I sit at the parents’ table at the 4-H meeting, watching my child at his place with the other children.
Even though he is new to this group and this type of activity and is obviously a little nervous and uncertain of what is expected, I have to restrain my urge to hover over him to help with the art project or to tell him how and when, and when not to speak up.
I remind myself this is his opportunity to take some guidance from another adult and just be part of his peer group.
As parents, grandparents, teachers, how tempting it is to reach over and “do it right” when we see a child bumbling with a new task. How hard it is to watch their first awkward attempts at a skill that comes easily from our experience. Especially if they are doing a project that will be viewed in public, do we want to tweak it, fix it up, make it look more professional?
But is the end product even the most important outcome? I would say no, far more important is the sense of purpose and ownership that a child gets from carrying the project through.
If we do too much for them, we rob them of the satisfaction, the sense of mastery, that comes from completing something for themselves. Sure, they will need some guidance, but how wonderful it is to see them diving in and learning by doing.
It is such a balancing act, this figuring out when to help and when to back off. It takes wisdom and patience moment by moment. They need to experience some success, because if things are too hard for them, they might shut down.
As they encounter challenges and setbacks, they will learn even more. It’s part of learning to take responsibility for their own work.
When I was in fifth grade, my father came home one day with a cute little portable typewriter and a typing tutorial book, explaining with enthusiasm now I could learn to type and then I could be his secretary when he wanted a letter typed. He added he had never learned touch-typing and wished he had.
I tackled that lesson book with a will, mastering one line of characters at a time. When I knew all the characters, true to his word, my father gave me a roughly hand-written letter he wanted typed so it would be more legible. (His handwriting was atrocious.) When I was done, he showed me how to put his initials in capitals and mine in lower case after a slash (JF/wf), just as a secretary would do for her boss. Wow, did that make me feel accomplished and grown-up.
Kids love to feel useful, especially when they’re developing and contributing a skill unique to the family. Who knows, they might even get better at some things than we are. Point them to some resources and let them become the experts on subjects that intrigue them.
I hope you don’t think I’m saying I know exactly where to strike the balance. It depends on the child, the task and the young person’s stage of development and knowledge. I’m just reminding us we should let our young people own their own work and enjoy the thrill of finishing something for themselves, and to do this, we will need to back off from doing things for them.
Adults that don’t do too much for kids are actually doing the most for them.
- Winifred Hoffman, of Earlville, is a farmer, breeder of dual-purpose cattle and a student of life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org