#65: Over Functioning
At the closing ceremony of Woodbadge training in Scouts Canada many years ago, one of our trainers - Troop Scouter Gordon Innes - offered the finest advice I have ever received regarding the development of children; “Pay your Scouts the courtesy of allowing them to make their own mistakes.”
Following this advice, our Scouts were encouraged to think and experiment by being given only the basic information on how to complete a task - such as cooking a meal - and we watched Leaders of other Troops using a hand-over-hand, step-by-step instruction approach. It became apparent which was more effective as the year progressed; the Scouts in our Troop became ‘bush gourmets’ and regularly turned out creative complex meals, while the Scouters who employed the hand-over-hand/step-by-step method grew frustrated as their lessons didn’t seem to sink in.
I applied this even when teaching Cub aged children how to build and light a campfire. They were given three pieces of information;
- Fire requires fuel, oxygen, and heat
- Little things burn easier than big things
- Heat goes up
I then pointed out piles of paper, twigs, and sticks and handed each Cub two matches and told them to go build their fires. In 12 years of instructing campfire safety I never had a Cub ask for a third match. This minimal teaching method only provided the basic information and resources, it was up to the children to transform those into action; they had to think and experiment to be successful.
Our temptation to over function for children is driven by myriad personal motives; we may be impatient for them to learn; we may want to spare the child frustration; we may want the job done a specific way; we may have a desire to feel needed by our children and we may mistake it for helpfulness. We have to differentiate between teaching a child and over functioning for them.
Experiencing failure, disappointment, or discomfort after making mistakes are essential life experiences that motivate children to experiment and develop new skills. To be rescued after each failure breeds learned helplessness in a child, but children who fail and are encouraged by their parent or teacher to try again fare far better in life and improve their self-esteem.
I often give Babe Ruth’s baseball career as an example; During his career, Babe Ruth batted a record 714 home runs, but what many don’t know is that he also set a record by being struck out 1,330 times. Babe Ruth never gave up, after each failure he returned to the dugout, regrouped, and waited for his next opportunity.
Over functioning for children not only instills that learned helplessness and contributes to low self-esteem, it also lays the foundation for future power struggles. A parent who helps a young child too much with their homework in their primary years can expect power struggles from that child when they are in their teens through procrastination and resistance.
A colleague once had nightly power struggles with her sons over their bedtime. She decided to hand all the responsibility to them and told them they could choose when to go to bed on their own. Their first choices with this new found freedom was to stay up late, but the immediate result was feeling miserable the next day, missing school, getting lower grades, and no longer enjoying their preferred activities. My colleague offered no comment or judgment on their choices resulting in these obvious outcomes - she remained silent and let the lessons kick in. In the end, all three boys started going to bed earlier than their previously imposed bedtimes.
If a child forgets her homework, coat, or lunch when leaving for school and the parent brings the missing item to school for them they are denying the child the opportunity to learn. Getting marks deducted for late homework, being cold during recess, or missing a meal are not life altering experiences, but will provide the child motivation to learn time management, responsibility, and self discipline.
My advice to parents and teachers is this;
- Ask yourself why you are performing a function for a child; in other words -whose needs are being met?
- Assess if the child is capable of doing this for themselves; if so; teach them how
- Ask what would happen if you didn’t do it for them; will it only result in the learning experiences of failure, disappointment, and discomfort?
- Create a milieu where failure is a shameless part of life; a way to learn and overcome - we all fail and by failing we learn to adapt and improve
Children have insatiable appetites for exploration, knowledge, and mastering new skills, we just have to get out of their way while loving and encouraging them as they fail and learn and succeed.