Flow; or How Children Do Not Share Adult Priorities

My son, who is seven, is remarkably inconsistent. He says “I’m cold” but then forgets to put on a sweater, or he says “I’m hungry” but won’t eat. Just yesterday we had to get out of the car and go back to his day camp so he could use the bathroom, but he got intrigued by how the door handle latch worked, and wouldn’t go in. I find this infuriating. You were dancing in your seat! You couldn’t hold it one more second! And now you’re ignoring your bladder and playing with the door handle?! Argh!

This has been infuriating me for some time now. You were so hungry you were falling down on the floor, but now you’re too engrossed in your toys to eat? WTF?! But while I was talking to my parents about this, I realized something. My son knows way more than I do about how to get into flow.

Flow is a concept which Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi talks about (http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow). It is a state in which a person is so engrossed in his or her work that everything else falls away. It’s what happens when people forget to eat while working on their hobby, or when people at work look up and realize everyone else left hours ago. When a project is challenging and enjoyable and occupies all of a person’s attention, they really can’t notice what’s going on in their bodies. I found this fascinating – a person’s brain can only handle so much input. And when all of that input is coming from the challenging, fun, creative or compelling project, that person’s brain stops noticing things like hunger or cold. The normal input coming from our bodies can’t be processed along with the project, so it stops getting noticed.

So what that means is my son is very good at getting into a flow state. He can get engrossed in a project at the drop of a hat. He can become so absorbed in his play that he no longer notices hunger, or cold, or having to pee. Concepts like being late for school, or losing time for a story before bed, are too hard for him to process because he is so involved with the play activity. I’m trying to allow myself to appreciate this, even learn from it, rather than first tearing my hair out, and then his hair out.

How often do you get into a flow state? I used to get so caught up in a book that I had no idea what time it was. Then, I started reading while waiting for the bus and had to get used to looking up from my book constantly to know if the bus was coming, and to put the book down at a moment’s notice. I learned to break the flow so I wouldn’t miss my bus. Sometimes I get back to that sort of place, but it takes some work to make it happen. I have to set aside enough time, and have enough other work done to not have it nagging at me. I have to figure out what will be that involving, and get good at what ever it takes to do it. If I’m learning the ropes I can’t be as engrossed as if I know automatically what to do. But my kid just falls right into flow, all the time. How wonderful! Now I understand why he won’t come to dinner, even though fifteen minutes ago he was about to die of hunger. He’s caught up in a timeless, hungerless, fully engaging place, and dinner just can’t compare.

The world’s best artists, athletes, programmers, etc. are all masters of flow. In order to stay in flow, their skills need to go up as the rate of challenge goes up, so they practice and learn and keep pushing their abilities. It’s fun, even though it’s work. It’s fulfilling, satisfying, gratifying stuff. How awesome would it be if everyone’s day could include some of that?

I’m curious to see how and when my son learns to stop being in flow. I think I’m already teaching him that, by wanting him to come to dinner when it’s dinner time, and to use the bathroom when he has to pee. I think schools also teach that, since when it’s time to clean up and finish one project he can’t stay involved with what came before. It makes me wonder if I should home school him, so he can maintain his focus on what really involves him? But I don’t think I have the patience for that. I’m still wrapped up in the adult world of needing to get stuff done. I have a hard time moving at his pace. Eventually he will have to learn how to fit his moments of flow into the rest of the scheduled world. Part of me hopes he’ll figure it out soon! Maybe by dinner tonight? And part of me hopes he’ll be able to maintain his ability to drop into flow instantly for a long, long time.

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