Children are not robots, and play is not boot camp

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

Unfortunately it’s a message that often gets conveyed unintentionally when we talk about the “right things to do” with 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 the “right” times. 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: our children need to be willing participants. As parents, we need to recognize when our children are ready for a new learning or activity, then we simply need to ask ourselves:

Does our child want this?

Children are not robots. During the toddler and preschool ages especially, 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 baby’s tummy time to forcing a child into our favourite sport or activity at age seven just because we 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 we can strengthen neural pathways (by stimulating myelination) though repeated practice. But it’s just a metaphor to point out the biological processes taking place behind the scenes. I wouldn’t suggest we treat children like machines.

Our children’s learning and “hardwiring” needs to be mediated by a caring and compassionate human interface. 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 becomes 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.

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 by finding out what your child really wants. Then you’ll see that everything becomes possible. This is the magic of real parenting, coaching, and teaching.

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