Principals Pen Thursday, 21 Nov 2019

In their highly acclaimed book The Self-Driven Child, authors Stixrud and Johnson make the connection between the growing rates of anxiety and depression in children, and the lack of agency in children’s lives. They explain that feeling out of control causes debilitating stress and destroys motivation, whereas experiencing agency is motivating and promotes wellbeing. They write that, instead of trusting children with choices — small at first, but bigger as adolescence progresses — many adults insist on micromanaging everything from homework to friendships, and this is contributing to the mental health epidemic. Stixrud and Johnson encourage adults to stop acting like a child’s boss or manager, and start behaving like a sage consultant.

One of the ways we inadvertently snaffle children’s agency is by intervening and solving problems. We observe a child experiencing difficulty with a task and, because we love them and want them to experience success, we come to the rescue. Or a child asks for help when a solution is just beyond their reach and, because we love them and want them to experience success, we move the solution closer rather than encouraging or ‘giving permission’ for the child to persevere.

Every time we intervene, we disempower children and bring them a step closer to underestimating their abilities. Positive psychology expert, Daisy Turnbull Brown, believes that the rising cases of children ‘not knowing how to tie shoelaces or pack their schoolbag or open a yoghurt tube’ are because modern society doesn’t promote agency amongst children. We tend to intervene when we should be giving children the opportunity to fail multiple times as a stepping stone to successfully conquering a skill. (I align this with toddlers attempting to walk. They try and fall and try and fall … yet they have an in-built determination to eventually succeed. This is a level of resilience we want to nurture in children for a lifetime.)

Children are good problem solvers if we let them be. If we refrain from intervening – from jumping in and taking over – children tend to inspire us with how creatively and successfully they solve their own problems, reach their own conclusions, or come up with a resourceful Plan B. And in the process of problem solving, children grow in independence and tenacity, and their curiosity – which is key to a lifetime of learning – is nurtured.

As adults, we can feel frustrated or deflated when someone steps in to take over a situation we have under control, or when someone unwelcomingly announces a solution to a problem we are enjoying solving. We savour that aha moment and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something that was mentally taxing and required grit and perseverance. Children do, too. And so we need to find comfort in gifting our children opportunity to flounder, to problem solve and to engage in the power of curiosity.

Macquarie University’s senior lecturer in child development, Dr Shirley Wyver, recommends we count to 10 before we intervene. What sound advice.

Never help a child with a task that they feel they can complete themselves. Maria Montessori

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- Jane Mueller, Principal