Thursday, August 22, 2019

Helping Children

He had learned to climb to the top of the concrete slide earlier that day. Unable to ascend the face of it directly because it was too steep and slippery with sand, he had discovered a shorter span of concrete off to the side that he could manage, albeit with much effort. After proving himself a handful of times, he had the idea of taking a truck to the top of the concrete slide with him. He had needed both hands and both feet to make the ascent on his previous attempts and the challenge of occupying one of his hands with the truck was a trick one step removed from his capabilities.

I was forming this opinion from a position of about three feet away, perched amongst the lilac roots that stand at the top of the concrete slide. I could have helped him. Indeed, I considered it, either bodily or with unsolicited advice, but fought back the urge. He was repeatedly climbing a few inches, putting every ounce of himself into the effort, only to slide back down, truck and all. Eventually, he gave up, never once even looking in my direction.

It's hard to not help children when they are struggling, either physically, as with this boy, or emotionally. We are, as adults, inclined by both nature and nurture to help the children in our lives, but at the same time, we want them to experience the satisfaction that comes with doing things for themselves. We want them to grow into self-sufficient, independent, confident people, something that only comes through practice and struggle.

I think it's easier to find the line when it comes to physical challenges, like the one this boy set for himself. Even if he had asked for help, I'd have likely said something like, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt," or perhaps remarked on his efforts so far, "You're working very hard right now." Maybe, depending on the circumstances, I might have offered a tip, like, "I'll bet you can do it if you don't take the truck," or pointed out that some kids have found an easier route that involves going the long way around. One thing I avoid, both as a teacher and in life, is to offer unsolicited help or advice.

The line is blurrier when a child his struggling emotionally. The instinct of many people, I've noticed, is to simply swoop in and pick them up, which is, I think quite often a version of offering unsolicited help. I always ask a child if they want me to hold them or take them on my lap, and I've found that I'm rejected more often than not, so I simply tell them "I'll stay close to you while you're sad/angry/frustrated." Adults likewise indulge in the urge to begin suggesting things that we think might "help," like eating a snack or getting involved with some activity or going to a quieter place, all of which might be valid ideas, but also fall into the category of unsolicited advice. It's easy to forget that it's not our job to end their struggle: it's our job to be available to help them through it, and ultimately only the person experiencing the emotion can determine what kind of help, if any, they need. That's the path to self-sufficiency.

Finding these lines is one of the most important things we do we do as adults in the lives of children. We do it most accurately when we allow the children themselves to show us where those lines are. And for any parents reading here, the line will be in a different place with you than with, say, their teacher. I can't tell you how many children need mommy with them as they go to the toilet, for instance, but don't need any adult help at all when mommy isn't there.

John Holt wrote, "We cannot assume, just because we hear someone say, "I am doing this to help you," that what he does will be good." And what good help means can only be determined by the person being helped.

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