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Joy of the Month Excerpt (February)

"The great man is he who does not lose his child's heart."


This is a joy to preserve rather than teach: Children are born with an innate sense of trust and with a sense of wonder and a desire to experience and to try. As parents we must learn to preserve and enhance this trust and confidence within them, even as the world seems to conspire to knock it out of them.

Our two-year-old Shawni came along to her older sister's dancing class. We were watching the older sister and left the two year old sitting down the row of seats. I glanced over and saw her eyes growing wider. The next moment she was up, twirling, whirling, a two-year-old facsimile of modern dance. She wanted to try, to experience.

It was November, and when we got home after the dancing class it was still light and the first snow of the year was falling. Little Shawni happened to be the last one out of the car. She lagged behind in the driveway, and when I went back after her, she was sitting Indian-style in the drift, rubbing snow into her hair. Snow was new to her, and she was experiencing it in the most intimate way she could think of.

This is a joy to preserve, a joy that small children almost always have but they often lose early. (Think of the three year old afraid to touch the snow or the four year old too shy to sit on Santa's knee.) The symptoms of the loss of this joy are the phrases we have all heard: "Oh, I can't do it." "Will you help me? I'm afraid."

When did they lose it? Where do they leave it? Why? It is our fault. We fail to preserve it in three ways. First, in our preoccupations and "busyness," we fail ourselves to experience new things and to manifest the joy that comes form them. Failure number 1: lack of example.

Second, again in our involvement with "more important things," we fail to praise and encourage their exploration. The encouragement could be verbal or, better yet, could be expressed by us learning from them, trying things with them. By criticizing instead of praising, we build fear and rub out the continuing desire to try. A child performs an important experiment by pouring his milk into his soup, and we call him a mess. A child takes off his shoes to see how the grass feels, and we tell him "that's silly," and doesn't he know he will get dirty. A child pats a big, friendly dog on the head, and we say, "Watch out, he might bite you." A child picks a flower to give to a friend, and we tell her she didn't get enough of the stem to fit in the vase. Failure number 2: criticism instead of praise.

Third, we often compare our children with each other or with other children, thus making them feel inferior. Johnny tries to run a race or improve on the piano and glows with the joy of trying until we say, "Say, that Jones boy sure is learning fast," or "I wonder how the Smith girl got so good on the piano? She's only had lessons for as long as Johnny." A four year old wants to climb the monkey bars, go up a little ladder at the shallow end of the pool, or climb up on the shed in the backyard, and we say, "No, no, you'll fall and get hurt. Don't try it by yourself." Failure number 3: discouragement by comparison or by overdone caution.

Again we've got it backward. It's children who have the joy of spontaneity, of trying new things, of trusting. We should be learning, not teaching. We should be following and encouraging their lead, not leading with our own lost ability. If we do, the joy of trust and trying can come back into our adult lives.

The telltale symptoms of children who are losing this joy are the words: "Oh, I'm no good at that." "You help me do it. I can't by myself." "I don't want to try it, I've never done it before." At this point we "turncoat" on them; we push them; we say, "Don't be so shy -- don't be so scared -- you won't get hurt -- come on, at least try."

First we create the fear, the hesitancy: then we criticize it, which, of course, magnifies it and makes it worse.

There are two kinds of basic fears in the world: fear of getting hurt and fear of failure. Both kinds of fear apply to all facets of life. We fear failure physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially, and we fear being hurt physically, emotionally, and socially. Both fears are self-fulfilling. Physical fear often causes physical hurt, and fear of failing almost always causes failure.

Children are born with neither of these two fears; it is the learning of the fears that takes away the joy. Perhaps the easiest way to look at preserving the joy of trust and the confidence to try is to look at its synonym, "avoiding the conveyance of the fear of being hurt and the fear of failure." Remember, this is a "preserving" chapter; the parents' challenge is not to teach children but to avoid destroying what they already have.

Sample Methods

A. Encourage children to try new things. Look for and set up new experiences. When they ask for help, first say, "I'll be there to help, but try it first." Then praise the try as much as or more than the success.

B. Understand the need for encouragement. It has been said that when we can see failure as an indispensable way of learning, we free the mind and the spirit. What a lesson! When the basic confidence to try is replaced with the fear of failure, a child's outgoing joy is replaced with in-turning doubt. Children, like fragile flowers, can be crushed so easily by the fingers of criticism and comparative judgment; bright, innovative attempts can be replaced with sullen fear to try.

Parents hold the control lever. Parental encouragement will win out over "other-people" discouragement.

A "Good try!" from parents can counterbalance scoffs from peers. It is so important to try to avoid saying no unless real danger is involved. Instead, try saying, "Let's try it a different way," or "Wouldn't this be better?" Substitute the positive for the negative.

C. Understand the delicacy of a child's confidence, of his desire to try. In her book, Times to Remember, Rose Kennedy speaks of the physical freedom she gave her children at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. They could climb, explore, try new things. There were skinned knees and even broken arms -- but her book correctly relates physical freedom to physical confidence, and physical confidence to every other kind of confidence (and regardless of their overall opinion of the Kennedy family, most people would agree that they did and do possess great confidence). The point is that a broken arm is better than a broken spirit. Of course, a healthy respect for real danger is important, but that is different from the overcautious fear of physical hurt that many children develop.

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