Independent Learners, Toast and Heavy Washing Baskets

Many years ago, at a homeschooling picnic, I met a family who had a baby a little less than a year old. I watched her as we sat on a picnic rug together, eating our sandwiches. The little girl reached for a knife. It was a rather big and sharp knife. I looked at the mother and father expecting them to take it off their child. But they didn’t make a move. I felt obliged to do something, so I smiled at the baby and offered her a safe cup to hold, while retrieving the dangerous knife. The father noticed what I had done and said, “We don’t take knives off our children.”

I was rather surprised. I guess the idea behind the father’s attitude was that a child will learn the right way to deal with a knife by watching our example, and by being allowed to handle one. As long as we don’t act with fear, she will be quite safe. A child will become afraid if she thinks we are afraid and that’s when accidents happen.

I have been thinking about this incident…

I don’t think I could ever let a baby play with a knife. Even unafraid mothers have accidents with sharp objects. But I do feel we place too many restrictions on what our children can and cannot do. We sometimes underestimate their capabilities.

Leonie reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. She wrote in a recent blog post“Independence for my teen sons has begun, not in the teenage years, but in the toddler years. When they want to sit on a “big chair” and not in their high chair or on mummy’s lap for meals…I let them. When they push the chair to the toaster to try to make their own toast for breakfast…I encourage them and show them how.”

Toast for breakfast? I smiled as I remembered 3 year old Gemma-Rose making her own breakfast. Actually, she could have been only 2, I forget exactly. Anyway, she was a tiny little thing but she could reach the oven griller. She knew how to press the gas pilot button and turn the gas dial to light the grill. She knew how to pull out the tray and lay her bread on it. She was quite capable of making her own toast. And she never burnt herself once.

So Gemma-Rose made her own breakfast because she was capable… and because she was shown how… and because I let her.

She still thinks she is capable of doing everything her older siblings can do…

Gemma-Rose’s head is inside the washing machine. Her legs are dangling over the side. She emerges and throws a handful of wet clothes down to the basket resting on the floor. Then she disappears once again. By the time I discover her, the basket is almost full.

I carry the basket outside to the clothes line. Gemma-Rose grabs a pair of socks and a couple of pegs and hops up onto a chair. Up and down, up and down… She works by my side and soon the washing is all pegged out. I thank her and she smiles.

The other afternoon, Gemma-Rose came running to me and said, “Are we leaving the washing on the line overnight?”

I replied, “I think it will be dry by now so we’ll bring it in.”

Gemma-Rose ran off. A few minutes later, I followed and discovered she was standing on a chair unpegging the washing. I started to help. And before long, Imogen, Charlotte and Sophie appeared too. It didn’t take long for the word to go around: There was a washing party going on in the back garden and everyone wanted to come along and be involved.

I thought Gemma-Rose would be happy with all the help but she was scowling. “I was going to bring in the washing,” she said. “I can do it all by myself.”

When it came time to carry in the three baskets of washing, Gemma-Rose went to pick one up and I said, “That’s too heavy for you. Let one of the bigger girls carry it.” Then I realised what I’d done. I had underestimated her capabilities. I wasn’t giving her an opportunity to demonstrate what she was able to do.  I was treating her like a baby, and wasn’t encouraging her towards growth and independence.

How many times do we hold our children back? And why do we? Sometimes I think we are just careless with our words. We have our stock sentences we say without considering their truth: “You’re too young… too little… It’s too heavy… too difficult…” And sometimes we just want to avoid the work that comes with letting our children become independent workers. Sometimes it is easier and faster for me to do a task than it is to take the time to show Gemma-Rose how to do it, and then wait for her to carry it out.

We recently talked about how we encourage our highschoolers to become independent learners. I can see it all begins when our children are very young. It’s about letting them make toast and allowing them to carry a  heavy washing basket. These things may not seem to have anything to do with academic learning. But one forms the foundation for the other. Children are capable and will become independent as long as we give them the necessary opportunities. Yes, Leonie is very wise.

But I’m still not sure about those big sharp knives. What do you think?

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    • Vicky
    • November 19, 2012

    Jordy is learning how to dress himself, at the moment, and he keeps telling me he can do things on his own. It seems natural to encourage his independence.

    I can understand the concern about knives. When Adam was two, he disappeared and we found him trying to give himself a shave in the bathroom. There was blood everywhere and he was screaming as though he was dying. We even had a near incident with a toaster when Joel stuck a knife into it when it was on. Luckily, it tripped the safety switch and he wasn't hurt.

    Sometimes, I think I'm too protective about them taking risks but I'm more than happy for them to help with washing!

    God bless, Sue:-)

    1. Reply


      Yes, children do seem to have an inbuilt urge to move towards independence. I can just imagine Jordy trying to do up his buttons!

      I know I am terrible but I smiled at the thought of Adam shaving himself. It must be because of the way you told the story because I am sure it was a very frightening experience. I agree that some things are just too risky. I wonder if that baby ever had an accident with a knife.

      I imagine no mother would object if a child wants to help with the washing. Though I do find myself telling the girls how to hang the clothes on the line MY way! I guess any way will do if the job gets done.

      God bless!

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