“We know in our hearts that kids need to fail, need to be challenged, need to be left to their own devices, and need to feel the rush of pride when they find that they can manage.”–Madeline Levine, Teach Your Children Well
One of the first summer jobs I had was as a camp counselor. That’s when I fell in love with teaching kids. As the lake activities co-ordinator, I got to put them in situations with which they were unfamiliar, sailing, skiing, canoeing, etc. Of course we emphasized best practices in boating and water safety. Once a young skier learned to stay “balled up” and let the horsepower in the boat’s engine pull them to standing, the exhilaration on their faces was worth all the failed attempts. In the Sunfish, there was amazing quiet when only the wind and a well-positioned mainsail allowed us to skim along the water toward a point on the horizon. We would sing songs with the background of water splashing against the side of the sailboat. Realizing that a capsized canoe is easily righted with proper technique gave young learners confidence and a sense of competence. Ahhh, water sports.
As a young athlete myself, I went to basketball camp during the summer to hone my skills. But my favorite gym time was unstructured. Several of my teammates and I would drive to the public Rec Center and engage in a game of three-on-three with other youths, kids we enjoyed getting to know. Even without the benefit of a coach, our dribbling, passing, and shooting improved along with our confidence.
Sometimes it’s helpful for children to not have their parents spectating/assisting as they practice a new sports skill. In the swimming pool, the wise instructor has had experience with timid, even fearful learners, and without intervention from Mom or Dad, you’d be surprised what can be accomplished. The parent-child relationship in that context can set one up for failure. I was determined that my first daughter would learn to swim, after all I had been a Water Safety Instructor myself. I had taught a hundred children to enjoy water sports. But it became more about me, and she was not having it. However, without parental pressure, she on her own decided to engage in learning how to navigate the water.
My husband’s younger brother was near the last of his age group in learning to swim. Not that he was physically unable, he was quite the little athlete. But even at 10 years old, he would show up at the pool, decked out in snorkel and flippers, playing only in the shallow end, much to the dismay of his older brother. Do you know when he learned to shed the equipment and swim on his own? When he went to summer camp. No big brother there, but peers who were frolicking in water activities as able swimmers. He wanted to be a part of that and so he overcame his hesitation and became a skillful swimmer.
Here’s the point. With best intentions, we as parents sometimes overdo it in helping our young ones learn new skills. If you trust the instructor or the supervisors, step away and provide the space for your child to fail, away from your watchful eye. They need to learn many things for themselves as they grow up. Two steps forward, one step back. But once across the goal line, there is a self-satisfaction that brings joy and confidence. Wise parents know how to strike the balance, because they know the value of an internal sense of competence and self-trust.
- Children need safe opportunities to learn things independently.
- Allowing children ownership of their learning builds self-confidence.