Let go. Less is more.

Let go. Less is more.

Autonomy – the ability to do a task on one’s own – is at the cornerstone of so much literature on what motivates children in their development.  Your children remind you of this often, as they push your hands away from their sneakers or art projects, “No, let me do it!” Or, as my almost-2yr-old says as I zip his jacket, “No no dada!!” We tend to think, because it makes logical sense, that helping out will breed more successful experiences – If I tell her how to spell the word this time, she’ll know next time; If I help mediate a conflict on this playdate, the play can continue and she’ll have a positive experience.

Except that’s not actually how it works, from the child’s perspective. Sure, it makes us feel like good parents: “Ah, yes, another problem solved, situation managed, conflict resolved.”  The problem is that from the child’s perspective, at the best it’s a persistent reminder of how little you can do: “Oh man, they still don’t believe I can open that yogurt!” while at the worst it becomes a needed life raft: “Boy am I glad they helped out when that girl grabbed my toy; I know I won’t be navigating any tough moments any time soon.” When we offer what we see as an (un-asked for) helping hand, it can often lead to the erosion of a child’s self-confidence, plateauing of their developmental skills, and a dependency on external intervention in difficult moments.

At our school, our teachers have a three-tiered response to most calls for assistance from their students, ranging from help opening a lunch box to negotiating a calamity in the block area. They’ll first ask the child, “Did you try to solve this yourself?” followed by, “Did you ask a friend for help?” and lastly, “Yes, if you tried yourself and couldn’t do it, and a friend tried to help and also couldn’t do it, of course I’ll help.” This allows a child to feel a sense of autonomy and competence in the moment (“They trust me with this, even though I’m not sure I can do it!” and “I kept trying and found a way to do it I didn’t know about before”) while at the same time giving them the essential background of support a young child needs (“I’m glad they’ll always be there for me, even when I fail”).

And what about during sandbox, playground, or other social play, when the children don’t necessarily come to us but our heart lurches as we see our child’s toy grabbed or pushed out of line at the slide? Let go. Less is more.  Jennifer Lahey writes in her new book, The Gift of Failure, “The most important lessons of play and friend time are interpersonal, and these lessons are best learned when uninterrupted and free of adult manipulations and machinations.”

She has it spot on.  Children learn through play, and not only about the right-angles, polygons, and symmetry that the block area has to offer. They learn about how to read body language and social cues. They learn how much is too much, how far is too far, and when they need to stop. They learn this from their peers, not from us grown-ups.  Lahey continues that in play, children “begin a lifelong education in rules of social conduct and the vocabulary of the subtle cues human beings use to communicate with each other. Fluency in the language of human social interaction will determine the success of all their future relationships, and failure to develop fluency is a significant handicap of life.”

I find her concept of “fluency” very helpful here. Imagine yourself travelling abroad with a friend trying to learn a new language that you already know. As she tries to direct the cab driver, you shout out clear directions. As she tries to order lunch, you knowingly point the waiter to what she’s trying to order off the menu. Your friend, of course, not only loses opportunities to learn through speaking but also loses her self-confidence. All of this because you took away her autonomy.

The single most important achievement of early childhood is social fluency. Think of your child as if in an immersion environment; they need to be deeply involved in all forms of social cues. They need to learn the grammar of relationships, and not only the sweet, smiley grammar. They need it all. Lahey continues, “those fights, tussles, silent treatments, and breakups are, despite the tears and heartbreak they cause, invaluable opportunities for growth. Squabbles are opportunities to be valued, not emergencies to be managed.”

Let go. Less is more. Give your child fluency in the language of social interactions by allowing them to participate fully in the range of interactions that make up life.  Yes, there are many, many times that children need us, desperately so, to do their work for them. They need our hugs, our kisses, our soothing. They need us to pick up after them and to feed them.  But those times need to be balanced with long stretches of autonomy where they are on their own, where struggles encountered are theirs to face alone.

How do you know which is which: when to help and when to let go? Well, I never said it would be easy! Parenting is hard; there are no easy decisions, there are no clear choices. I deeply believe that parenting is made easier when we do it together. Talk about this with your friends, your peers, your fellow JCC parents. When do they pull back, and when do they dive in? These are the questions that raise us all up as parents. When we parent together, we parent stronger.

Shabbat Shalom,