The Myth of the Magic Autonomous Age
Marlin: How do you know if they’re ready?
Crush: Well, you never really know, but when they know, you know, y’know?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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