Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed

I observed a two year old today (2yrs and 2 months to be exact). He was playing with some manipulatives in a corner of a public office. His mum, myself, other adults and another child about his age were present but everyone was doing their own thing.
He played for a while with the first set of manipulatives and as he played, a few pieces fell off the table but no one said anything. When he was done, he picked up the pieces on the table, put them back into the container and took the container back to the shelf. He had not picked up the pieces on the floor…
At the shelf, he struggled with putting the container back because it had these rails you have to match the containers to. He struggled for a while, but none of the adults tried to help. We (his mum and I at least) just watched him. He finally got it on the shelf but not in the “correct” way at least not the way the manufacturer intended.
He then took another container with a different but similar kind of manipulatives and went back to the table to play with them. Once again, he finished, packed up, and went through the same process of getting the container into the shelf… he struggled for a while but finally got it in his own way. As he walked back to the table, this time without any container, he realized some of the manipulatives were on the floor. He proceeded to pick them, separate them and put them into the right containers. When he was done, he moved on to play with the other child. It was awesome to watch!

What was so interesting about this episode or why am I even writing about it?

It was interesting to me because it clearly illustrated several ideas I have learnt about since encountering Montessori.
1. Never help a child with a task at which he thinks he can succeed himself
2. Do not interrupt a child when he is concentrating
3. Praise is not always necessary especially when the child is doing what he is supposed to be doing. His satisfaction should come from inside. From knowing that he did what he was supposed to do.

There are so many things that could have made this episode go differently and which would have made it so much less remarkable.

When he was playing and the pieces fell of the table, someone could have interrupted his concentration and told him not to make a mess, or to pick up the pieces and “be careful”. Especially since it was a common area and had a lot of people in it. What would have been the motivation for this? I can think of one. His mum might have wanted to give a good impression. “I bring my son up well and he does not make a mess so I correct him immediately”. Never mind that he was not disturbing anyone and it is normal for things to drop sometimes. But she left him and he figured it out and cleaned up after himself.

Someone could have helped him when he was struggling with putting the container back on the shelf. No one did and he not only figured out another way to get the container on the shelf (innovation), but his confidence (I assume) also got a boost. He learnt that he was capable of finding a solution and things might not always be easy but they work out in the end. These are opportunities to learn life lessons that we often unknowingly deprive children of when we are quick to interrupt, quick to help, or quick to correct.

Finally, when he was done, no one said “Good Job!” or “Good Boy!” It was business as usual. He knew he had done what he was supposed to. When you play, you clean up after you and if it is a shared play area, you keep the materials ready for the next person. What a wonderful thing to know at two!

I now wish I had taken pictures or videoed it but then I might have interrupted the natural flow that occurred. Hopefully you get the idea. I’ll just quickly recap the lessons that can be learnt from my long story.

• It’s never too early to teach a child social responsibility. When you play or work with something, put it back when you are done.
• When your child is concentrating, yes even concentrating on play, try not to interrupt.
• Let go of perfection. They may not do things the exact way you envision it but let the effort and their result count.
• Trust in your child’s abilities. It takes trust not to want to correct or tell him what to do or not do while he is in the moment.
• Good Job! or similar praise is unnecessary and cause the child to only do things to please you instead of because they know it is right. It can also be a distraction which interrupts the child’s flow.

I have to mention that if at anytime he was putting himself or someone else at danger, or doing something that negatively affected others (e.g. throwing the pieces), then he should definitely be stopped. In every situation, it is important to stand back and observe before reacting.

I’m sure there are other lessons which I did not notice or failed to point out, so please contribute to the conversation! What are your thoughts?

I have missed this space and I have a lot in the works for Nduoma.com so please bear with me as I organize and prepare.

Live a Good Life!

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8 thoughts on “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed

    1. Nice one,this write up goes a long way for every parent to give a child a chance to be helpfull .

  1. My son is only 9months and I praise him for everything! Is that bad!? Praises; ‘Good Boy’ `well done` and even clap for hm at times lol! He loves it!

    I totally agree with allowing the child to explore and achieve without interruptions! Its something I’ve been singing to my son’s nanny when she’s been over protective etc! Its the only way he can learn etc! Nice post!
    Ps: we are trying to bear with you small :-))

    1. Hi Chika,

      I wouldn’t say it’s bad, I would just say it is overused, unnecessary most of the time, and can have long lasting negative effects. I actually had a conversation about this topic recently. The child just started sitting and the parents were very excited and kept saying “good girl!”. I asked if the child would be be “bad girl” if she had not been sitting?

      I don’t think a person’s (especially a child) character (good or bad) is defined by what they are able or unable to do especially in one instance. You do something right or wrong once and you become good or bad. so in general, I am not a fan of labeling children good or bad because of something they do.

      My assumption is that a lot of parents use praise to build the child’s confidence but I think a better way to build confidence is to trust their abilities and give them opportunities to exert their independence. I think that is real confidence. Confidence that comes from knowing they are capable as opposed to confidence that is dependent on what someone else says.

      What happens when you are not there to clap or say “Good Job!”? Would he get less joy from his accomplishment because no one is there to praise him? What if he tries really hard at something but does not succeed, do you praise him less? What of a situation where multiple children are involved, how does one manage the praising so that one child doesn’t feel inferior to the other one?

      A lot of questions to ask and think about, but based on my personal experience growing up and research I have read, I think it is important to find balance and not raise children who are only confident when we are around to praise them. Even better to allow children get their satisfaction from inside and save the praise for when the child really needs encouragement and for true achievements.

      I think if you watch, you’ll see he’ll be happy regardless of if you offer praise or not. He’ll only start missing it when he has been programmed to expect it.

      I would love to hear other thoughts and hope others contribute to the conversation!

      Thanks as usual for your comment and contribution. Please keep bearing 🙂

      Live a Good Life!

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