Updated: Apr 9, 2021
We have a new child enrolled, 3-year-old Sonya. She just started attending Honeydew Preschool last week. She loves playing with all her new friends and new toys in her classroom. She runs around and plays with toys and when she is done with them, she strolls away unknowingly to join another group of friends playing in another clean area. Clean until she is done with it, anyway. During lunchtime, she eats all her food, drinks her milk and with newfound nutritional energy, gets up to continue playing. At nap time, she leisurely waits for the teachers to put her sheets on and then lies down and promptly falls asleep. She’s been working hard, after all.
The teachers see all this and understand that Sonya is new to attending a preschool program. Up until now, she has been with her Mommy and Daddy at home and when they go to work, she is with her nanny. Her whole house is a big playground. Her toys can be found in every corner and when she is done with her meal, her plates and cups are left on the table as she has quickly left her seat to play with - that’s right, more toys.
Every day she attends preschool, she sees the routines that the other children follow. By habit, she leaves a mess after every activity, but we call her back to remind her that she cannot go on until she puts away her toys or cleans up her plate. At nap time, she has to try to put the sheet on her cot herself before she lies down.
One day before lunch, Sonya says, “Ms. Barbara, I want to be the helper.” I show her how to pick up the stack of plates and give one to each of her friends. She actually enjoys doing this. After the meal, I showed her how to pick up her plate, walk to the garbage and empty the food, then place the plate in a big bin that is taken to the dishwasher. The next day when we go to the park, I tell her she will be the line leader for the community walk. I had Sonya remind her friends to line up and after everyone took their place, she proudly told the teacher they were ready.
Sonya loves being a helper and a leader. Children naturally enjoy taking initiative because it gives them a little control over their activities and surroundings. They love taking responsibility because it lends them some power and even better, it engages their cognitive and problem-solving skills by making them remember a sequence of events. And after their hard work, they see a clean table, a clean floor or a group of children walking behind them safely. Seeing these results helps them connect the work to succeed.
Even infants and toddlers are starting to take initiative as they tackle the tasks of comforting themselves, when they are trying to feed themselves or when they are crawling, standing or walking. Sometimes as parents, we don’t allow our child to take on this type of full responsibility. Instead, we are hovering around them to make sure nothing bad happens, and that makes sense! But it’s only when we let them take full charge of themselves and their environment that they are able to show more initiative.
Only when they slip or fall will they understand how they should walk or climb safely, right?
There are many ways we can teach initiative:
Children learn by observing their environment, like when they see their parents’ initiative by taking out the trash or cleaning up after themselves. Explain it as you are doing it and when your child puts the leftover scrap in the garbage, they will begin to understand what that garbage bag means. And then when they get a little older (8-10 years old), they can carry the kitchen bag outside to the big bins. Then they can take them to the end of the driveway, then they can hop in the car and get more garbage bags when you run out. Ok, sorry - moving too fast. Anyhow, these tasks will empower them as they see that they can also do the big jobs that Mommy and Daddy do. But, let’s hold off on the driving lessons for now.
Praise the Effort, Not the Result
In the beginning, don’t get too worked up about how the task is done. If they see you get easily frustrated because they didn’t do something the way you wanted, they will feel discouraged and question the point of even trying. We know how that feels. Not great. Show excitement, show that you’re proud of whatever they have done, regardless of how good or bad. They have the rest of their lives to perfect it. They saw something that needed to be done and took it upon themselves to do it, which is a great quality to have.
Take the time to teach them and be patient as they are learning. We can all agree that our lives move too fast with the many things we want to accomplish. Children are on a different timeline. Like anything you were learning in school or college, you were slow at the beginning. No need to pretend here - this is a safe space! But children are just learning how to live on this planet and be part of a routine, part of a community. They need space to be slow and mess up. Have them do it again or try again the next day. Making mistakes and getting it right eventually is a process more important than anything we instruct them to do because they lived it. They went through the experience and learned.