The Myth of the Magic Autonomous Age

Written by Emily Bartnikowski on July 26th, 2012

Natural Learning

Marlin: How do you know if they’re ready?

Crush: Well, you never really know, but when they know, you know, y’know?

— Finding Nemo

assembly line for pitting cherries

An assembly line for pitting cherries: he de-stems, I de-pit.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a post from a moms group I follow on facebook that mentioned having real power tools in their child’s playroom. The child in question was 4 or 5 and the mom is well-known for being hands-on and teaching the proper way to safely use everything. I’m not sure what the tools consisted of, but I know none of them were saws. The response from commenters ranged from approval to condemnation (with a few threats to contact CPS thrown in for good measure). Because I approve of the use of real power tools over molded plastic ones (maybe not in the playroom, but our house isn’t set up for such things), I asked another group of moms what their opinion was. While there were no CPS threats at the idea, there was a response that said NO age was appropriate for a child to use power tools and the ages listed went up to 15. As though the day her child turned 16, he would magically know how to use a cordless drill.

first attempt with scissors

A first attempt with scissors; ten fingers remain unharmed.

While the appropriateness of power tools is an extreme example, I have noticed this “not old enough” mentality applied to everything from 13-year-olds babysitting younger siblings to toddlers being able to put away their toys (it can be done, as Meg at SewLiberated shows us). Parents are being told to expect (and in some cases, push) their babies to behave like adults by meeting milestones such as sleeping through the night, weaning, walking, talking, reading, etc., earlier than is sometimes appropriate for their child … at the same time they are being told to coddle their children, not to trust their instincts, and to behave as if — at any moment and based solely on their age — disaster may befall them.

This is clearly a cultural issue: In France (as I recently discovered while reading Bringing Up Bébé), it is customary to send 6-year-old children on week-long class trips. The parents bid their children au revoir; anyone who has reservations about the trip is given the side-eye and scoffed at for being over-protective. This isn’t a case of French children being “better” or French parents being “reckless” or “detached.” What it illustrates in a very concise way is that the French spend the first five years of the child’s life building up to that trip. The parents, teachers, caregivers, and the rest of the proverbial village all encourage appropriate levels of instruction and autonomy for each child’s personal development, so when the child shows readiness the adults can respond accordingly to foster that growth. Montessori has a similar approach, particularly where practical life is concerned: Proper instruction early on, coupled with a keen eye on the readiness of the child afford the child the confidence to accomplish the tasks set before him.

Stirring cookie dough

Stirring cookie dough. (Yes, the stove is on.)

So now you’re thinking, “Well, I obviously want my child to be as competent as possible, so what do I do?”

Step One: Trust your intuition.

Stop assuming your child can’t do something. Obviously, it is safe to assume that a newborn can’t walk, but assuming that your 22-month-old can’t help pick up blocks or drink from a “real” glass will only delay the time when she can do these things. Instead, take a moment to prepare the environment for ease of access by your child, teach proper approaches, and encourage your child to ask (or sign) for help when necessary.

Step Two: Follow your child.

Watch her for cues that she’s ready for the next challenge. If she’s showing interest in what you’re doing, give her a part of the task to help with. Making a salad? She can help tear lettuce or mix dressing. Scrapbooking? Give her glue and scrap papers. Rock climbing? Rent some tiny shoes and spot her while she discovers the joy of bouldering. There’s no law that says once you offer the opportunity you can’t continue to assist, but you’ll be amazed at what the offered opportunity reveals — it could be a child who is developing the fine motor skills necessary for wielding an allen wrench and helping you assemble that IKEA furniture you’ve been ignoring.

Step Three: Once you have established mastery of a skill, the only thing to do is back off.

To quote Maria Montessori: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” This is where you’ll be glad you taught your child to ask for help. Like I said before — you can always aid your child in any task he needs help with … the key is let the child vocalize the need. Sure, it might take twice as long to wait for a three-year-old to put on his own shoes, but take a moment and consider how you would feel if you were seconds away from mastering a task only to have someone cut you off and complete it for you, without so much as an “if you don’t mind….” If it looks like a struggle is happening and frustration is rounding the corner, offer a hand and respect the response. Sometimes just knowing you’re willing to help but waiting for him to ask is all it takes to get over the hurdle.

22mo v.o.

