PRESERVING THE JOY OF TRUST AND THE CONFIDENCE TO TRY
I spent a Summer in Hawaii one year working and saving money for the next year of school. I had a friend there named Kathy. It was the first week in Hawaii for both of us. We had just met each other, and we had both just met a Hawaiian named Kiki. Kiki invited us to a beach party, “a real Hawaiian one,” he said. It was on a Saturday afternoon, on a beach at the far side of the island. As I recall, the party had three distinct parts: Surfing, eating and dancing. My inclination was to watch all three. Her inclination was to do all three.
The joy of trying things and of new participation and new interest is a classic and significant joy. There is so much to do in the World, so many good things to try, 360 degrees of experience. Yet most of us eat the same narrow 10-degree sliver of pie over and over again, too afraid or inhibited (or sophisticated?) to try the other 350 degrees. Somewhere we have lost our grasp of the joy of basic confidence to try.
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.
The Child’s Perspective
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.
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 meet new people.) 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 preoccupation and “busyness,” we fail ourselves to experience new things and to manifest the joy that comes from them. Failure no.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 criticising 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. Failure no.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.” Failure no.3: Discouragement by comparison or by overdone caution.
Let children try things physically. Break down a trynd things with them. Climb a tree. Jump off a diving board. It will do you good and give verbal and nonverbal encouragement to your children’s physical confidence. Particularly, try things you are not good at. Let the children see that lack of skill is no reason for not trying.
The trick is to create a basically safe environment, rather than having to constantly warn about physical danger.
Fold a quilt or heavy blanket lengthwise to make a mat and let the children try various types of tumbling. Do a somersault or two yourself.
Win and keep the children’s trust. Children trust us until we violate their trust. A broken trust hurts them not only at the moment, but permanently, because it teaches fear of being hurt. Keep their trust by never lying, even a little. Don’t say, “The doctor won’t hurt you.” Don’t say you’ll spank them if they do it again and then not spank them when they do. Don’t tell them to tell the telephone caller you’re not at home. Don’t forget a promise. If they never learn to doubt you on small things, then they’ll never doubt your compliments to them, your advice to them, your love for them.
Encourage children to try new things. Look for and set up new experiences. When they ask for help, first say, “I’ll be here to help, but try it first.” Then praise the try as much or more than the success.
Praise the attempt and teach them that mistakes are okay. To praise the result when the result is not good violates the trust. But to praise the try, to compliment the effort–this sort of praise will bring about more tries and eventually more success. We thus teach that there is such a thing as successful failure: Failure from which we learn and grow. “It’s okay not be able to do it. It’s okay to miss, to fall down, to make a mistake. This is how we grow.”