While recently standing in line at the grocery store, I observed a mother and two young children who had just finished their shopping. The mother was putting jackets on her children (to protect them from the cool morning) while the older child asked his mother several times if he could open his new play dough right then. The mom said, “Sure,” to her child while still working on the little sister’s jacket. The child with the play dough started trying to open the small container. After pulling on the top a couple times, he realized that opening the sealed tub was going to be more difficult than he had predicted. He screamed, “Mommy! It won’t open! It’s stuck!” The mom sighed, grabbed the play dough container from her son’s out-stretched hand, broke the plastic seal around the top, opened the canister, and then handed it back to her son. She had clearly taught her children manners because the boy said, “Thank you, mommy” while pulling out the play dough. I share this anecdote because I have been that mother in the past, and I know there are many others like us.
Good parents, like the mom I observed and myself at one time, bend over backwards to provide for their children and raise them well. Although this was not always the case historically, the idea of “raising children well” has evolved to include the mandate to assist children as much as possible when the children think they need help.
When babies are born, they are utterly dependent in every way. Everything they need must be provided to them, and the only power they have is to cry if a need or desire is going unmet. Infants must be diligently cared for, because infancy is when people first learn whether or not the world is a safe, predictable place that can be trusted. It can take years to fix the damage- some of it even neurological- that occurs when an infant has been neglected or mistreated in any way, but this blog will focus on children who have likely already learned, thanks to their conscientious parents, that the world and people overall can be trusted. More specifically, this blog is written to those caring, conscientious (and often quite tired) parents.
The message is this: your children are no longer infants, and the best thing you can do for your children now is LESS.
When your child comes up to you and says that he or she “can’t” do something (open a jar, tie a balloon, reach something that is high, open the packaging of an item, or anything else), recognize the opportunity for your child to feel competent. Resist the impulse to “get it over with” by simply doing the task for your child. Yes, quickly doing the task yourself takes less time, but what does your child learn from the exchange?
When children are encouraged to try things on their own, they learn from their experiences that they are competent and capable. I’ve seen children who were so proud of having finally gotten a container open, they no longer cared about whatever was inside the container. Instead of receiving the implicit message that they are not capable (when a well-meaning caretaker automatically does the task for them), children learn to try, fail, try again in a different way, perhaps fail again, and to try again. They learn to be patient with themselves and the entire process which helps build tolerance for frustration and the ability to delay gratification. Over time, you notice that your children no longer “need” something right that second; they are willing and able to wait, as needed.
If you have been around children much at all, you have likely seen how quickly some children give up. They might try to do something one time and then throw it to the ground while saying, “It’s too hard,” or “I can’t.” This type of behavior is a tell-tale sign that the child is accustomed to being “saved” from tasks that are perceived to be too difficult to do. And when they are spared from these tasks, the internal message of “I can’t” is reinforced.
Parents of children ages 18 months or older are there to encourage their children—not to “do for” their children. You may wonder what to do in those cases when the task truly is too difficult for your child. It’s a reality, for instance, that young children do not yet have the fine motor skills that teenagers or adults have. The good news is that children view it as their own accomplishment (and evidence of their individual competency) even when they are only in the “instructor” or “expert” role. For example, a child may try again and again to put a small string through an opening (in the making of a craft) and has no success. If the child then asks for help, the parent can say, “Okay, you’re the expert on how you want this done, so walk me through it. Where should the string go?” Likewise, even when opening a peanut butter jar that actually may require some strength to open, the parent can say something like, “Remind me which way I should open this! I hope I don’t turn it the wrong way!” Again, the child is given the opportunity to feel knowledgeable, competent and empowered by directing the activity or task. Follow up by saying something like, “You knew exactly how to do that!” or “You were right; that worked!”
Even if you’re now convinced that your children would be better off doing more things on their own, you may wonder how to make the transition to doing less and encouraging more. The first step is to reflect back to the child what his or her goal is: “Oh, I see you’re trying to get that play dough top open. Hmm….” Don’t reach out to get the item, whatever it is, from the child. Have a curious, interested look on your face and say something like, “I wonder how you can get that open.” Your child will catch on to the fact that you are supportive and involved, but you are not taking over, so he or she will likely begin to work on the task independently. That is when it is very important for you to pay close attention and encourage the child while he or she works. Some things you might say include (but are certainly not limited to): “You’re working so hard,” “You’re determined to figure that out!” “I see an opening; it looks like you’re making progress!” or “You’re really figuring that out!”
The wise, if cliché, adage applies here: work smarter, not harder. It can be tiring and overwhelming to do things all day for your children. When doing something as a family (like preparing a meal), allow each family member to contribute in some way that is developmentally appropriate and can make each child feel proud, invested, and competent. Yes, children desperately need the presence, support, and encouragement of their parents, but it is also essential that they test and practice their own abilities.