It’s nice when a child asks for your help isn’t it? When they want you to teach them something? Especially if it’s something that you’re passionate about. You jump at the chance to impart your knowledge and share your experience with them. In fact, that’s one of the things I love about homeschooling. We can involve extended family members in the education of our children. They bring lots of different life experiences, skills, and passions that are invaluable to our kids. And our kids love to learn from them too.
Sometimes however, things don’t go exactly to plan and offers of help are not well received. It’s happened to me before when I’ve gotten carried away, especially when we were first starting out on this journey. Mostly now I see it when other people kindly offer their help to my kids. It may start off with a simple question from a child, or a request for help with something specific they’re working on. The adult, keen to be involved, jumps straight in to help. But, instead of stopping after helping with what they were asked to, they want to do more. They offer more help, suggest other ways of doing things, give more information than needed, and may begin to take over the project. For my kids this causes frustration, disagreements, and even anger sometimes.
Not the kind of reaction you’re looking for when you’re just trying to help is it? I’m afraid sometimes my kids may come off a little rude. The adult might then reply ‘fine then, do it your own way’, or ‘well don’t ask me for help then if you can do it yourself’, or comment to me that my child is ‘stubborn’, etc. The thing is, children are only expressing legitimate feelings here. And that’s what I want them to be able to do. Unfortunately, most adults are used to treating children with a lot less respect than they do adults, whether they mean to or not. In this situation I see that they only had the best intentions and wanted to be helpful. However, trying to give more help than is asked for even after you have been told that it’s not needed, and then reacting in a way that is meant to make the child feel guilty for not accepting your generous offer, is not respectful. Would you do that to an adult? Nope. And if you did you’d probably expect the same reaction that the child had given.
We’re so used to thinking of learning as a teacher giving information to a student, but not all learning comes about from someone imparting knowledge on another person. Learning in our house for instance is totally self directed. The children have 100% ownership over their own learning. And they’re not prepared to give that up easily! Just think of when you’re working on a project of your own. Isn’t it more satisfying when you work hard, overcome challenges, source help when needed, and are able to do it all yourself? Rather than getting half way there and then handing it over to someone else? I think so! If we want to encourage passionate, self directed, independent, motivated learners. Then we have to let them be that. We can’t take over their projects, even if we can see a better/easier way. We have to let them fail and try again and problem solve and own their learning. And we definitely can not let our ego’s get in the way when helping. It feels good being the expert, teaching, imparting your wisdom. But what’s more important?
So, how can you help in the right way?
- Wait to be asked. You don’t need to offer suggestions or advice if they haven’t been asked for. Even if your child seems frustrated! Frustration is a part of learning. Let them work through it.
- Answer only the question asked. When they ask you a question you don’t need to turn it into a huge ‘teaching moment’. Just answer the question and let them wonder some more before coming back to ask another question. If you give them all the information straight away they don’t need to think about it themselves, and they don’t get practice formulating the right questions to ask to get the information they need. Or, they may even become frustrated with you always giving them a lecture when they ask a simple question and be less likely to ask again in the future.
- Ask them what they think. Instead of giving them the answers straight away, instead you could ask them what they think. Maybe they already have a theory. You get an insight into what they already know, and they get to discover something for themselves. After they’ve told you what they think, you could ask them ‘Where could we find out more about this?’. You’re putting the control of their learning back in their hands and they get practice in how to research.
- Help with only what is asked of you. If they’re asking you to physically help with something, do only what they ask. When you’re having to physically help, for example holding something steady they’re working on, it’s tempting to suggest an easier way for them. But, let them work it out for themselves. And once your task is finished you can stop helping. Wait to be invited again and enjoy just watching in the meantime. You might see just how great a problem solver your child already is.
- Be supportive. Support doesn’t just come through answering questions, teaching, and helping. Just being there and watching is supportive. If you want to comment you could just narrate what they’re doing. You don’t need to offer praise or your approval. Say things like ‘I can see you’re working really hard there’, or ‘You didn’t know how to do that part but you eventually figured it out yourself’, etc.
- Read the signs. If you make a suggestion and the child declines, then don’t keep going and trying to convince them otherwise. Let them do it their own way. They will ask for help when/if they need it.
- Don’t be offended. Try not to take it to heart if they don’t want your help. It’s a good sign! They are confident and competent. If they become frustrated or angry at you for helping too much, don’t take it personally. You’ve just missed the early signs where they were telling you to back off due to your enthusiasm. You have an independent learner there who is not willing to give up ownership of their ideas easily. Fantastic!
Overall, we want to foster independent learning and discovery. We want to be supportive, but not take over. We want to inspire children to formulate their own questions, wonder, take ownership over their work, feel pride in themselves, be self motivated, and love learning. Though it may go against what we have been led to believe, to do this we need to do less, not more. Take a step back, watch, listen, and wait to be invited.
“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, the independent scientist in the child disappears.” – John Holt