After the Mess

The research that connected babies’ explorations of their food with more effective learning led some parents to question what that would imply about their ability to learn to eat with utensils.  Aside from parents tiring of cleaning up the mess, how will children learn not to eat with their hands – not to mention learning table manners?  

This is an important question that speaks to the relationship between development and learning, and between learning and teaching.  Babies’ exploring their food with their hands as a way of learning about it is a forerunner to the way exploration plays a role in so much of children’s learning as they grow.  They may take a toy apart to try to find out what makes it work.  Later on, that may evolve into attempts to take apart things more valuable to parents, like the telephone or DVD player.  The fact is that the results of children’s explorations – even in the name of learning – may have consequences parents don’t appreciate.

Often, these consequences can lead parents to feel that children are indifferent to property, or careless, or irresponsible.  Other times, parents may feel they have to just grin and bear it because children are too young to take responsibility for their behavior.   A parents’ group I was leading, once observed a nursery school child pour a glass of juice onto the floor, taking pride in his ability to pour.  Assistants quickly cleaned up the mess, and the parents were in awe of the teacher’s patient acceptance of what the child had done.  They saw it as something to emulate, and I noted that it is easier to be accepting when someone else cleans up the mess.

The point is, there is something between total acceptance and rejection of children’s behavior as they learn through exploration.  That something is the process of teaching and learning that evolves as children develop.  For example, even babies who are learning by squishing their cereal can be offered a spoon once they have the skill to grasp it.  But that is not the same as expecting them to start using it.  Once the spoon is there, they may start to experiment with it is just as they do with their fingers.  That, too, may make a mess, but eventually some cereal may make it to the mouth, and a baby begins to learn what the spoon can do.  

This brings up the question of expectation.  Too often, as parents and teachers, we start to feel that a child should be ready to do something, like give up the bottle, sleep in a bed, poop in the potty instead of his diaper, or put her toys away without being told.  When we expect children to do something without considering where they are in the developmental process, it can lead us to give up on teaching or supporting learning.  Especially since children often understand what we expect before they are able to carry out what we expect, we may start to make negative judgments about their behavior.

The fact is that children understand what a potty or cup are for before they may be ready to use them.  Understanding the concept is only the first step, but not the only one.  At times it is difficult emotionally to give up the pleasure of sucking on a bottle or pacifier, or to part with your poop even when parents find it yucky.  Often learning new things requires trying them out, and then moving back and forth to baby ways.  We need to support children as they start to move forward by offering concrete help when necessary, or even verbal support.

Children enjoy mastering new skills, which plays a big part in their willingness to move forward.  But setting expectations and teaching is not the same as coercing or reprimanding.  Children are not ready to give up their bottle just because the dentist says it is time, or move out of their crib just because it is needed for a new baby’s arrival.  Nor are the books that give tables showing what children are supposed to be doing at different ages particularly helpful with regard to an individual child.  Advice to “take away the bottle,” or taking away diapers and showing upset at the resulting mess, ignores what we know about how children move forward in their development.

At the Diller-Quaile School of Music in New York, where I am fortunate to have been a consultant for many years, children learn from musical cues when it is time to put the toys away, or to put their empty paper cups in the wastebasket.  Of course, doing what other children do is another great incentive to meet expectations.  It is rewarding to see how quickly and willingly children learn the kind of behavior required for group or family living.

We can’t all use singing to teach our children.  What we can do is recognize that  mastery is a process.  We clean up the messes as children master the skills they need  to avoid making them.  That can also include learning how to clean them up.