Children are not robots, and play is not boot camp

Children are not robots, and play is not boot camp

I had a good chuckle recently. My Active for Life associate Stephanie Slate commented that too many parenting websites, books, and articles seem to say, “make your kid do this, even if he cries, because it is good for him.”

It’s funny because it’s a ludicrous message, but it’s definitely one of the ideas that seems to be conveyed.

If we are generous in spirit, we will imagine that the message “make him do it even if he cries” is usually unintentional on the part of the authors. For sure, it’s entirely wrong. However, it’s probably a message that many parents infer whenever they read compelling advice on the “right things to do” with their children.

Yes, we know that kids learn things like language and movement skills best at certain stages of growth and maturation. Whether we are talking about crawling, language acquisition, or social development, we know they are particularly receptive to certain adaptations and “learnings” at different times.

Consequently, it’s logical — whenever possible and practical — that we might want to take advantage of these stages of maturation and development by providing the right learning environments and stimuli at those junctures. After all, who wouldn’t want their child to learn a second language when language acquisition is easiest? Or develop exquisite soccer skills? Or become a violin prodigy?

But we have to remember one thing. It’s wrong to force it with a sledgehammer. I’d be one of the first people to say this. And this is the orientation of everyone who works at Active for Life.

As parents, we need to learn to recognize when our children are ready for a new learning or activity. And then we simply ask one question:

Is our child actually a willing participant in our little development project?

Because children are not robots. And especially during the toddler and preschool ages, it’s possible to seriously dent their emerging sense of autonomy and initiative if we “force them” to do particular physical activities “because it’s good for them”.

This applies to just about everything from your baby’s tummy time to forcing a child into your favourite sport or activity at age 7 just because you used to dream of playing in the Super Bowl or dancing at Juilliard.

There are lots of good ways to encourage the personal development of our children. But their early learning and play should never become boot camp. It should be, and can be, joyful fun.

As a coach, I often like to say we can “hardwire” kids through targeted activities and teaching practices. Because we know that we can strengthen neural pathways (by stimulating myelination) though repeated practice. But this doesn’t mean we have licence to treat children like inanimate machines. It’s simply a metaphor to point out the biological processes taking place behind the scenes.

Again, kids are not robots. Their learning and “hardwiring” needs to be mediated by a caring and compassionate human interface.

What does that “interface” look like? As Dawne Clark writes, it’s about relationships. It needs to start in early infancy, and ideally, it continues throughout your child’s growth and development.

You catch a glimpse of it when your child’s coach or teacher asks them about their pets or their favourite ice cream, or takes time to discuss their camping trip or share a joke. This is 90% of real coaching and teaching—engaging with children and respecting them as people.

After that, the rest of teaching and learning is pretty much like falling off a log. It’s easy to teach a child algebraic equations, how to dribble a soccer ball, or how to play trombone once you have established a meaningful and trusting relationship.

What happens when there isn’t any sort of relationship?

Weak parenting, teaching, and coaching happen when the adult either doesn’t understand the importance of relationships, or lacks the basic social skills and humanity to foster them. I don’t mean to judge. It’s just the truth.

In summation — to respond to my associate Stephanie’s original comment — no, don’t make your baby or your preschooler do an activity even if they cry. Start with the relationship instead. Make an authentic human connection and you’ll see that everything else becomes possible. This is the magic of real parenting, coaching, and teaching.

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