I’m in the happy situation of currently reading aloud to my children two of my all-time favorite books – the Little House on the Prairie series, and Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield. A couple of days ago when I read one of the chapters, it struck me how similar some of the underlying messages of the books are.
Yesterday a reporter emailed me some questions to flesh out an interview for a magazine I had done with her about homeschooling, a week after Yirmiyahu was born. Insightful and valuable as her questions are, I won’t have time to respond in detail to them, but they really underscore the same indirect underlying message of the two chapters that I wanted to share with you. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I received the questions that relate to the topic I was planning to post about today! The questions were, how do you go about:
1) developing a sense of personal responsibility in children
2) developing a child’s natural curiosity and love of learning
3) instilling in the child a confidence in his unique abilities
In the second chapter of Understood Betsy, a young girl of nine is moving from her home where she has been extremely coddled and overprotected to living with her relatives who value independence and hard work. In her very first interaction with them, she’s handed the reins to the horses and told to go ahead and drive home. City girl that she is, she has no clue how to handle them. But since her uncle who is with her is seemingly unaware of her inability to drive the wagon and busies himself with something else, she has no choice but to try. And after a bit, she figures out what to do.
This happens again and again throughout the book, that she’s given opportunities to do age appropriate activities on her own or with strategic guidance from adults, and it’s fascinating to watch the transformation of an insecure, dependent, incompetent little girl into someone who thinks for herself and trusts in her ability to find solutions and get things done.
Similarly, in Farmer Boy (third book in Little House series), Almanzo is given a yoke for a calf for his tenth birthday. His father leaves him with two young calves and tells him he’s sure he’ll figure out how to train them using his new yoke. Initially, Almanzo is mystified about how to go about this but through trial and error, he figures it out.
Both children experience tremendous pride in themselves when they figure out on their own what they needed to do. What was it that the adults around them did that led them to their discoveries, to building their sense of responsibility, competence, and confidence?
1) Firstly, loving adults in their lives knew what the task required and knew it was within the abilities of the children. It’s important to give children opportunities to stretch themselves, but not to give them something so impossibly difficult that they’ll give up in despair. And it’s also important not to give them something so easy that their abilities aren’t respected or recognized. (To clarify, I’m talking about when giving over jobs for the sake of building character. Sometimes a job needs to be done and even if it’s boring or repetitive for a child – eg sweeping the floor, washing dishes – that’s okay. But you wouldn’t want all of the tasks you give your child to fall into this category.)
2) The tasks the children were given were real and meaningful. No one finds busywork satisfying, and children can quickly recognize when they’re doing something of inherent value and when they’re having something fobbed off on them to keep them busy. They got built-in feedback about what they were doing was working or not (the animals didn’t go where they were supposed to go or do what they were supposed to do).
3) Lastly, the adults didn’t hover around, giving suggestions or giving the message that they as adults knew what to do and how to do it. They gave the children the clear message that they trusted them to figure out something new, and gave them plenty of time and space to work it out. They didn’t within five or fifteen minutes return and start questioning if the children needed adult assistance or tell them the best way to get the job done. They stayed out of the way.
This is a hard thing to do, particularly in this day and age. We want so much to be helpful and encouraging that we easily co-opt the responsibility for the task by being overly involved. The reality is, however, that only one person can accept responsibility for something at a time. If your child knows that you’re still taking responsibility for the job you gave him, he’s not going to accept the responsibility for himself. So sometimes we need to let go, to learn to sit on our hands or bite our lips or whatever we need to go to stay out of the way and let real life learning happen.
I think all of this is very relevant to modern day parents, though most of us don’t drive wagons or have farm animals that need training! And it’s also very relevant to the questions I was asked above about homeschooling. Whether it’s regarding day to day chores around the house, homeschooling, or any other area that we want to encourage our children to develop healthy independence, we need to give our children opportunities that will stretch them, the opportunities should be meaningful, and we need to let them have responsibility for the success of the experience.
This isn’t just for little children! As a parent of children ranging up to age nineteen, I continue to remind myself of these principles and come back to them in a variety of different circumstances.