Our 4 year old really really wanted to get on the upper portion of the the structure at our nearby playground. It’s a special area where only the “big kids” get to go, the slides are longer/faster/curvier, and it’s where is older siblings retreat when they want to get away from him. The only problem: THE LADDER. It is about 6 feet of straight upward ladder and he just was too afraid to go up the ladder on his own.
I made the mistake of hoisting him the first few times. Every time he’d be so happy up high, come down the slides, and then whine about getting back up again. I told him “You can do it!” and “I’ll give you some gum if you go up on your own!” (never claimed to be a perfect parent and I’m not afraid of bribery!). He wouldn’t budge.
After many failed attempts and a lot of whining (mostly him, some me) I figured a change was needed. I told him “Okay, I’ll be right here if you need me”. He was afraid and timid. I helped him put his first foot up and then I stepped back. He didn’t even realize I wasn’t still holding him. He faltered but maintained his grip and kept climbing. I gradually stepped back further. He kept climbing. I gave him a cheer halfway up. He kept climbing. He pulled himself over the landing and stood with such a proud, beaming smile. He did it!
How to help your kids conquer their uncertainty
- Don’t do it for them.
Kids don’t need to be protected from fear, danger, and or insecurity. They will face many challenges at home, school, and in life. If you do nothing else, simply stay out of their way. They don’t need a shield, they need to trust their abilities. If you don’t let them learn to do it themselves, they’ll never realize their own potential and you’ll never get a break from doing it for them.
- Build a scaffold of security.
Our 4-year-old knew he could climb the ladder. I knew he could climb the ladder. He needed to know that there was a little bit of security in place in case he was wrong. He needed to know that it’d be okay if he made a mistake. If he overestimated his abilities, he knew I’d be there to help.
- Allow failure.
There’s no way a child will grow and develop if there isn’t risk. If he’d let go of the ladder, he would have fallen. I wouldn’t have been able to catch him but I could have probably softened or steadied him when he landed. He could have landed wrong and injured his leg or bumped his head. There has to be the real chance to fail for an effort to make a difference. If I had held his back or hoisted him up he wouldn’t have been beaming at the top because he’d have known he needed me to succeed. He knew when he got to the top that it was all him.
- Praise effort, not success.
If you want to see your child accomplish something, praise the incremental efforts and successes along the way. Never gush on praise. A little goes a long way. If he hadn’t made it to the top, I’d have said, “Hey you went up 2 rungs. That’s 2 more than last time” Maybe next time he’d do 3 rungs, or 5. Regardless of the outcome, progress was made and that deserves the recognition. Take the same tact with schoolwork…”You worked really hard to get a B in math!” means so much more than, “Wow you almost got an A!”. Who cares about an A+ or a B-….focus on the effort the the successes will take care of themselves.