being okay with messy and imperfect

Let’s continue last week’s discussion of allowing a child the freedom and space to “do it myself” with some additional thoughts about being okay with messy and imperfect processes and outcomes.

As children work towards independence, they must learn to coordinate and order their movements.  As they engage in various activities, their movements might not be as coordinated as an adult’s, which may make their process look and be more messy or imperfect; however, we adults must be mindful of the child’s need to engage in the activity with his/her own hands, and have time and space to practice and concentrate on the activity.

Let’s illustrate with a scene I observed a few days ago—a 2.5 year old is folding small kitchen towels.  She has independently initiated this activity, and she is folding the towels, making a stack, and then she places the stack in the kitchen drawer.  Her folds are not as neat as mine, nor is her stack; she’s messy and imperfect in her folding and putting away abilities not because she’s careless but quite the opposite—because she’s 2.5 and she’s still perfecting her movements.  If I observe, I can see that she’s working with purpose and great effort to fold the towels and put them in the drawer the way that she’s watched me do it.  If I interrupt her process to refold or restack, I am taking away her moment of concentration and budding independence.  This is an example of when I need to be ok with messy and imperfect because her concentration is more important than a perfectly folded stack of towels.  Seems easy, but this is an example of when I have to check my impulse to step in for the sake of “perfection.”

Another activity that can often be messy and imperfect with children is cooking.  I made pancakes from scratch with a 2.5 year old and a 4.5 year old.  I demonstrated some movements like stirring, whisking, and pouring batter.  Then I let them each have a turn to participate.  Does flour get spilled onto the counter and floor?  Yes.  Did batter get dribbled from the bowl across the countertop to the griddle?  Yes.  But the skills required to cook for oneself take practice—i.e., repetition to perfect.  And to me, these skills are more important than the inevitable mess.  The more often I include children in cooking activities, the more times I practice being ok with messes and shift my perspective to view these messes as opportunities to demonstrate how to clean up.

This brings me to my last example:  cleaning up toys, puzzles, books, etc.  During clean up time, I have to be mindful of letting a child do it his way even if I believe my way to be better.  A 4.5 year old boy likes to use his toy truck to clean up the blocks and put them away in the storage basket.  Would I do it this way?  No.  Does his method take longer?  Yes.  Are the blocks getting put away?  Yes.  So I check my impulse to interrupt this child’s process.

As an adult, bridling my impulses to step in and interrupt a child, and shifting my perspective on messes and imperfection is not always an easy task.  Becoming mindful of my own biases and perspectives is a process, and I am continually evaluating and learning.  I’m discovering that observing a child without interrupting him/her is a skill I must practice.  Sometimes it’s easier for me to busy myself with my own tasks or, depending on the activity in which a child is engaged, I simply walk away so I don’t hover.  As I wrote last week, I can pause, breathe, and observe before I step in to help or otherwise interrupt.  And I can get out of the way (whether literally or metaphorically—with my biases and judgments) so the child can have those “I did it” moments.