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  • Shanna Donhauser

Watching Children Fail

Young children struggle and fail all the time.

It's through that failure that they learn.

Children spend most of their day at their "edge," pushing themselves to learn and master the fundamental movements, connections, and relationships skills needed to grow into confident, secure, and capable adults. With tiny babies, this starts with essential functions like moving limbs, rolling over, and communication. As they grow, they learn how to put on clothing, button up buttons, tie shoelaces, explain what they need, and assert themselves.

But what does it feel like to watch a child struggle and fail?

For most parents, it's extremely difficult.

Parents often intervene at the first sign of a struggle. We do this unconsciously, with the best of intentions.

But the outcome can lead to feelings of intrusiveness, helplessness, and low frustration tolerance.

Why does this happen? Why do parents struggle?

Caring for a vulnerable baby triggers in us the anxiety and helplessness that we felt as infants.

We do not remember being infants. But undoubtedly, we were all vulnerable babies at one point. We may not carry explicit, narrative memories of that time, but we do carry implicit or felt memories. We cannot recall the distinct memory, but the experience remains in our brains and our bodies. That is part of the reason why caring for a small baby becomes so emotionally exhausting. And many parents then struggle to face the memories from their childhoods that may haunt them.

Think back. How do you imagine you were able to explore as a child? Were you encouraged, supported, and feel delighted in by your caregivers? Or did you feel rushed, alone, and criticized?

What happens to a baby when a caregiver intervenes too quickly?

Maybe the baby learns they are incapable. Maybe the baby learns that they are too slow, too dumb, not enough. Maybe the baby learns that their parent should be doing everything.

No parent wants their child to feel this way. When parents intervene in children's learning, it's almost always with good intentions. They want to educate, correct, and support. But despite best intentions, our interventions can sometimes lead to unintended outcomes, including needy, insecure, frustrated children.

So what should you do? Notice what comes up for you when you watch your child struggle. Try to create opportunities for your child to have as much time and resources as needed to work on a developmental task, and sit back and observe. And don't forget to breathe.

Verbally encourage by narrating and speaking your observations. "You're trying to figure out how to balance that block. Hmm. That can be a little tricky."

These small moments may feel insignificant. But small moments add up, especially when they happen a hundred times in a day. When you invest in the little things that happen every day, you can impact your relationship in tremendous ways.

Waiting, not intervening, is a small thing that you can change now.

So next time you notice your child is struggling, wait. Don't step in too quickly. Notice and observe what is happening within yourself and your little one. If the frustration increases, only offer the minimal amount of support to get them going again.

Then sit back and watch the magic of discovery and development unfold.

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