If you think back to when you were a child, I’ll bet you can remember an adult (parent, teacher, babysitter, etc.) telling you to do things that you do willingly now. The first examples from my life that come to mind are hygienic behaviors like washing my hands after I used the bathroom or brushing my teeth in the morning and at night. I don’t think I’m alone in the fact that there was a point when I would not wash my hands at all and then, when I graduated to doing so, it was with just water. I hope it goes without saying—but just in case, I’ll be explicit—I now always wash my hands with soap after using the bathroom and many times in between. I also need no prompting to brush my teeth anymore. In fact, I have an electric toothbrush that I love. I really like how it buzzes every thirty-seconds so I know my progress towards getting to the two-minutes before it automatically stops. I actually not only want to do these behaviors now, I would be very upset if I was told I couldn’t do them anymore.
There are, of course, other examples of behaviors that are good for you that you have to learn with time. Thankfully, I can’t remember the last time someone needed to remind me to get my work done or clean my room or put away my laundry. I always get my oil changed on time. I put my dishes in the dishwasher when I am done with them. It’s not that I was always the poster-child for responsibility; these are learned behaviors because as I have grown and developed, so has my understanding for why these behaviors matter.
This evolution of self-awareness and self-discipline gives me hope. I am an educator and a parent, after all, who lives and works with children. It’s rare (maybe even as rare as spotting a yeti in the wild) to come across a child who not only complies with the expectations of being responsible, but also one who does so with purposeful awareness of why these behaviors are important. I can’t speak for the children in your life, but when I think about mine, I’d literally tell them to let me smell their hands so I could smell the soap after they claimed to have washed them. I touch the bristles of toothbrushes to see if they’re wet. I sound like a song on repeat with responsibility reminders like, “Don’t leave the dishes in the sink” or “What did you read today?”
If this sounds even a little familiar to you as an adult, let’s not forget that you were once a child who needed all of these prompts (or at least ones like them) to allow you to become the fully functioning adult you are today. Moreover, even as an adult, there are behaviors that we can all get better at. Maybe it’s eating better or exercising more. Perhaps for you it’s about spending less and saving more? Whatever your thing is that you could improve on, I don’t think that the best way to get better at it would be to steer clear of it. For example, if I wanted to be better at exercising, I might get a gym membership, get a personal trainer, do research on what exercises I should start with, consult my physician, etc. If I wanted to save more, I might create a budget, I could consolidate my debt, open a savings account, cancel credit cards, eat out less, etc. In neither of these scenarios would the answer be avoidance.
Yet with children there are instances where we avoid granting permission or even an introduction into the skills that they will need to practice in order to become proficient. I can think of four underlying reasons for this intentional avoidance.
Reason 1: Lack of Cognitive Readiness
The first is that our brains develop as we age and depending on the age of the child, they will be too young to understand or appreciate the high levels of responsibility associated with the task and this lack of understanding leads to a lack of ability to truly understand the purpose of doing the task. This is a cognitive lack of readiness.
Take driving, for example. According to Virtual Driver’s website, the age at which a child can get a learner’s permit in the U.S. ranges from 14-16. That’s the permit. We do not provide people with a license to drive before we permit them to officially practice driving. Even so, despite driver’s ed, driving lessons with mom and dad, reading a driving manual, taking tests of our knowledge of the rules of the road and passing a practicum, teen drivers are the age group at the most risk for accidents. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute notes the following statistics about teen drivers:
The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16-to 19-year-olds than among any other age group.
The overwhelming majority (75 percent) of serious teen driver crashes are due to "critical errors," with the three common errors accounting for nearly half of these crashes: lack of scanning that is needed to detect and respond to hazards, going too fast for road conditions, and being distracted by something inside or outside of the vehicle.
In 2017, the percentage of crash fatalities involving drivers ages 15 to 20 in US states ranged from a low of 4.7 percent in Hawaii to a high of 18.1 percent in Rhode Island. The national average is 12.8 percent.
The majority of newly licensed teen drivers exit the learner’s permit period with significant skill deficits, leading to a much higher risk of crashing compared with more experienced drivers. The most common types of crashes involve left turns, rear-end events, and running off the road.
