Articles - Too Much of a Good Thing?

What People Say
I am confident that the education they have received will make them individuals who can and will take the time to think for themselves and inspire and lead others.
Charles Greenhalgh, Parent

Few life experiences match the moment your child is first placed in your arms. The welling up of wonder, amazement, love and even determination that life will be good for this child, that as parents we will do everything possible to help.

Such a resolution is needed to see parents through those first years of sleep deprivation and constant care giving. Does there come a time, however, when our wish to help clouds our judgment of what is needed? Can our wish to help be “too much of a good thing”?

When children enter kindergarten, they are well on their way to mastering their physical bodies. They acquire skills at a phenomenal rate. Their language is making great strides. They are eager to learn. As parents and teachers, we are eager to help them. This help can come in the form of teaching specific skills – sewing, painting, finger crocheting. Often, however, we are challenged to help them develop more subtle capacities – gratitude, empathy, patience, persistence, fortitude. This latter form of ‘teaching’ is far more difficult and may seem out of place with such young children.

Yet I would venture that it is never too early to consider such far-reaching inner attributes. Folk wisdom tells us: as the twig bends, so grows the tree. We set the stage through daily interactions with our children, for lifelong tendencies. It is in this arena that our wish to help can sometimes become debilitating for the child.

Watch very young children learning to walk. They stand, then fall, stand again, then fall—over and over they persist with a fortitude that would put any adult to shame. Yet what is the first thing we as adults do when we come on such a scene? We want to help: we raise them up on their feet; we hold their hand while they take a few steps. Rather than allowing children the satisfaction of accomplishing this momentous task unaided - strictly out of their own will - we intervene. Does our intervention enable their fortitude, or disable it?

In our play yard at the school, we have recently acquired two seesaws. Designed for a wide range of ages, they are big enough that all but the tallest kindergarten children have to work hard to seat themselves when their friend is already on the other end. As a faculty we have made the conscious decision not to help a child up, and after months of watching children struggle to reach that seat, we are constantly impressed by their untiring persistence and ingenuity – qualities that may not be developed by a child who is always helped by an adult. The same could apply to any piece of playground equipment. If you help a child up who cannot manage on their own, then you will have to help them down again. Does this constant assistance enable persistence and ingenuity in the child, or disable it?

Let’s look in another direction. What about giving children choices? In our affluent society the possibilities for satisfying our daily needs are abundant, and in our wish to be good to our children, we often work hard to honor their desires.

What do you want for breakfast? French toast? Pancakes? Pop Tarts? Cereal? What do you want to wear? Pants? A dress? The red shirt? The striped shirt? Do you want to go outside? Watch TV? Color a picture? Do you want to go to this preschool or that one?

Seemingly harmless choices that many parents assume will give a child confidence and the ability to make decisions. A daily diet of choices may initially seem empowering, but at what point does it actually encourage self-centeredness? (A prevailing disease of our times.) The child who has become, in the earliest years, accustomed to being consulted in every decision, can easily become a child who assumes they should get their own way, a child for whom in later life, empathy, or putting someone else first, may become a struggle - not through any innate moral fault, but through a lack of practice. Does our wish to give children an endless array of choices enable empathy for others or disable it?

In the Kindergarten, we prepare a snack in the classroom during the morning. The menu remains the same each week: Monday, Rice Pudding and Apples; Tuesday, Couscous and Brown Bread; Wednesday, Vegetable Soup and Rolls, and so forth. In the beginning of the school year, new children may express distaste for a particular dish; may even loudly voice their protest! Do I jump up and prepare something more to their liking? Do I plan a different menu next week? Do I provide more choices? No. Every week the same snack is provided and every week they are given a small serving. They do not need to eat it, but the possibility is there. Amazingly enough, eventually most will learn to like the offending snack, often returning for 2 or 3 servings, even crying out in protest when it is all gone! In such subtle, small ways, we seek to postpone immediate gratification and encourage a measure of thankfulness for what is provided. Does constantly giving in to childish whims – likes and dislikes – enable patience and gratitude, or disable it?

“I have nothing to do! I’m bored!” In our success-oriented society these words strike panic in a parent’s heart. Immediately our impulse is to intervene, to motivate the child, to find more stimulation, to somehow solve the problem. Yet, is boredom always a problem? Today children’s lives are highly scheduled – pre-school, dance class, music lessons, gymnastics, story hour. We want to give every possible advantage and to fill their days with positive learning opportunities. What is often missing, however, is ‘downtime: time to daydream; to explore the back yard; to watch a spider, even time to be bored. If we cannot be alone with ourselves, we may never discover who we are. If our solution to every free moment is always more outer stimulation (i.e. turn on the TV) we may never learn to tap our own creative resources. At what point does providing all the ‘advantages’ become a disadvantage?

In all of these situations there is no simple, right answer. One child, easily discouraged, may need more stimulation than an active one. With young children, minimizing choices can have a very positive effect. When they are teenagers, however, excluding them from decisions is done at our own peril! As parents we are closer to our children than other adults, yet that very closeness may distort our perception of what is needed.

Next time you find yourself automatically starting to help your child, stop for just a moment and consider. Do they really need my help? Or is this “too much of a good thing?”