Jump through these hoops…and a few years later, there it is.

You want to teach school? Here’s what you must do to get your credential. Follow these steps…

You want a PhD…? You get the picture.

And then I started teaching school. Why didn’t those children fall into boxes? I wanted them to be quiet and listen. I had so much to share. They wanted to design, construct, and take it apart.

Then I got married. Why don’t the rules work? For vacation, he wanted to go to Hawaii. I wanted to go to spend time with my family. He wanted a new couch. I wanted to go take a class about how male and female brains differ.

Then I had a baby. No one has taught me more about human relationships than my son. He is my opposite.

Why was he squalling at midnight? Didn’t he know he was supposed to be cute and adorable in the daylight hours and sleep when it was dark? Why was he playing with my pots and pans instead of his toys? Why was he always moving? Couldn’t he just relax?

And that was only the beginning. I’m an introvert who is energized by ideas. He’s an extrovert who is energized by people.

I’m field independent indicating that I am not unduly affected by my surroundings. He’s field dependent; he is pulled in by, almost becoming, part of his environment.

I’m abstract sequential. I like exact, well-researched information with a logical base. I appreciate a teacher who is an expert on the subject. There is never enough time to absorb and analyze the information I want.

My son is concrete random. He uses what I call a trial and error approach to solving problems. He identifies it as instinct and insight. He wants to try it himself rather than take my word for it. He hates keeping detailed records.

He didn’t want to follow my rules for which I am grateful. He found his own way and was smart enough to like himself as he is and not be a replica of me.

I eventually gave up coloring inside the lines and painting by numbers. In fact, I decided to make my own lines, choose my own numbers, and mix my own colors.

Now the picture isn’t so clear, but it is dramatically more vibrant and alive. And more intriguing and interesting.

Have I given up planning – no!

But now I plan, yet still allow for the teaching moment. For example, a student has brought up a classroom management issue but the topic is not on the lesson plan.

Nevertheless, let’s spend a few minutes as a group discussing this issue. What consequence might work and why?

The class might have intriguing perspectives. The example is poignant; the solution could be powerful. The students will remember this moment. A short bird walk away from my outline is worth it.

Now I spend more time on things that fill my bucket: reading, cementing relationships with friends, eating out and going to the ballet!

Yesterday, it was the music of country/western star, Patsy Cline that set everybody’s toes to tapping. I wonder if the performers, when they signed up for this job, knew to whose music they would be dancing?

Coloring outside the lines helps prepare for the unknown. George Eliot wrote, “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.” I want to choose.

Do they still make those painting by number kits? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. I have a better way for me.

About the author - Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.

Comments for this article (4)

  • Murlene Watkins says:

    Always love your insights and your manner of expressing them! Shall we call this our VT visit for the month? Miss our visits!

  • Ann says:

    One of the coolest things my daughter did as soon as she could manage crayons was to MAKE her OWN LINES. I’d give her a blank piece of paper, and she would divide it into sections, each one with a special motif. When she was given a coloring book, she’d take a dress, and add patterns. I loved it. Don’t know what it means, but I never stopped her from doing that. And now, she’s got a fabulous eye for design.

    • Dr. Susan Stillman says:

      To me it means that you were being a wonderful mother–allowing your daughter to discover her own meaning, her own intrinsic motivation, her own individuality, rather than forcing her to live by someone else’s vision. What could be more powerful a gift to your daughter than that? :-)

  • Jackie O'Carroll says:

    thanks Anabel – I identify alot with what you have desribed here as colouring outside the lines. George Eliot also (supposedly) said: ‘it is never too late to be who you might have been’. this is my mantra and the adventure of self discovery I am on it just wonderful. it means that being in my fifties is so much more fulfilling and excting than my twenties when I was still waiting for permisison…my daughter is 20 and is my star – she is how I am now. fortunately she thinks that’s cool and recently told me that she is the woman she is because I am the woman I am.

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