Yes you can!

Marlene van den Berg

Mental Health Occupational therapist and Gestalt Play therapist. B.OccTher (UP) M.Psych (NWU)

I love the Obamas... I have always really loved the Obamas... but now I really, really love them. I recently finished Michelle's book, Becoming, and was touched by how they raised their children. In their 8 years in office and even before in their campaigning process they actively fought for their children's independence. This sounds a bit odd. Is it not that children want unconditional love or undivided attention? Yes, they do, but they also need to be granted the freedom to learn and grow. The Obamas made sure that Sasha and Malia had the opportunity to try and fail, to explore and develop, to find their own feet in the world.

In a previous blog we spoke about mastery and how important it is for a child to, through struggles, persevere and achieve a task. It is quite shocking to realise that what hinders the children the most in achieving mastery is adults. These words by Robyn Papworth is profound: "If you write it for me, cut it for me, or open it for me...then your brain is learning, not mine." When we step in to help a child when they cannot manage, when we take over a part of a task, they never learn how to do it for themselves. Think of the very well known anecdote about not breaking open a hatching egg as then the little chick never learns to use its wings.

The process of taking over does not only have an impact on their learning ability and neurologic impact, it also has a profound emotional effect. Stepping in tells a child: "You are not doing this right." Essentially we are saying: "You are not good enough to do this." This diminishes a child’s self-worth, self confidence and ability to persevere drastically. A child needs to initiate their own tasks and ideas as it allows them to access their creativity. They then need to explore and experience difficulties and try again until they find a way that works (Read: even if it is not the right way or your way). This teaches problem solving skills, creative adaption and ultimately resilience. Then a child needs to complete the task and experience the satisfaction of a product they made and a process they accomplished. This tells a child: "Wow, you had an idea, you struggled a bit but made it work and look now... amazing!"

It's awesome that children, all children no matter age or ability, have this innate skill. But when we bring our own anxieties as parents or own need for perfection or our unrealistic wishes that our children ‘have a better life than we did’, we squish the very opportunity we so desperately want for them. We become the very hurdle in their path to growth, self confidence and essential developmental and life skills.

So how do we overcome this. Firstly manage yourself. A child does not mind the outcome, they don't mind that their picture does not look exactly like the teachers or their friend, in fact they love their uniqueness. You need to take a deep breath and let go of expectations and perfection. Let your child be and let your anxieties be yours not theirs. Let what they do be about the process of learning rather than about the perfect, precise result. Instead of saying: "This is the most beautiful picture in the class"; say: "I really loved how you used different colours here"; say: "I am so proud of you for making a plan to tie this string to your art work." Instead of saying: "You are the best!" say: "You really did your best and I love you."


When you child does struggle guide rather than take over. Give gentle suggestions or possible options for the child to consider. Stay away from direct instructions and work on ways to encourage your child’s creative thinking and adapting abilities. So rather than: "Here is a ruler to draw that line" try: "I am wondering what we can use to make a line like that...what do you think?"

And then, getting back to the Obamas, always tell your child: "Yes, you can!" When they struggle or feel uncertain of themselves all that they really need to know is that you trust them and believe in them. We only build a healthy sense of self in a child when they, to the core of their being, feel valued by you despite their flaws; feel safe enough to try because you will be there to support them; when they know that no matter the outcome you will love them.

So, let's step back a bit, let's guide with creativity, let's affirm with insight, let's love with responsibility. Yes, you can!

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