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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stop saving me, you're holding me back!

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.


  1. Great post. It's amazing how much harder it is to wait than it is to "fix", isn't it? It's one of my never-ending challenges, which is OK, because it keeps me thinking, observing, alive.

    And thank you! I was already reading and enjoying your story when I discovered the shout-out and link to me...:)

  2. Hey, yours is a great post too. I wish every carer would read it. And every parent, for that matter!

  3. Oh, how I love this. It's so hard (even for me, sometimes) to step back, observe, TRUST the child, and just wait to see what will happen, but it is SO worth it to me to continue to try to contain my worry and anxiety, and not "save" a child who doesn't need (or necessarily want) "saving." The benefits to the child, and my relationship with the child are immense when I can manage to "hold a space" for the struggle, exploration, learning, or agenda of the child- to be present, and available, and willing to assist if asked or needed, but to leave the choice up to the child...When I teach child development to teachers and caregivers of young children, we spend a lot of time on this topic. It can be so hard for adults to grasp the idea of giving the child time and space to take physical risks, without interference or "help." So many of us have had it drilled into us, for so long, that it is our job as caregivers to "keep children safe at any cost," that it can seem counterintuitive or negligent to "just wait" or to "let" a child take a fall... Great post Aunt Annie. I'll be sharing!

  4. Lisa, I'm sure it's hard for everyone. It was certainly a lesson I only learned by having it pointed out to me when I was looking after other people's children; we all want to hand back an unmarked, perfect child at the end of the day, especially to the helicopter parent who will make an ugly scene if we have to explain that we allowed their child to fall. We need to be so sure of our philosophy that we can stand up for it when that sort of situation arises... or we face the dilemma of allowing some children to do what we forbid to others.

  5. "Wait." That and, "Shut up!" are the 2 commands I need tattooed onto my inner eye lids. =)

    I work with parents in my classroom and I know that many of them think I'm crazy/cruel/etc. sometimes when I just sit and watch kids while they undertake things that we all can foresee will result in a "mouthful of sand." Thanks for the reminder to do a better job of managing expectations as we start preparing for the new school year.

  6. How did I miss this post for the last few days? Teacher Tom sent me here - and I'm so glad he did. This post connects with some other things I've been reading lately. "Wait" is an important things - and so difficult.

  7. This is why a lot of people look at me funny when I allow my children to crawl, climb and balance in ways that ar "scarey." I've not read Magda but have been in ECE for many a years. There are so many young moms who are just freaked out about every little thing their baby does.

  8. Love it! I posted a similar entry this week (When Help Hinders) and linked back to this - thanks for the reminder!

    The Corner On Character

  9. I'm linking up with both of you! Love it! This is how we teach problem solving.


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