Friday, August 23, 2019

More Thoughts On Helping Children

Yesterday, a girl got stuck. I don't mean literally, but rather metaphorically. When her mother left her in the morning she began to shadow me, which is a common enough thing. I often wear a skirt of a half dozen kids or more during the first few weeks of school; I'm honored they allow me to be their comfort adult. When we got to the area near the cast iron pump, we decided we would sit on the ground together and watch the action. After a bit, I was needed elsewhere so I told her, "I'm going to the snack table. Do you want to come with me?" She replied, "No," she would stay right here, so I went about my business.

I left her in the midst of quite a bit of action, with children pumping water into a large tub, then working together to dump it down the hill in a game they've come to call "major overflow." Later, I spied her in the same spot, although now she was sitting all alone. Some time later she was still there in the same spot, just sitting, not apparently doing anything. She didn't appear upset. When she was still there after another spell had passed, still alone, still not doing anything, I checked in with her. She still seemed okay, but she had been sitting there for a long time, unsmiling and unengaged, so I said, "I'm going to the workbench. Do you want to come with me?" She answered, "Yes," took my hand, smiled in a way that I took as a "thank you" and together we walked down the hill.

In yesterday's post, I cautioned about our adult tendency to offer children, however well-intended, unsolicited advice and help, how this very often impedes or even prevents children from figuring out how to do things on their own. But there is a flip-side, I think, as well. Every one of us at one time or another needs the help of our fellow humans. As Yuval Noah Harari convincingly argues in his book Sapiens, our single greatest adaptive advantage as a species is our ability to act collectively, to cooperate, and helping one another stands at the center of that. It's a fine line we walk, then, between helping and not helping. Likewise, it's an equally fine line between doing it for ourselves and asking for help.

As a society, we value independence, while casting dependence as a sign of immaturity or weakness. It causes people to feel ashamed, for instance, to admit they've sought the help of mental health professionals. We even worry or joke that as parents we're going to be the reason our children will one day need therapy, as if knowing when and how to ask for help is not a sign of wisdom. For many of us, there is a stigma attached, especially as adults, to needing the help or advice of our fellow humans causing us to put on a brave face, to insist everything is perfectly fine, even to the point of self-deception, and all to avoid being thought too needy or incompetent or, again, weak.

I'll never know for certain, but it seemed that the girl needed my help to move on, to become unstuck. I'd given her the time and space to exercise her independence, but, at least on this day, it appeared she was incapable of doing it on her own so I offered my help and she accepted. We want them to be independent, to feel masterful in their lives, competent, but at the same time, we also want them to know when and how to ask for help. Mostly, we do that by role modeling it, by asking for help ourselves, but I hope that yesterday I showed the girl that the world is full of willing helpers and that there is no shame in accepting help when you need it.

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