Sometimes what kids need most from us is nothing at all

I think one of the most challenging lessons I’ve learned as a teacher and as a parent is when NOT to intervene. It is actually excruciating for me to hear a child struggling and not rush over to help. But sometimes doing nothing is actually the best thing we can do for a child. When we sit back, shut up, and allow our children to experience their struggle fully, they also get to experience the joy of conquest and the knowledge that they can rely on themselves to work through a challenge.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m not suggesting we allow our children to experience constant struggle. Emotional upset is counterproductive to learning overall. However, there are moments when we all rush in too quickly, offer too much coaching, or otherwise deflate the attempts our children are making to learn something new.

It’s human nature to want to help a younger, smaller, struggling human. But what message are we sending when we constantly intervene on behalf of our children?

Rushing out the door, we put the coat on our child because it’s faster than waiting for him to do it himself. We feed our toddlers by spoon because “she eats more this way.” We help an older with his homework so that we can all enjoy pizza and a movie together.

And the underlying message our kids are receiving is, “You aren’t able to do it yourself. You need my (older and more capable) help. And struggling is not OK.” And then we wonder why our kids eventually stop trying to excel and just do the bare minimum that’s required of them.

I think that the message that children are incapable is being ingrained in them from infancy. On the contrary, the infant’s brain is arguably the most intelligent thing on Earth. Even tiny infants are capable of incredible feats of deduction, learning and memory. They just have a hard time moving their bodies and communicating verbally.

But as soon as we see them as the intelligent and capable beings they truly are, it’s actually quite amazing how much they really CAN communicate. And, by the time they are walking and talking, children are capable of all sorts of interesting and helpful tasks when given the opportunity to learn and perform those tasks.

OK, so let’s say we’re all on the same page here and we agree that even very young children are incredibly intelligent and capable. Now what? Now, it’s our job to bring more awareness to whether, when, and how we step in to support their learning. Offering our unsolicited fear as in, “Wait! Stop! Don’t do that! You might fall/spill/trip” is NOT helpful. Neither is too much verbal information ABOUT the given task. Instead, what children need is a safe place to EXPERIENCE and EXPERIMENT with the things they’re inspired to learn about.

Here’s a video of my daughter playing with her new farm toy. As you’ll see, she gets frustrated, but I don’t say or do anything. In fact, when I see her turn her head toward me (later in the video) I avert my eyes so as not to disrupt her play with eye contact.

Here are my top five rules for how to support my daughter in her quest for autonomy:

1)     If she’s frustrated, take a breath, relax my body and if the frustration continues remind her to ask for help when she needs it. “I’m available to help you if you need me.” There’s a “but I trust you can do it on your own” attitude inherent in my tone of voice.

2)    Bite my tongue when I have advice, suggestions, or negative feedback about how she’s doing a new task. Remain neutral if there’s something that MUST be communicated. For instance “I see some water spilled here,” with a flat tone of voice.

3)    Offer LOTS of opportunities for new activities. Notice which ones she gravitates toward and consider other similar activities. When she’s engaged in an activity, DON’T INTERRUPT with words, actions, or eye contact.

4)   Remember that all messes can eventually be cleaned up. Don’t cry (or yell or roll my eyes) over spilled milk (or paint, or mud, or broken eggs)

5)    Invite her to do it. Show her how to do it. And invite her to do it again.

I’m so curious how you handle this at your house. Do you feel you intervene too much or too little? And what are your rules to support your child’s exploration and learning?

I hope you’re having a fantastic week. Warm hugs, Shelly



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