Having parked up in town, I was standing in a queue to pay before displaying, and the little girl in front of me was pestering her mother to be allowed to put the money into the machine. “Let me do it, mummy. Let me do it. Let me. Let me mummy, please.”
Now, I’m better than most at squeezing some fun out a tiny piece of blu-tac, but even I have to admit that the intrinsic entertainment value of putting some coins into a slot is pretty low - especially when all you get in return is a flimsy oblong of printed paper. But of course, that’s not the point.
The point is that young children have very little agency in the world. For them it’s always exciting to be the cause that makes the effect. You may be able to conjure up your own childhood memory that illustrates this. The one that springs to my mind - I must have been around five - is being on a fairground ride, in a trundling train carriage with a bell on the front. I gleaned so much pleasure from pulling on the cord that activated the bell. It wasn’t to do with the sound per se, it was being in control. I could ring that bell as much as I liked, there was no-one sitting next to me to tell me to stop, there were no rules that I was breaking. My train. My bell.
Children love to be given some responsibility, to hold a little power - if only for a short time and in a fairly inconsequential circumstance. It’s important developmentally. Every action has an equal an opposite reaction, and children need opportunities to test this out. No-one acquires faith in themselves and their own abilities without having learned the basics. Even if (especially if) it all goes horribly wrong for them, it’s valuable learning and taking the risk is always worth it.
So try to find something every day, a chance for your child to do it for themselves, to find out if they can, and to practice asking for help if they find they can’t - goodness knows, that’s something many of us could get a little better at. You may find your children are capable of much more than you thought, you may find yourself with a child who can take some of the load, if you’d only let them.
I was recently reminded of ‘The Liver Birds’ the 1970s sitcom starting Nerys Hughes and Polly James (check) as a couple of flat sharing girls carving out their own lives in Liverpool. I was around six when it first came out. I remember sitting at the top of our stairs with a pal from school ‘playing’ the girls. It was my life’s ambition to move to a city and share a place with a girlfriend. It’s commonplace now, but at the time such an arrangement was anything but. The Liver Birds were so different from any other portrayal of women on television at the time. They were my heroines, showing me that I didn’t necessarily need to marry a man to get out of the familial home and on with my life. I loved them.
We can’t achieve anything that we can’t imagine ourselves doing. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget how potent this truism is when it comes to our children. How our children think about themselves, how they imagine they are is the most powerful influence on how they think about their own future.
Earlier this year The Guardian printed a piece by the winner of their Young Sportswriter of the Year (ages seven to nine) award; one Caleb Waterhouse, aged eight.
It’s a piece about the snowboarder Katie Ormerod and how inspirational she is. It’s coherent, informative and charmingly rendered in the vernacular of youth whilst still being eminently readable. The link is at the end of this blogpost.