on perceptions of capability
A lot of parenting (and teaching) is thinking about the long-term growth and effects your choices will have on your children. At some far off distant future, we know they are going to turn into an adult. In mainstream American culture, that adult is going to live outside of your house eventually, and it is your job to prepare them for that moment. This is a lot to think about when you are in the thick of a tantrum or the third/fourth/fifth wake up of the night, but it is still true - if all goes well, you are slowly raising a grownup!
So much of parenting is a balancing act, and I want to talk about one of the things to hold in a delicate balance:
how much should you do for your children?
With a brand new newborn, it is fairly obvious that you are required to do all of the things. They need you for everything, and you settle into an understanding that this is your job. You are responsible for this human being. That change might have come easily to you, or it might have been really difficult. (Or both all at once!) Either way, there is a real weight to the idea that this human relies on you. It is a real weight to be entirely responsible for someone else!
Yet babies grow very quickly. By the time 365 days have passed, they will have learned to roll over, to intentionally grasp things with their hands, to move their feet, sit up, eat solids, stand up, crawl, possibly even walk! They still need you for a lot of things, but your responsibilities are shifting. With each new skill they develop, it is our job to rethink how much we are doing for them.
We are the guardians of the child’s perception of their own capability.
While they have their own view of the world, in the beginning, they see the world through your eyes. If you always treat your child like a brand new baby, you are always doing things for them that they could do themselves. You hold the bottle or the spoon because you like feeding them, but they never get the opportunity to practice those skills on their own. You carry them or push them everywhere, and they miss opportunities to practice moving their own body. They fail at something, and you rescue them before they get the chance to experience failure and learn to improve for next time.
We use this level of care because we love our children! We want them to have an easy life, to experience only success, to be ignorant of pain and heartache. The intention is to convey how much we love, but the message the child receives is quite different.
When he goes to hold his bottle, drops it, and you do it for him: “I must not be able to do it myself.” When she picked up the spoon and spilled some on the floor, and you take the spoon: “I can’t do it.” When they are crawling to the living room behind you, and you carry them: “I was too slow.” When they are about to fail at something, and you save them: “I can’t do it, and now I can’t learn what to do differently next time.”
While you mean to convey love, the child receives a message of incompetence. Over time, as the child grows, they turn into an adult that needs approval for every action taken. An adult incapable of starting things because they might fail, or an adult who expects others to do the heavy lifting for them. An adult who is not prepared to exist outside of the family bubble. We have all met or worked with someone like this, who needs extra hand holding or who does not seem to know “common sense” things.
We might have even experienced some of this in our own lives. When I went to college at 18, I had never washed a load of laundry. The dorm machines were a complete mystery to me. There were some sacrifices made to the laundry gods before I learned to use cold water if I am too lazy to sort by color. My mom showed her love by washing my clothes, but it made for some difficult moments. It took me a long time to understand my clothes were still wet because I was overstuffing the dryer, and it was not actually broken. (Looking back on it, I am impressed by those workhorse washer and dryers. I am also grateful to the people in resident life who hang up signs explaining laundry basics!)
One way parents try to combat a lack of competence is by verbally saying, “You can do it!” They think this verbal encouragement will be enough. If the baby is taking steps but you are already there to catch them before they fall, the words will not make up for that. If your child is holding the spoon but you have your hand under it to catch the mess, the words are just confusing. Words alone are not enough to build confidence. They notice that you are poised to save them, and that sends a much stronger message. Our words and our actions need to match.
Building their belief in their own capability will only come from experiences. They need to hold the bottle, drop it, and hold it again. They need to experience getting a mouthful of food off their own spoon, which might not happen until most of it has fallen to the floor. They need to crawl/walk/stand at their own pace, knowing we are waiting patiently because we believe they can do it.
Children who feel that confidence also feel loved. They feel like their caregivers see them for who they really are, recognize their abilities, and that they have people who believe in them. We want to build competent adults, and that starts with children who believe in their own capability.
Spend a little time reflecting on what you like to do for your child, why those are the things you feel you need to do, and consider the messages you want to send. Is it the message they are receiving? Where can you build your child’s perception of their competence? How much should you do for your children?