Have you ever dreamed up an exciting, ambitious plan, only to have someone stop you in your tracks with their own doubts and fears?
If you have, you'll know that it's a truly frustrating experience. You know what you want to do, you've thought it through, you're full of motivation... and then some wet blanket puts out the fire in your heart and makes you doubt yourself.
I see well-meaning childcare workers and parents do that to children every day. And I realise that I've often done it myself.
In fact, every day that I work in childcare I have to consciously stop myself from over-helping and over-saving children. Here's just one example of how rewarding it can be to control that urge to save a child.
Even tiny babies can make plans. I was watching a little girl, not quite a year old, at the edge of the sandpit one day. She crawled to the edge- a raised brick edge with a slight outward pitch, designed to challenge balance and confidence- and manoeuvred herself onto it until she was sitting facing the sand with her little legs dangling, toes barely touching the sand below. Gradually she pushed her bottom closer and closer to the edge, leaned forward and...
At this point I had to consciously control myself, because the result was inevitable. I took a few deep breaths and calmed myself right out of the idea of 'saving' her. I was thinking of Magda Gerber's simple advice on the most useful word in a carer or parent's vocabulary- wait. (You can read about it here.)
Sure enough, she fell face-first into the sand. I picked her up, wiped the sand out of her mouth- she was startled, but not crying- and put her back near the edge of the sandpit.
She immediately started the same process all over again. Same result, but this time she managed to save herself with her arms and a slight rolling motion, so her mouth didn't hit the sand. Lesson learned.
Painstakingly, she crawled back to the edge and hauled herself up on the bricks to try again.
At this stage I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to do. That didn't matter. In my self-calmed state, I could sense that she had a very strong sense of purpose, so I just stayed close by and watched. Maybe she was just practising getting into the sandpit without hurting herself? I continued to wait.
The fourth time she lifted herself back onto the bricks- which sloped down towards a pebbled surround- another carer spotted what she was doing and rushed over to 'save' her before she fell onto the pebbles.
'Don't save her!' I called out, forcefully enough to stop her in her tracks- which was quite a departure from my usual extremely diplomatic manner with other staff! The carer turned to me in confusion.
'She's okay, she doesn't need help. She's done this quite a few times now.' I tried to explain the Gerber-Lansbury 'wait' philosophy in a few well-chosen words, but the carer still looked mystified. Eventually, reassured that I was somehow in control of this peculiar situation, she walked away.
The baby continued her strategy of balancing on the edge of the sandpit and wiggling her bottom forwards. And finally, I saw what she was trying to do. Gradually, perched right on the edge, she leaned forwards to change her centre of balance- bulky nappies make babies tend to flop onto their bottoms, but the edge of the sandpit was giving her the boost she needed to counteract this. Finally, when she got to the right balance point, she let go with her hands as she straightened her legs...
...and just for a moment, she stood in the sand unaided. Bingo!
She was delighted. I was delighted. I clapped my hands and said 'You did it! You stood up!' and she grinned at me as she fell forwards and caught herself before face-planting again.
How I wish every parent and carer would read Magda's advice on waiting. How frustrated our children must get when we constantly fail to trust them to test out their plans of action, to be resilient enough to cope with minor setbacks, to keep trying till they get a hard, self-initiated task right.
Sure, there are situations where you do have to save them. If there had been water in that pit instead of sand, of course I would have intervened and distracted or redirected a child who could have drowned. But most childcare centres are extremely safe environments, where the risk of death or serious injury has been minimised if not totally eliminated.
Let the children play! Let them execute their crazy plans. Point out drawbacks only if they're risking serious injury- like the children who decided to wrestle and throw each other to the ground in a sandpit surrounded by an edging of large rocks.
But if they're not about to crack their heads open or fracture their spine- wait.