My son's teacher announced that their class would be having a spelling bee, and sent a list of words home with him. The words were ordered from easiest to most difficult.
That night, we started practicing the words. In true spelling-bee fashion, I forced him to state each word before spelling it, and then again when he was done. Whenever he stumbled over a letter, I would make him re-start it, including stating the word at the beginning again. Whenever he forgot to recite the word again at the end, I would remain quiet, letting the silence stretch uncomfortably until he remembered.
"Why do I have to say them over and over?" he complained.
"When you're at the actual spelling bee," I explained, "this is how they will want you to say the words."
"Can we just skip that part right now?" he asked.
"No, son. When you practice, you should practice doing it the way you will eventually do it. Otherwise, you're practicing to do it wrong."
Satisfied for the moment, we moved quickly through the words at the beginning of the list, with the lad getting all the easy words correct. He began to fidget, bored with the lack of challenge. Clearly feeling that we were wasting time, my son said,
"I'm a good speller. Do you think I'm a good speller?"
I paused a moment. I knew the words were going to get harder. Should I give him positive feedback? Warn him of what was coming?
"Son," I asked him, "do you know what you're going to be good at in life?"
"What?" he asked, suddenly very interested.
"Everything you practice," I told him. "And do you know what you aren't going to be very good at?"
His smile faltered a little. "What?"
"Everything you don't practice. Now, let's get to work on these words. They get harder, and you will need to practice some of them."
As the words grew harder, the stumbling increased, and the words were repeated... 3, 4, 5 times. He became increasingly frustrated and discouraged, slumping in his chair, and looking around for distractions.
"Maybe I'm not so good at spelling," he said dejectedly.
"What are you going to be good at in life?" I challenged him.
"Whatever I practice?" he dutifully recited.
"That's right. Let's take a break, and tomorrow we can practice some more."
Over the next week, my son came to me every night asking for help practicing the words. We struggled through the hard words, stopping when one of us became too frustrated with the other to continue. The day of the spelling bee came. I dropped off a nervous little boy at school that morning. When I returned that afternoon to pick him up, he was wearing an enormous grin.
"I WON!" he shouted, running towards me.
As I wrapped him up in a hug, congratulating him, I thought to myself... that while I was happy that he won, I was more happy that he learned something about life.
It's nice when the kids listen.