The Fragility of Our Children’s Self-Determination #TeacherMom

Self-determination. We have such good intentions. We all want it for our kids, and I’m sure most of us (including myself until a recent check) think we’ve got it pretty well covered. But then life gets in the way.

We get in a hurry, we run out of supplies, we feel pressure that we then pass on to our kids.

I had two experiences recently to remind me just how fragile the development of our children’s self-determination can be. I’m sharing not because I know better now, but because I know that writing about it helps cement the lessons for me.

Lesson #1: The first happened when my 8 year-old was getting ready for school. Combining her school’s earlier start time with the fact that she’s one of those kids that needs a lot of sleep to function, I had felt justified in lending a hand as she gets ready. Specifically, as she would sleepily make her way down her bunk bed, I would grab her an outfit so she could quickly change and then move on to the next task.

But when she woke up unusually early one morning, I turned everything over to her — only to find that she no longer felt confident about her own outfit-choosing skills. She wanted me to tell her if I thought the clothing went together, and I wanted her to be able to choose without needing anyone else to validate her decision.

I was astonished to realize how my good intentions had gone awry. How I had sent an unintended message that I was not confident in her abilities. How quickly she came to depend on me for a simple decision. How my desire to help solve one problem had created another.

Lesson #2: The second happened with my 4 year-old. The details are less important, but he had started to regularly say something very sweet, and we were quick to tell him how nice that was (you know, positive reinforcement and all that). One day, when he said it again, and I did not offer praise, he looked at me, surprised and unhappy. Again, I was astonished to realize that my own good intentions were actually getting in the way of something good. What was once something for which my son had intrinsic interest was now diminished by the extrinsic strings I’d attached.

Our kids possess natural self-determination. They have interests, talents, and capacities originally driven entirely from within. But it turns out this self-determination is terribly fragile. As enthusiastic and helpful parents and teachers, we jump in with our encouragement and praise and assistance, which props up something that perhaps didn’t need propping up in the first place. Instead, it causes that self-determination muscle to quickly atrophy as we train them to look to the grown-ups, the “experts,” for guidance, instead of looking within to the original source of those capacities.

I feel like I learn more each day about how I need to “get out of the way” of my children’s learning and growth. Hopefully those lessons will stick a little better for next time!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

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