When I was a kid, show and tell never really held a whole lot of appeal for me. If nothing else, the fact that I don’t remember it much shows how little it meant to me. I think I was more concerned with the fact that it was Friday so Show and Tell meant the end of the school week and a fun weekend of running outside, discovering bugs and getting generally dirty and casual about life as a whole.
My son and daughter do show and tell now, every Friday. I can tell he’s more like me, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to him. Meanwhile, my little princess absolutely loves it. She has a lot of stuff to show and a lot of words she needs to get out, apparently. What’s important here is that it’s an activity for children for a reason. Showing AND telling are very important actions to run through to practice what it means not only to see an item or an event for what it is, but also to delve into its meaning; to see how an artifact can take on human attributes and represent human experience.
Later, in college, a professor named Paul Sladky taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned as a writer, and it didn’t take a whole semester to learn it, nor did a large project or cramming for a test get this idea into my head. He said a single sentence and it turned a lot of my previously literal and blocky writing on its head. If you’re a writer or a parent, take this sentence to heart and run with it: “Show, don’t tell.”
It seems simple, I know, and it runs against a lot of what we’re taught as kids, but that’s growing up, isn’t it? If we were to be honest with our kids, just brutally honest, it would break their spirits. Imagine telling your 7-year-old that being nice isn’t always the best course of action, or that violence does, indeed, solve some of life’s more ridiculous and difficult issues. Every human needs a portion of their youth to be flowery and full of hope so that when things get heavier and they grow older they’ll remember that there is good in the world and that true stress-free, weightless living is not only possible, it’s worth it.
Professor Sladky taught me this as a writer, that to truly touch your audience, you don’t write them a piece that spells out for them the details of why the main character feels this way or that way. You don’t have John sit down and say, “Well golly, what Susan just did makes me mad for the following reasons!” Instead you show John performing actions that exemplify that angst. Punching a wall is a cliche example, but you get the point.
My absolute favorite example of this is from the Harry Potter series, and it’s a line that was altered in the movie, probably due to the fact that the film industry panders to what it thinks are less intelligent viewers, while books remain for the “sophisticated and educated among us.” If you know the entire tale of Harry Potter then read on. If you don’t want a large part spoiled, then skip the next paragraph (and then go buy all seven books immediately and start reading today, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you).
At the end of the last book, while the light is leaving Professor Snape, he looks to the boy he has been secretly protecting and caring for the last 7 years. Everyone’s remarked that Harry has his mother’s eyes for his entire stay at Hogwart’s, so when Snape’s last words to Harry are, “Look at me…” I thought for sure he was about to tell Harry something important, or to spill the beans about the fact that he loved Lily Potter and give Harry the peace he wanted. That’s what a poor writer would have done. J.K. Rowling is not a poor writer. It wasn’t until after Snape falls lifeless that I realized that he was just a human, just a lost child like the rest of us, and at his last moment, when peace fell over his soul, he just wanted to see Lily’s eyes one last time before his light left the world.
Talk about showing and not telling. I’m getting teary eyed just writing about it now. The movie added a line in which he says to Harry, “You have your mother’s eyes.” I don’t generally use the term epic fail, and I understand why they did it, but I’m still disappointed.
They say the best revenge is living well. I say the best education is living well. I’ve found that this lesson of showing and not telling can expand to my job as an educator and protector for my children, as well.
You can’t yell at a kid or read them a self-help book to make them realize that sometimes they have to stay away from what they want in order to earn it the correct way. You can’t teach them to discipline themselves by doing it for them all the time.
And yes, sometimes you have to explain to them in detail what’s going on, and what the right choice is, but those words are nothing but wind if you haven’t shown them that you walk that walk as well as talking that talk.
And most importantly, they have to know that walking that walk is making you happy; that you are, indeed, living well, or I can’t see any reason whatsoever that they might decide to follow you down that path.