A 22-month-old's first attempt at a V.0.

Step Four: Be brave and allow small accidents.

How will children learn to temper their actions if they never feel the consequences? An anecdote shared by Matthew Amster-Burton in Hungry Monkey (an excellent book) involves his then 3- or 4-year-old daughter and her new electric skillet. Amster-Burton is a food writer and involved his daughter in their daily cooking from the moment she could sit upright, so getting her an electric skillet when she showed readiness was a no-brainer for them. He expresses relief that on one of her early attempts to cook with it, she gets a little overzealous and burns her arm. The burn is minor, but the effects are monumental: She now knows that if she’s not careful with the skillet, she will hurt herself. She goes on to become quite proficient at scrambling eggs. This same attitude can be used for scissors, knives, running, playing with cats, climbing walls, riding bikes — the list is truly endless. No parents want their child to be injured, but the answer isn’t restriction from activities: It is taking the time to teach the correct approach and safety measures.

So allow yourself and your children the space to breathe and embark on adventures large and small — they may surprise you.

Further reading:


About The Author: Emily Bartnikowski

Emily B emmieb My NPN Posts

Emily is a wife, mother, photographer, and aspiring novelist. She blogs about parenting and life at Embrita Blogging.

13 Responses to The Myth of the Magic Autonomous Age

  1. Lauren  

    I so agree with you, Emily. I got a comment on one of my posts that I should be worried about CPS since I let our toddler experiment with real scissors, with our supervision. Um … yeah. How else do kids learn competence? And, anyway, the real things are so much more interesting and useful than the toys; no wonder they want them. Dull kid scissors can’t cut things!

    I’m very concerned with safety, but I think safety is learned and modeled and ties in with experience. They’re not magically going to know how to be safe with things at 12 or whenever if they’ve never been able to touch or observe them before then.

  2. Amy @ You Shall Go Out with Joy

    Fantastic post with so much to think about. It’s so easy to just get in the habit of always doing something for my son, I need to remember to let / encourage him do things himself sometimes!

  3. Rebekah  

    This is such an *awesome* article. I really needed to read this too. Great encouragement. Thank you!

  4. Wendylori

    Great article! I really agree that it’s important to watch for a kids readiness signs, since they are all so developmentally unique. We have really enjoyed allowing our 4 year old to play “real” musical instruments and how to properly handle them, and it’s amazing how much more he enjoys this compared to the plastic imitations.

  5. Sheila  

    I read a New Yorker article just the other day called “Why are American kids so spoiled?” I was thinking it would harp on how we love them too much. Instead it talked about how American children can’t tie their shoes, can’t go anywhere on their own, can’t do their homework without help … and I thought, that’s not spoiling, that’s failing to *teach.* You don’t get an independent child just by refusing to tie her shoes. You have to TAKE THE TIME to teach her to tie them … and TAKE THE TIME to let her tie them each time. Naturally American kids never learn to tie their shoes if every time they try, in swoops Mom saying “Come on, we’re in a hurry, I’ll just tie them for you.” Step by step, we teach our children to be ready to do things on their own — and because we’ve been with them the whole way, we can tell when they’re ready.

  6. joy

    Great thoughts! When we have a group of experts telling us what to do for every little child rearing decision we tend to turn and micromanage the kids hoovering over rather than allowing some natural just figuring it out to take place…

  7. Melissa P  

    So true! One of my children had real non-power tools in her pre-k..hammer, nails, screwdrivers and screws. It was fine bc there were adults nearby to help and observe. As the children grew and learned, they were able to have less supervision and instruction. I would have preferred they do this with me present rather than the teacher and tons of other kids BUT I was working then so what can you do? We do go to the Home Depot kids clinics with my 2 yr old and my older girls so I guess all is well. My girls were just helping me put together a bookshelf today , again no power tools but we used hammer, nails and screwdriver. They did great and are 7 and 9 yrs old. We just need to know about our kids. They all develop differently and will at times need us and at times be fine without us. PS I am hoping to afford some new tools like a drill and saw so we can ALL get our hands dirty and build some cool stuff!

    • Emily Bartnikowski  

      Ohhh -I’d forgotten about the Home Depot workshops! I need to add those to my list of summer activities! Thanks!

      And I’m so glad your girls feel confident and capable – next thing you know, they’ll be building treehouses 😉