Help as a Hindrance

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

-Maria Montessori

When we push, teach, show, fix or even help a little too much, we interfere with a child’s chance to achieve.  The second it takes us to solve a child’s problem or arrest his struggle can destroy another “I did it” possibility.  Our challenge is to find the patience to wait and see if the child can do it himself first.  If the child becomes too frustrated, we do the smallest thing possible to help.  Sometimes that means talking him through a solution, or moving a stuck object slightly so that a baby can then free it, or guiding an older child to brainstorm for essay ideas rather than giving him one.  Often children just need us to be open to their capabilities and give them a little more time. 

-Janet Lansbury, RIE educator and respectful parenting advocate

Already more times this week than I’d like to admit, I’ve caused a 2.5 year old major frustration while she was either getting dressed or undressed because I stepped in to help.  On one occasion, I unsnapped the snap above the zipper on her jammies, another time I attempted to “help” pull her shirt over her head, then there was the Velcro closure on her shoe that needed to be fastened, and me walking to the bathroom to fetch her clean diaper from the bathroom basket (that I purposefully placed for her access), the list goes on…  Each time I stepped in to help, she yelled “I do it!” and clearly was upset at me, and when I backed off, she completed the task on her own.

Then I realized that the two quotes I had been mulling over for this week’s blog inspiration were speaking loudly to me.  My actions became so obvious—I just needed a reminder—I wanted to help, but my “help” wasn’t really helpful.  One time I even heard myself say, “just let me do it for you” (looking back, that statement gives me clarity—I wasn’t mindful of what she really needed—that she needed to do it on her own, for herself, for her growth/success/achievement).  Sometimes the help that is needed isn’t doing for a child, it’s simply being present and available while giving her/him space.  And without judging me, I imagine Maria and Janet nodding in agreement, and encouraging me, “Yes! Let her do it.”

We parents and caregivers and allies of children mean well—we want to help the children in our care.  But sometimes our actions get in the way.  We need to slow down, observe, and be present.  I am also finding that I also need to be aware of my own feelings in this process—feeling uncomfortable when I watch this child struggle with her shirt, feeling impatient because her actions are so much slower than mine, and remembering to be ok with messy and imperfect.  When I feel uncomfortable, I can slow down even more and observe.  She’s not asking me for help with her words, but is she showing me she needs help—is she frustrated?  If she’s not frustrated by struggling to put on her shirt, then I don’t need to step in.  I can feel uncomfortable while also realizing that the struggle is part of her learning process. Moreover, when she works through the struggle and doesn’t give up, she’s building her resilience and determination.  And this realization actually lessens my own feelings of discomfort and helps me see this process in a different way.  When I feel impatient, I can check myself… have I allowed enough time for her to complete these tasks on her own?  Or are we actually in a hurry to leave the house and get somewhere on time?  And if this is the case, how I build in more time for her to do it herself the next time?  Or maybe there’s no external timeline and I just need to walk away and busy myself with my own tasks to keep myself from hovering (while still being available if and when she does ask for help).  And lastly, to remind myself to be ok with messy and imperfect, I have to check my own thoughts and feelings about perfection.  [Next week I’d like to share some more thoughts on being okay with messy and imperfect, and letting children do it their way even if we think our way is better.]

So I’m resolving to pause, breathe, and observe before I step in to help.  To trust that this child will show me or ask me if she does need my help.  And to get out of her way so she can have those “I did it” moments.

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