Last month, my son did the driving as we left Memphis for middle Tennessee and our annual church camp retreat. We’ve attended this lovely weekend every year, religiously, for the past decade or so. But this was the first time my son assumed the driving duties, and I’ve got to admit, it felt kind of nice to have him take the wheel. He’s had his license for a year and a half now. And the minute he turned 16 last March, he insisted on driving solo. Thankfully, he'd worked his way up to that, and so, he was ready. He is a good driver, alert and fairly cautious (I say fairly since he is, after all, a 16-year-old boy) and generally aware of his surroundings. So I don’t fret too much when sitting in the passenger’s seat. But this month’s story by Meena Viswanathan that talks about toddler milestones reminded me of how the teaching of our children doesn’t stop once they become school-aged. It continues throughout childhood and into adolescence.
For example, before Ev got behind the wheel of our car, I worked to familiarize him with the particulars of driving. I would share a brief commentary, telling him what I was thinking about as we made our way to school each morning. I would describe my decisions as I surveyed the drivers around me. I talked about how I tried to anticipate the actions of others, how I strategized my next move or two, how I sped up or slowed down according to the traffic flow around me. I often pointed out street signs, so as to familiarize him with speed limits, cautionary signs, or places where unusual events took place. (I know, a tall order in Memphis!) I talked about when it was best to pass and why.
In essence, I was teaching him about this new routine by breaking it down into manageable steps. I know they didn’t seem manageable at first, but over time, driving began to make sense.
Being a teacher is a large part of our job as parents; teaching and modeling behavior for our kids so that they can become proficient at this game called life. It’s not always easy; some skills are more teachable than others. But each lesson is important. Because together, they represent the steps our children take towards gaining their independence from us. After all, no one (at least not any sane parent), wants a child who’s still tied to his mother’s apron strings as he reaches adulthood. Our goal is to raise a child who can make good decisions and care for himself, by himself. This will lead to success as an adult.
The journey begins when our children are very young and just starting to learn the basics of self-care, like how to button a shirt, put on a pair of pants, or brush one’s teeth. As they grow older, there are more passages, from learning how to read or ride a bike, to how to manage homework and do laundry. None of these are skills we are born with; they must all be learned, one step at a time. And it doesn't happen overnight.
Yet we grow frustrated with our children when they lag behind or don’t do things correctly. We become impatient and lose our temper, too often working on a schedule our kids can’t meet. Instead, it’s important to remember what is realistic to expect from our children at different developmental stages. When they can’t get dressed properly or keep track of their personal belongings, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves, “Am I being realistic to expect my child to know how to do this task? Is he old enough? Has he been shown how to do it? Is there something I can do to make learning easier for him?”
As adults, we tend to forget that the many tasks we accomplish each day were taught to us at one time or another. We take a lot for granted, and often assume our child should be able to do something when they might not have learned the basic steps.
So consider the current task your own child might be struggling with right now and think about whether you can break it down into smaller pieces. Put those instructions together into a routine, so that your child repeats it every day. From repetition comes mastery. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it will gradually come, and before too long, he'll become proficient at the game of life.