I was at preschool drop off yesterday and decided to hang around a little bit. Even though my strongly independent little man cut the cord with me a week ago, I wanted to meet some of the new families that were starting this week. That and randomly in the morning he told me he wanted me to stay at school. Knowing him, I was well aware he didn’t actually want me to stay, but instead was letting me know that he needed some quality mommy time since I had to work a lot over the weekend.
We spent the morning (after our coffee/whole foods stroller walk) playing cars and superheroes and then cuddled up to read some books before we left for school. Sure enough on the car ride to school he informed me that he had changed his mind and I could go and come back after singing. I told him some new friends were starting today and I might hang out for a little bit to meet the new mommies and daddies. He seemed cool with this.
After finding his cubby and signing in, he sprinted out to the school yard and I started introducing myself to the new moms and dads. As I was chatting with another mom, our kids wandered over to the water/sand table. They were trying to fill up a watering can, but couldn’t figure out how to get it to fit where the water-spout was. Instinctively, as the other mom was stepping in to help (partly to cover my ass for being too lazy to walk down and help them), I blurted out, “eh, just let ’em figure it out…they’ll get it eventually.” Sure enough less than 30 seconds later they figured it out. There was a split second when I second guessed my instincts (or lack thereof). A second when I thought hmmm…maybe I’m a terrible parent and I should totally help them. A second when I doubted if they could in fact figure it out on their own. But then they did it. They figured it out.
Ever since Avery was itty bitty, one of the first phrases (other than “mommy ALWAYS comes back”) we have stated over and over ad nauseam in our house is “I think you can try.” Any time Avery asked me to do something he wanted done I would tell him to try to do it himself. And if he told me he couldn’t, I would tell him “I think you can try.” I’ve said it so much that if I ever utter the words ‘I can’t’, he instinctively looks at me and says “mommy, I think you can TRY” (touche young wise toddler, touche!)
Now, I’m not a monster…if my kiddo TRULY is not capable of doing something, I help him. BUT, I read once (I believe it’s from the Montessori theory) that you should never do something for your child that they believe they can do themselves.
For the most part I love this ‘rule’ and try to abide by it…with some necessary caveats. Like when your toddler decides they can dress themselves, but they really physically can’t and you have somewhere to be and they have been “trying” for like 2 hours unsuccessfully to put their shirt on and find the arm holes. And every time they fail, they flail themselves on the floor like dramatic wet spaghetti screaming in misery. Or when they decide that they can make their own meals because they have been spending a lot of time in their play kitchen and think they are ready for Master Chef. In those instances you let them HELP you, you praise the heck out of them for giving it a good old college try…but you jump in…cause if not, well it will end poorly.
Aside from the occasional necessary intervention, I let my son try to do most things by himself. I let him try and fail and then encourage him to try again. Sometimes there is frustration and occasionally tears. And when there are, I’m right there encouraging him to try again and telling him I’m proud of him for trying. I reward his attempts and not necessarily his successes. And what I’ve noticed is that it’s given him a really healthy mindset that he is capable and that there is no harm in trying. Besides, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a toddler truly proud of themselves when they master something they weren’t sure they could do. Like today when I let Avery cut his cheese into smaller pieces for his lunch bento box. Or every time he manages to get dressed with his shirt on the right way and comes running in with a smile plastered across his face. Or when he can get the toothbrush, put on the toothpaste, brush his teeth and put them all away after ALL BY HIMSELF. Or when he finally climbs up the “hard” rope ladder at the park. Or when he “makes his bed” (this entails throwing all stuffed animals in a pile at the top of his bed…at some point we will have to address this, but hey, it’s a start and it’s better than the floor where the dog will eat them.)
The truth is, it’s way easier to jump in and do everything for your kids. It’s hard to see your kiddo struggle and fail. It’s instinct to jump in and help, to protect, to make things easier for them. We are hardwired as parents for that. Out of sheer laziness I discovered the true beauty of the alternative. When you sit back and let them try and fail or even better when you actively encourage them to give it a shot and encourage them even more when they fall flat on their face…they flourish. They grow in ways that will surprise you. They master skills you probably didn’t even think they were capable of. They surprise themselves and it’s truly incredible to witness.
So I challenge you…be less involved. Help less. Let your kids try…even if you think they will never get it. Even if you think they can’t possibly figure it out. You will be surprised by the solutions they come up with. You will SEE their little brains growing right in front of you. And their solutions are often incredibly adorable. Like using a plastic little tykes golf club to turn on the light they can’t reach, or a play broom to sweep out toys from under the couch.