Trusting Children with Reality


Do we do too much for our kids that they could learn to do themselves? Does our culture prevent them from shouldering responsibility and making a real contribution? And is that one reason many of today’s teenagers have no respect or sense of accountability for their actions?

Children love to do REAL activities that they see us grownups doing. They want to use real tools, utensils, instruments and appliances. They love to try out different roles and want to wear our clothes, use our possessions and be just like us!

“I’m Daddy on my motorbike!” …..

… And a dentist performing a check-up….

They naturally want to imitate and also to help us. They build up essential life skills and self-confidence in this way. And if we let them try while they are very small, while it is still a fun game to them, they could become able to make a useful contribution to family life by the time they start school. These children really enjoyed helping wash windows and shell beans into a beautiful glass bowl. These things are really interesting activities when you’re two or three!

One of a child’s greatest needs is to feel significant; letting them help us (even if we have to redo it when they are not looking) is an important way to achieve this, and builds their self-esteem naturally.

And children are generally very keen to be independent and master self-care skills (unless we make a habit of ‘babying’ them). When we refuse their help and do everything for children for the sake of time constraints, including picking up after them, we can cause them needless frustration and prevent them learning these skills for themselves and gaining self-confidence. The resulting discouragement could lead the child to become lazy, dependent and expecting us to always tidy up for them and retrieve their lost belongings. It sets up the belief ” I can’t”, or “Mum gives, I take.” They’re not going to be magically able and willing to perform chores or take care of their school kit at a specified mature age unless they get to practice responsibility while they’re still tiny.

Obviously you wouldn’t actually let a baby do the family ironing (the iron above is not plugged in) but you could let a two or three year old sweep the floor, and after practising for a year or two (and zooming round the kitchen on a brush ‘horse’, whirling your carefully swept-up bits all over the floor, or bopping you on the head with a brush ‘sword’) they should eventually be able to carry out effective dust-gathering sweeping. A four year old could help with the vacuuming and feel a real sense of achievement. I used to feel so proud of the three year old who kept coming up to me and carefully doing all my cardigan buttons up to the neck (her new skill) to keep me warm. I learned to just be patient and sit still if she struggled with it, because if I took over, or declined her kind offer, it robbed her of the sense of achievement and self-worth for ‘helping’! And I had a group of nursery children queueing up to make their own apple juice with my juice extractor. Being Special Helper is a coveted job!

Small children also adore baking and helping you cook dinner. Preparing food is extremely educational. Even if you have to do the sharp knife part, they can still learn counting, measuring, hand-eye coordination and different skills such as stirring without spilling, breaking eggs neatly, whisking and rubbing-in. And messy play is very important for brain development, so I always let them mix with their fingers when they’re little! Very strengthening for the hand muscles.

I carry all this in mind when I put together a Discovery Box. This is why my Feely Box contains, not baby toys, but real household objects. And it’s the reason the Music Box has real ethnic instruments and artefacts made of brass, steel, pigskin, wood and bronze, rather than cheap plastic kiddy shakers and tooters. The Button Box has real buttons of all shapes, sizes and materials, and kitchen utensils in the button toolkit. The Magnet Box contains many items that are not officially supposed to be suitable for children at all, and the glass pebbles are usually used (by adults) in flower arrangement and fish tanks!

Despite the fact that glass pebbles are sweetie-like, small and classified as a potential choking hazard, I have given several children aged 14 months and up, a handful of glass pebbles to play with. I watch them closely. The little girl shown below, like many others at the same developmental stage, loved to post glass pebbles into the little brass bottle and tip them out into the brass singing bowl, again and again, over and over, massively exceeding the attention span considered ‘normal’ for a child her age. At one point she did try to feel a glass pebble with her lips, and I calmly moved it away, telling her, “Not in your mouth”. She didn’t try it again, being beyond the oral stage and more into object permanence, but played happily for two days with the glass pebbles without incident. (After all, if you wouldn’t give a child this age a large boiled sweet, how would she make the connection between that and a glass pebble?)

There is aways an element of trust in my dealings with young children, whether it’s letting them ride a scooter along the pavement next to a road (after assessing their steering ability over several months), or allowing them to play with tiny objects and weighing up the educational versus the risk factors. If I was to prevent them doing anything considered remotely to be a potential risk I would have to strap them into a playpen 24 hours a day! Obviously I supervise children closely, but I try not to do for them what they can do for themselves. I wait to be asked for help before wading in there and making them feel helpless and incompetent. Then I do the minimum necessary to get them started before letting them carry on. To interact this way shows respect for the child as a person, in a way I would hope to be treated myself. I aim to speak to them in a way they can understand, but with the respect I would show any adult. One of the great things about this approach is you get a child who has far fewer tantrums, is much nicer company and has a much better sense of self-worth. Everybody wins! 🙂


About Cathy Owen

I have enjoyed working and playing with children for over 20 years, starting with a holiday job as mother's helper to two different families and babysitting for neighbours from the age of 17. My experience since then includes working with children from 3 months to 12 years, in schools, nurseries, toddler groups and homes, as a teacher assistant, play leader, special needs facilitator, after school and holiday club supervisor/planner, childminder, and currently as a private nanny and creative play specialist. My Discovery Boxes developed out of my observation and interaction with young children and a desire to enter and enrich their world. Children are our greatest teachers; their imagination has a magical quality that makes the world a more exciting and wondrous place. I love nothing better than to join them in this adventure that is life and see where we can journey together! To learn more about my way of working, see my posts.

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