Practice Makes Perfect

Have you noticed how often you do things for your children instead of letting them do things themselves? If you have, then you’ve probably also noticed how often kids refuse to do things for themselves, whining and pouting until you do things for them.

How did it get this way? And how can you help your children do things for themselves?

It’s easy to see how things got this way: it’s just easier to do things ourselves. We’re neater, more careful, and more skilled. We’re quicker. And because everyone is so busy these days, and in such a hurry, getting things done quickly and with as little mess as possible matters.

So we feed children who could feed themselves. We dress our kids, zip their jackets, organize their homework, maybe even do their homework for them. We clean their rooms. We clean their faces. We do it all so our kids don’t have to. So we shouldn’t be too surprised when now our kids won’t.

We’ve sent the message that we believe our children are incapable of doing things on their own. We’ve hinted by our actions that left on their own, our children will do everything wrong.  They are helpless. They are incompetent.  These are the messages we send when we do things for our children that they could do for themselves. We send the message that, really, we’d rather do things ourselves.

Of course, this isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later we feel like our kids’ servant, doing everything while they sit by and watch. Sooner or later our children will grow up and need to be able to do things on their own. Now is the time to let them practice. Practice does make perfect.

To let kids practice means letting them try. Letting kids try means letting them make mistakes. We have to get comfortable with failure. Only when kids fail will they learn how to do things better. Remember that very little that children do has long-term effects. Not making the team, not making an A, and not winning a ribbon in the science fair doesn’t doom a child’s future career. In fact, what does doom a child’s chances is relying on a parent to make everything perfect.

If you’ve been doing it all, now is the time to stop. But how can you do that if your children are used to doing very little?

1.      Quit doing. Smile sweetly the next time a request comes in for something a child could do herself and say, “I’m going to let you try.”

2.      Avoid making excuses. It’s not that you’re too busy or that you’ve got your hands full. It’s just that you want her to try. If you need to soften your refusal, say, “I’m sure you can do it well enough.”

3.      Don’t back down. Your child may cry and carry on. He may do this especially if he believes you only love him if things are perfect. Giving up on perfect is difficult for both of you. Continue to smile, continue to be supportive, but continue to refuse to do what he can do.

4.      Provide moral support. If you’ve been over-involved in your child’s homework, for instance, instead of completely withdrawing your help, sit near your child as she does the work on her own. You’re there, you’re being supportive, but you’re no longer actually doing the work.

5.      Congratulate your child for trying. Remember you’re not hoping for perfect. You just want your child to do the best he can. Just trying – sincerely trying – is a good step forward.

Letting go of perfect and embracing effort is not easy if this has been the pattern in your home in the past. You need to do this difficult thing just as your child needs to do difficult things too. But no matter how little or how old your child is, helping him do what he can do and helping him accept a solid effort even if the results aren’t perfect – these are accomplishments that build the future.

If your kids aren’t trying hard enough right now, it’s probably because of you. Now is the time to step back.

Eating and Talking

Snack and mealtime are favorite parts of the day for most children at every age and stage. It’s easy to think that getting food into small tummies is the whole point of eating but it’s only half the story. The real value of snack and mealtime is social.

Mealtime is often the only time during the day when the entire group is sitting together without needing to listen to the teacher or learn anything in particular. It’s the one time that children can talk together when everyone is in the same place, doing the same thing. Encouraging children to socialize while they eat should be part of your teaching plan.

Make certain snack tables are near each other, not in different parts of the room, so you and your co-teacher can sit with the children and enjoy the conversation. Keep things pleasant, with an emphasis on sharing and smiling. When you do, more food is eaten, children are happier, and social skills bloom.

Find out more about children’s nutrition and eating in the toddler and preschool years in our course Feeding Each and Every Body

Pretending to Have Superpowers is Super

Two research studies support the notion that pretending to be a capable character helps children act more capably.  In one study, 5-year-old children were asked to perform a tricky card sorting task. Some of the children were first told to imagine they were a powerful person, like Batman or Dora the Explorer, and even permitted to put on a cape or backpack to get into the role. The children who pretended to be a powerful person did significantly better on the sorting task than children who did not.

In the second study, 4- and 6-year-old children were asked to work on a boring computer task but were told they could take breaks when they needed to by playing a more fun game on a tablet. Half of the children were directed to ask themselves, “Am I working hard?” The other half of the children dressed up like Batman, Dora, or another fictional character and were directed to ask themselves, “Is Batman [or whoever they were pretending to be] working hard?” Children stuck with the boring task significantly more if they were pretending to be a powerful character than if they were just being themselves.

Th researcher then asked children to think of themselves as Batman [or whoever] “on a terrible day.” These children wore costume props that were worn or broken. Children pretending to be a diminished superhero performed worse than children who were not imagining themselves to be struggling.

While these studies may not relieve all our concerns about superhero or princess play, they do demonstrate that “fake it till you make it” works even for preschoolers. Believing one can be successful is the first step to achieving success.

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Find out more: Rachel E. White and Stephanie M. Carlson (2015). What would Batman do? Self-distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science, 19(3), 419–426 (abstract at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/desc.12314/abstract). Also: Rachel E. White, Emily O. Prager, Catherine Schaefer, Ethan Kross, Angela L. Duckworth, Stephanie M. Carlson (2016). The “Batman Effect”: Improving perseverance in young children. Child Development, 88(5), 1563–1571 (abstract at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.12695/abstract).