Imagine how courageous you would need to be to be little, have less developed skills than the grown ups around you, and still try to do what they do!
Children do this all the time. They try to do things they see us doing. Unfortunately, we often unknowingly discourage them from trying things because it is less convenient for us (it will be messier or take more time) or because we want to save them from experiencing the frustration of not being good at something. How is a child supposed to get good at something if they don’t have the chance to practice and fail?
My son loves to help me cook and this started at a very young age. I welcomed his help, loved cooking and baking together and just accepted that it meant more to clean up.
However, I had no idea that I was contributing to my son’s discouragement by tying his shoelaces for him or buying him shoes with Velcro. Don’t get me wrong, I love Velcro and it is great for the two or three year old who is still developing the motor skills to be able to attach it.
I just didn’t know that when my son was six, Velcro had become a crutch because he still did not know how to tie his shoes. My son is competitive, so when some of his friends knew how to tie their shoes and he did not, he decided that he was not as capable or as smart as they were. Of course, he did not say this out loud, but I could see that his attitude toward himself and trying new things was affected. Instead of knowing that he needed to practice, he expected himself to know how to do things right away, which of course, increased his experience of frustration. He would try, fail, and declare: “I will never be able to do this!” And I realized that I had not trained my son that frustration and failure are both part of getting good at something new, even something not so new. Instead I had taught him to doubt himself.
Of course, I was also raised this way except that I actually got yelled at for making mistakes, especially messy ones. Mistakes became scary for me at a very young age and I am still healing the urge to avoid risks because I might fail.
Now we celebrate effort in our home even if the outcome is failure. Of course, I forget, and I don’t do this as much as I would like so I began posting fun reminders around the house and in my office and we are moving in the right direction.
I love the unexpected scene in the movie “Meet The Robinsons” in which Lewis fails to fix the peanut butter and jelly sandwich machine for the second time and everybody at the dinner table congratulates and encourages him! I know I would feel better and take more risks if I got that kind of response each time I failed or did not do as well as I wanted. Wouldn’t you?
I did not discourage my son on purpose. I was trying to be helpful and let him know that I was there for him. But each time I did something for my son that I could instead teach him to do for himself, I robbed him of the invaluable experience of feeling capable. Moreover, he sometimes unconsciously interpreted my doing things for him to mean that I did not believe he was capable enough to do them himself. This, in combination with feeling a lack of capability began to translate into his change in attitude and confidence: he’d rather not try.
We are still recovering from this dynamic. My son is now eight. The more I encourage him to try things, set boundaries about the things that I will not do for him, and celebrate his willingness to try as well as his effort, regardless of the outcome, the better he feels about himself and the more he is willing to try. The hidden bonus? I feel better too!
I encourage you to give it a try. Focus on your child’s effort and their courage and willingness to try things or to keep trying even when they have failed. You can do this with kids of any age, even your teenage or grown up children. It is never too late to start!