Again, these statistics represent new but not untrained drivers. I point this out because can you imagine what the statistics would be if new drivers were not required to do all of the training prior to receiving their license?
Reason 2: Lack of Physical Readiness
The second reason for intentional avoidance is that we believe that children will not be able to successfully complete the task due to their size. Sticking with the driving example, the average person in the US does not reach five feet tall until they are between 12-13 years old, per the Disabled World website. As someone who is just over five feet, I can tell you that the average motor vehicle is not designed to be driven by people who are short. If you can’t reach the pedals and see over the wheel, you can’t drive. Thus, at the earliest, driving could not start until at least the age of 12 or 13 on average.
Reason 3: Fear of the Perceived Known
Intentional avoidance is caused by a third reason: fear. I’m not talking about fear on the part of the learner—but fear on the part of the teacher. It’s the notion that the learner lacks a fear of the unknown and the teacher will shield the learner from the possibility of harm, i.e., the “perceived known.” There is no guarantee that harm will come, but because there is the potential for harm, the teacher will preemptively disallow exposure to the task. Fear of the perceived known by the teacher could be an unwillingness to allow a child to cook dinner or play unsupervised. Here the fear is that a child might get hurt (cut or burned in the dinner example or kidnapped in the unsupervised play example).
Reason 4: The Perception of It’s More Work
Even if perfection can be achieved in the task (which depending on the task is impossible), perfection is not the place you start—it’s the place to grow into. As such, it is exceptionally labor-intensive to say, “Go for it” to someone else when you know that what they’re going for will either need to be reduced into small, manageable bits or the mark will be missed over and over again because the ultimate success will take time. This is why training wheels on bikes are not just for the kids, but for the adults. I can’t be with you at all times (nor do I have the availability to be), but I can’t yet show you how to use a bike with only two wheels. Ride this tricycle for a while and then we’ll work up to a two-wheeler together. Perhaps a better example of the “it’s more time” avoidance in play would be found in my house where my husband likes to have things done his way. He has convinced himself that it is harder to teach the kids how to properly load a dishwasher than to put the dishes in the dishwasher himself. As a natural consequence, his desire to do it himself has meant that we have children aged 10, 12, and 14 who have no idea how to properly load the dishwasher. Even if they had cognitive or physical disabilities (which they do not), this is literally a life skill that they have not been fully exposed to.
This is not a letter about the importance of hygiene or driver safety courses or the dangers of driving. It’s not a letter about the pitfall of perfection or perception either. This is a letter about the importance of guided practice. It is true that it takes time for humans to develop the capacity to understand germs and disease which is why kids are not compelled to wash their hands; washing hands is inconvenient, so I don’t want to spend more time doing this thing that I don’t want to do. Heck, kids are so driven by convenience and what feels good to them that they don’t even make it to the bathroom sometimes. Yet, we have kids practice doing things that they don’t understand because we understand the importance of practice. Imagine if we didn’t have them practice the behaviors they need to be safe and successful before they really needed to do them well? Don’t worry about learning to wash your hands until you are able to understand biochemistry. That would be ridiculous.
So I wonder, what are we currently stopping others from starting even if they are ready? And, when I say “ready,” I don’t mean that they are ready to do it perfectly—I just mean ready to practice, ready to fail, and ready to start all over again?
In an upcoming Letter, I’ll share an example from my experiences with kids where I got in the way of their practice. In the meantime, I’m curious to know examples from you on how you’ve seen this play out in your life as an adult or when you were a child.
P.S. Kristen Nan and Jacie Maslyk are this week's Catchers of the Week. Nan and Maslyk are co-authors of All In: Taking a Gamble in Education, a book that focuses on taking risks to create a big impact for students. The book shares stories from educators across the globe, as well as from the perspectives of the authors, a classroom teacher and a district administrator. Here's their Catch:
In a year where relationships and mentoring are more important than ever before, Lauren Kaufman is making a difference for educators. Her blog series Mentorship Matters is a must-read. A K-12 Mentoring Coordinator for a New York school district, Lauren is taking the lead. Follow the hashtag #LBLeads to check out her work.
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