I’ll admit with some embarrassment that my forte does not lie in solving practical household issues, like (in this week alone) the gate that isn’t closing properly, the toilet that won’t flush and yes ok… even, the bulb that has blown. I do not come from a long or even a short line of do-it-yourself –fix-it-up types. We are more of the “call-someone- in type”. When I was 12 and came home from school to find a big scary spider having taken up residence in our bathroom, I called my mother at work to solve this problem for me. In response to this hairy situation, she responded, “I don’t know what to do about it, call the police.” Which I promptly did! Believe it or not, a policeman came in a police-van and took that intruder away. (The policeman in an example of super-efficient service delivery even called later to report that it was a Baboon Spider and he had released it back into the wild). So, when our nanny, housekeeper and household problem-solver extraordinaire called me at work to say she was locked out of the house in spite of having her keys with her, I could feel my body tense in that way that happens when you know you are not in your zone, when you know this kind of problem simply is not your forte.
When I got home I did what I could i.e. tried my key in the door and then shouted a few expletives at the door and then I changed tack. I called my husband at work to tell him that I was going to call a locksmith to solve the problem. Now this kind of thing is more his portfolio and he comes from a long line of fix it up chappies and his default is not to call someone in “No, no” he replied “don’t be ridiculous, the door has double latched, get one of the kids to climb through one of the windows and open the door.” To which I replied “Don’t be ridiculous, I am not dragging one of our children out of school to break into our house!” I put down the phone and shouted a few expletives at the phone (not my husband of course) and promptly got in the car to fetch my 6 year old from his Grade R classroom 5 minutes from home. I needed this problem solved and I needed it solved quickly. I found my son drawing a picture, blissfully unaware of the impending housebreaking job. His teacher seemed pretty un-phased by my, “Really sorry to disturb but I need to borrow my son to break into our house for me.” He took to the mission with absolute gusto, delighting in the fact that there were no easy access windows open and he would have to climb through the burglar bars of a semi-dangerously high window. He completed the mission with aplomb and managed to manoeuvre the locks to open the doors. That kid went back to school (10 minutes later) a hero! He had saved the day. Of course he loved the physical element of it all but I can tell you his face was aglow with knowing that we fully appreciated that he had helped out, he had solved the problem.
Bearing in mind that I am not in the business of facilitating housebreaking skills training, the whole experience got me thinking about what exactly happened for my 6 year old and just how beneficial (beyond the fact that we could access our home) this experience was for him.
- “I can do it” – engendering a sense of competence
If I knew that my son was afraid of heights, climbing or had difficulty with the fine motor action of having to turn the lock, this story could have ended badly. Instead I knew that these were things that would delight rather than deter and I was not setting him up for disaster (ok there was a bit of a social services height of window worry but we were well positioned as a safety net). He was capable of sorting this out and he was able to follow through and that felt great for him.
- “I’m part of the world and I can make an impact”- encouraging contribution
Gloria De Gaetano discusses in her insightful book Parenting Well in a Media Age, how children through increasingly passively watching TV or playing on digital devices run the risk of losing touch with their role as contributors in the world. De Gaetano comments, “They become increasingly distanced from their real human need to participate in life and contribute to it.” He was able to affect change. We were locked out and once he did his daredevil moves, we were no longer locked out. He made that happen.
Let’s not kid my example of my 6 year old “break-in” does lean towards the more extreme sport side of options available to us in terms of building competence and making sure our kids feel like they are active contributors in the world. It’s in the everyday stuff that they can learn that they are competent and that they are contributing to the greater good. Here are a few examples that come to mind:
- Helping to set the table
- Packing their own sports/ballet bag for extra murals
- Taking their lunchboxes out of their bags after school
- Feeding/cleaning up after the family pets
- Helping with cooking
- Helping to tidy their rooms
Things to remember in aspiring to build competence and a sense of contribution:
- Sustainability vs the one off thrill
We have all seen that wonderful look of accomplishment and pride the first time our kids did a task “all by myself.” In reality the novelty wears off quickly and what once brought them joy and a feeling of achievement now becomes a drag to them and a source of nagging for us. We need to soldier on because from that initial sense of competence, they still need to understand that they are part of something bigger than just themselves and they are helping out even after the thrill has gone.
- “I’m doing it for the cash”
In our house the children help out because they just love the feeling it gives them all the time. Ha ha imagine that! Yes sometimes they do get a sense of pride and it feels good but most of the time that’s so far from the reality. Pocket money is a whole other discussion but we need to be careful of giving cash for contributions. In our house, we do give pocket money and part of the deal is that my 9 year old son has to pick up the dog poo. That doesn’t mean that every time we ask him to do something else, he gets cash (rest assured he often tries his luck on this front.)
- Not proposing the 1 year old Master Chef here
It’s important to ensure age and skill appropriate tasks for our children. A one year old can be encouraged to clean up after playing but is obviously not to be seen brandishing a wooden spoon over an open flame. It is good sometimes to shift kids out of their comfort zone and challenge them a little but remember give them things that they are capable of doing.
- Of course we can do it quicker and better (for now)
Not to blow my own trumpet and all but most days I can crack an egg more efficiently than my 6 year old and I can pack my 9 year olds soccer bag quicker than he can. I do not coat this in fluff at all, it can be so frustrating and it would often be much easier to just take the plate to the kitchen or pick up the soccer cards myself… Thing is, if I don’t give them the opportunity to do it, to make mistakes, how will they ever learn to do this stuff on their own?
I can only hope that the enduring memory of the whole experience for my son was that it felt great to be the person who competently helped out and solved a problem and NOT that it is better to stand up and go feet first rather than head first when climbing through the burglar bars when breaking into a house. Here’s hoping!