Monday, January 25, 2016

Helper or Helpless?

     There is a four year-old girl in our preschool class who is a natural helper.  When something spills at snack time she jumps up to get a cloth to wipe it up, no matter who spilled it.  “Here, let me help,” is her mantra.  She opens fruit snacks for friends, retrieves mittens, and comforts the sad.  This little girl not only feels compassionate, she feels capable.  She is confident that she knows how to take care of things.

     On the other hand, in every class, the teachers can easily list off the children who work very hard to be absolutely helpless.

     The helpless children stand like a tree waiting to be decorated when it’s time to put on snow clothes.  Putting their own mittens in their bag after playground time brings tears and exclamations of “I can’t.”

     When sitting at the craft table helpless children whine that they need a glue stick, or a marker even when a glue stick is only inches away on the table. They want someone to put it in their hand.  I think to myself that my grandmother would have said, “If it was a snake it would have bit you.” I only say, “Look around, I am sure you can find what you need.”

     Helpless children stare at spilled milk running off the table on to their lap without moving an inch.  They call “Teacher, teacher,” when faced with an unopened bag of snacks, without ever giving thought to opening it themselves.    

     So what makes one child a helper and another helpless?

      I am a firm believer that children come to us not as a blank slate, but a little package of attributes and talents that we help discover and build on.  Some children have a natural disposition that makes them see others and want to help. Not every child has that natural instinct, but learns how to care for himself or herself as part of growing up.  But there are some people who never do learn to look beyond themselves, and never grow out of the desire to be taken care of in every way.  Some parents will have to work harder than others to help children learn to be self-reliant.

     On the other hand, some helplessness in children is actually cultivated by parents.  Raising a capable child is kind of a bother.

      Mom can do it faster, as in, “Stand still and let me get these clothes on you.  We’re late.” Or Dad can do it with less mess, as in, “Oh, boy, Buddy, you might spill.  I’ll take care of this.”  It takes time to teach children the skills to be self-reliant.  It takes patience, lots and lots of patience, to let little hands do it themselves instead of jumping in and taking over.  And quality control slips when you have three and four-year-old helpers.  It can be hard for some parents who value efficiency and perfection around the home.

     Most small children want to try to do what they see the big people do.  They want to be like mom and dad and when they do, that’s the golden time to let them try and tutor them in taking care of life.  Even small children need chores around the house, not because the parents are in desperate need of help, but because the children need to learn the skills and sense of accomplishment that comes from completing the chores.

     Over the years it has made me crazy to hear a parent say, “Don’t try that, you’ll mess up.”   Of course they will mess up the first ten or fifty times, they’re kids!  Children = mess.  That’s real.   But attitude is everything.  A child who is told, “You can do it,” and then taught the skills needed to really carry that out will become capable and happier.

      Waiting for someone to take care of you is boring and kind of miserable. Just watch the helpless children in preschool.  They are not the happy ones.  You empower your children when you help them develop a “I can take care of this attitude.” Feeling capable and helpful are important building blocks for a happy adult life.  

© Diane L. Mangum 2011