Thursday, November 15, 2012

Just leave them to it!

I hate to break it to you, but there is no right way for a three-year-old to colour in and cut out a picture of a shoe. I know you’re trying very hard to be the best mummy that you can be, but let it go. Just let it go.

At the library today I watched you at story time. My daughter was there too, listening and singing along. When they passed out the activity, she collected a pack, plonked herself down, chose some crayons, and coloured in her shoe just the way she wanted. Then she picked up the safety scissors, stuck out her tongue, and snip snip snipped her way around the edge. While she was occupied I sent a few text messages, sitting alone because you were sitting on the floor, showing your kid how to do it properly.

My daughter finished and grinned. It wasn’t the world’s neatest colouring in, and it wasn’t the slickest bit of cutting out. But she was happy. She picked up her shoe, and brought it over to me. She asked me to thread in the frayed lace, which really was too tricky for her, so I did. 'Good,' she said. Then she stuck her shoe in our bag and chose a couple of books, and we read some stories.

Meanwhile you were still on the floor. You were making sure the colours were blocked in nicely, checking with your child which colours you should use. And your child was looking at anything but the shoe that you had taken for yourself. You kept trying to bring your child’s attention back to the activity, so they did a quick scribble to feign interest, but their heart wasn’t in it.

Your kid glimpsed the scissors, and picked them up. ‘No!’ you said, ‘sharp!’. But I can tell you that those scissors don’t cut fingers. They are safety scissors, for little people to cut paper. It takes real dexterity and determination to use them to cut fingers; and your child appears to have had so little practice that there is no fear of that. I watched you pick up the scissors and cut out the picture, very neatly; you’re almost 40, and you’re getting pretty good at it. You deserve a gold star!

But your kid was bored – and it is not your kid’s shoe. You took it away from them the moment you picked up a crayon. You might stick it on the fridge for a week or two, but your kid won’t be showing it to anyone. They know it was your work.

Trust me, there really is no right way to colour in. If your kid needs to practice their fine motor skills, they might try and colour in very neatly. If your kid is feeling joyful, they might cover the drawing with bright swirls. If they’re grumpy, they might scribble over it in black, or ignore the activity altogether. They might turn the paper over and draw a robot on the blank side; they might take the scissors and cut the paper into a thousand little bits; they might snip a fringe into the side of the sheet. Or they might ask to go for a walk. But you will never know if you don’t give them freedom.

This activity wasn’t a test. Your child won’t be getting into law school because their shoe was beautifully coloured in and cut out at the local library when they were three. In fact I suspect your efforts were counterproductive. Your kid learned some things today. They didn’t learn what colours they like; they didn’t find out what happens when they swirl colours together; they didn’t get to practice their fine motor skills; they didn’t make a choice about what they wanted to do, or how. But they learned to get with the program. They discovered that there is only one way to do an activity; they saw that it is best left to 40 year olds; they were taught to be an audience; and they were shown that they can’t be trusted with scissors.

If you want your kids to have any skills, let alone creativity, you need to let them do stuff. Kids have to do a thousand drawings and make a thousand cuts to learn how their fingers work and how paper and crayons and scissors interact. They need to try lots of things to work out what they like to do. It’s not just drawing and cutting. Kids need practice at everything. They need to spread too much butter on their bread and pour the milk to overflowing and put too much cereal in the bowl if they are going to learn to make their own breakfast. I’m tired of eight year olds coming to my house who can’t hold a butter knife or make their own sandwich. So let your kids do their own drawings. Let them make their breakfast and their lunch, put away the dishes, pack up the crayons, and be useful. Let them make messes and mistakes. They will thrive.

And so will you - because aren’t you bored? Aren’t you tired of making their lunch and clearing up their mess? Do you really want to spend your morning colouring in and cutting out, trying to make your kid interested in something that you yourself find tedious? Your three year old could make it interesting, if you let them. Left alone to colour and cut, they will do something you really don’t expect; often, it will be delightful.

Even better, they can pick up their toys and put them away; they can spread a sandwich; they make their own beds. They just need practice, which they will never get while you do everything for them. So let it all go, just let it all go. And if you do, and let your child work things out, you could sit in the library at the edge of the circle, and have a good chat with me.

Centipede's 100 Shoes (This story from today made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. Thanks to Brunswick Library storytime for introducing it to us all!)


  1. Ten + years too late for my 3 year old(s), but never too late to (a) remember that they are capable - more than capable - and (b) learn to let them get on with it their way, not mine.
    Love, Jan

    1. If it's any consolation, I'm usually preaching to myself - telling myself what I need to hold on to. I'm still practicing, and I'm still struggling - and as for letting my husband hang out the washing the 'wrong' way, well that's something I'm working on!!!

    2. So many of these "activities"are a waste of time. My kids just spent more time at home,or we went on extended holidays to avoid this ... Plus the gold stars for doing it right! They played, made up plays, created worlds in the garden,cooked and did real things. They probably missed a year of this ....
      You are so perceptive the real issues

    3. I have to agree - I only go to library storytime when I'm sick of being home with a kid! She's always happy at home, though she enjoys storytime too.

      Organised activities are all about my needs, not hers - perhaps a topic for another post (and perhaps the reason why so many of us get a little frantic that the activity be done properly - it's about us, not the kids).


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