Sunday, September 26, 2010

Moving on a Child's Time

Your three-year old is struggling with his new shoes, trying desperately to get them on his feet. You're needing to head out the door, and needing to do it five minutes ago. You reach down to help him, and he yells, "No! I do it myself!" What's a parent to do?

This scenario is replayed over and over across our country in homes and classrooms. The temptation is huge for adults--put the shoe on, already! I've got a job or appointment to get to! But what's going on here with the child is the development of autonomy, of self-help skills, of feeling positive about what s/he can do. We all know we can put our own shoes on, but there was a time when we couldn't. And when we mastered that skill, we felt good about it.

Think back to the last time you attempted something new. Maybe you failed the first time. Maybe you tried several times before you got it right. But once you did, think of the excitement, the sense of accomplishment you felt. You had grown in your abilities. You were less reliant on others and more reliant on yourself. And it felt good.

Kids are the same way. Often, as adults, we rush them through various tasks because it's easier for us. Putting on coats or shoes, changing clothing, washing hair, eating snack, even writing their names on their work--because we have what we consider "bigger agendas". I would argue that for a young child, there is no bigger agenda than accomplishing daily life skills. Teachers and parents who understand this about children allow extra time in their schedules to give children the opportunity to attempt to complete what they start.

Many times in our lab school, we would set up an indoor climber that included four climbing sides, some boards to stand on, and a slide. After observing my adult students, I realized that many of them, out of kindness, would lift small children over the climbing bars to stand them on the boards so they could slide. The problem with this approach was that it did nothing to build the children's large motor muscles, nor did it build their autonomy or self-esteem. Instead, it reinforced the idea that adults were necessary for everything, when they really weren't. After coming to this conclusion, I began working with my adult students to stand nearby, hands out, to catch any child who might lose his or her footing, but to coach the child through climbing the bars. How do you coach? You talk the child through it. "That's right, now put your other foot on this bar and pull yourself up. Good! Keep can do it!" What we ended up seeing was many, many children who would reach the top and turn around proudly, exclaiming, "I do it!" Yes, you did! And before you knew it, they didn't need adult coaching at all.

Encouraging autonomy, or self-reliance, can be a challenging thing in a world that moves so quickly. The important point here is to slow down and give kids a chance to complete tasks themselves. Sometimes those tasks take a few minutes. Other times they take a long time. Sometimes they require adult assistance. But adults should never offer assistance when it's not needed. Let your child or children lead the way...they'll show you when they need your help.

And for the child at the beginning of this blog post? Put the shoe on! You're late for your work! There are priorities here, and sometimes life takes priority over a lesson on shoes. But tomorrow, wake up five minutes earlier so that your child has a few minutes to do it himself. The good feelings he gets--and you get watching him--make it all worthwhile.

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