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