The other night we were getting ready for some company and the floor was dirty. With three children going in and out of the back yard all day there tends to be a lot of sand on the floor, not to mention crumbs from W’s highchair, scraps of paper from school, and all of the other “mess” that means we live here!
Anyway W was fussy so I was rocking him and Su was sitting since she was in a pestering mood(yup, we’re at that stage right now..) and kept aggravating her brothers every time I let her up! So I asked F to clean up the toys so I could vacuum.
“Mama,” he said,” I can vacuum.”
“Can you?” I usually sweep and mop, so he’s only ever seen me vacuum twice, and our vacuum is an older model and heavy.
“Yup!,” he said” I know how to get it out and vacuum.”
Now at this point I had a choice. I could allow him to vacuum knowing that he might not really know how to do it and that he probably wouldn’t do as good a job as I would or I could let him try, do some coaching from the sidelines and encourage his willingness to try to help (initiative).
One of the goals that we have a mothers, fathers and teachers is to teach, train and encourage our children into becoming proactive people. We want them to become the kind of adults who will look around them and take action in serving the needs of their own families and communities. We need to make sure that we are encouraging them to be proactive now, rather than imagining that they will suddenly bloom in this department when they hit their teens.
It’s hard, especially with preschoolers, to allow them to try to do the helpful things they think of. They are often too young to really accomplish the thing they desire, or even to always understand what is truly helpful and contributive. Thus W at 16 months knows that some things get cleared off of the table into the trash, and since he loves any excuse to touch the trash can is happy to help clear the table…BUT…he doesn’t understand that paper napkins get thrown out and silverware gets washed so he has to be coached carefully!
When F was a baby S decided that I should make sure that whatever he did to “help” was contributive in some way even if it was very small. If I was washing dishes and he wanted to be at the sink he should not just play in the rinse water but put the silverware in the drainer. This of course required lots of coaching but I think it was wise. The children know that their efforts are a true help and as they grow older they are starting to look around them and take care of things without being told.
Here are a few tips for fostering initiative (I am writing with preschoolers in mind but these will apply to older children somewhat as well):
1. Do- work with the children rather than assign jobs while you do other work. If you are doing laundry they should collect the dirty stuff while you load the machine, or distribute the folded things while you fold.
2. Do- explain (over and over) what is helpful and what isn’t. They don’t know and they don’t know why some things fit into the “not helpful” category. I often tell them to think about whether their actions have produced more or less work.
3. Do- encourage them in their work by mentioning that the things they are doing are done well, thoroughly or efficiently. Do “promote” them from easier jobs to harder ones. F has now been promoted to vacuuming, while Su has been promoted to his job of dishwasher clearing (she had only been putting away silverware).
4. Do- let them try while you coach from the sidelines. Encourage them to improve on their last performance. Point out better ways of doing things, but be prepared to let them try their way and succeed or fail as necessary.
5. Don’t-say, “You’re too little.” They may be too little to do the job well alone, but there are few things that they can’t assist with. Obviously the use of tools needs to be tailored to their abilities, but if they are too young to use a sharp tool explain why and when they will be big enough.
6. Don’t – criticize valiant effort. Children often know quite well that their work is not as good as yours. Point out areas for improvement kindly and work with them to finish the job properly.
7. Don’t – expect them to work as long or with as much focus as you do. That is a skill you must train and teach as they grow and develop more capability.
8. Don’t- allow bad attitudes or have one yourself. Good workers are cheerful contributors, so when there are bad attitudes evaluate. Make sure you are setting a good example, and make sure that you are not frustrating them by setting tasks beyond their capabilities.
Above all keep your mind and heart on the goal and enjoy your children and their developing initiative!