The mother of a three year old told me that her son has suddenly come up with something new. When he wants her to do something for him or do something he is supposed to do himself, he says, “I have a special job for you.” His mother was amused by this new approach of his.
Listening to this, I heard the voice of a nursery school teacher at work. In many nursery schools, an important part of the curriculum is assigning the “special jobs” fort he day for which the children selected are rotated. The jobs might consist of handing out cups for juice, opening or closing the door, or other such tasks relating to the curriculum. The main point is that it is considered a privilege to be given these jobs and children value being chosen.
From an adult point of view such jobs may not seem particularly significant, so what is the meaning behind this? One thing certainly, is that helping the teacher is important and being chosen as a helper confers some adult, or “grown-up” status on the child who helps. The idea of helping itself is being instilled as something important. Significantly, this approach is used at a point in children’s development where they both have new skills that promote independent functioning and at the same time may be expected to do more for themselves.
Parents can attest to the ways in which this can play out in relation to adult authority. Children want to do things on their own and this can raise the question of what to allow and what may be beyond their capabilities. At the same time, they may now be expected to do things that are not as much fun once you master the ability to do them – like getting dressed yourself or brushing your teeth. Children experience ambivalence about taking next steps – especially when they involve some aspects of parental care. Independence carries the risk of losing mom’s attention.
As parents we may sometimes respond to that dilemma by either demanding the grown up behavior of which we know a child is capable, or attempting to offer reassurance by continued babying. The one approach can cause confrontations while the other does not help a child move on. It is a challenge to find the way to offer needed or wished for help while at the same time supporting the child’s wish for independence.
The little boy who tells his mom he has a special job for her is using creatively what he may have learned from his teacher. Rather than provoking a confrontation by either rebelling or asking for help depending on the immediate issue, he is conferring a privilege on his mother by his request. Moreover, he is expressing his own need for autonomy through this initiative while at the same time seeking the help he may want or need.
We can learn something from this child as he may have learned from his teacher. In a family everyone has a job or jobs. It is important for children to value the jobs we do as parents just as we need to show that we value the jobs they as children are increasingly able to do. Too often jobs are made onerous by being turned into signs of children being “good” or “difficult,” as they comply or rebel against what they are being told to do.
In school settings children can be heard protesting not about doing a job but about wanting it to be their turn. This might be an unlikely scenario at home – except perhaps between siblings – but the value placed on helping is worth emulating. Perhaps we can ask our children what “special job” they would like for us as we accord them their own “special jobs.”