Lately, my daughter Katy has developed a passion for earning money. She’s enthralled by the notion that one can perform a service and be compensated accordingly. And each day, her list of “services” expands.
“Mommy, if I brush my teeth right now, can I earn a buck?”
“Mommy, if you’ll give me two dollars, I’ll help Maggie get down from the bunk bed.”
“If I stop teasing Faith for a whole hour, how much do you think that’s worth?”
She’s up for actual work, too, and the two of us devise a list of things she can do around the house in order to boost her earnings. As it turns out, she’s a real powerhouse, and spends two entire days systematically cleaning her way through the list. Before long, she’s earned so much she’s having trouble keeping track.
I offer her a hundred’s chart, and she begins coloring in the money she’s made. Using mental addition, she gets as far as eighteen, but the next amount gives her pause.
“Hmmm…eighteen plus five more…that’s….ummm….DON’T help me, Mommy!”
That statement: “don’t help me”: I hear it and immediately know it’s a post.
It’s a post because it’s a phrase that’s woefully uncommon among the over-five crowd, particularly when it comes to academics.
We expect the “don’t help me” directive from our little ones. It’s a sure sign of their desire for independence.
“Don’t help me! I dress myself!”
“Don’t help me! I reach it myself!”
“Don’t help me! I pour it myself!”
But as a former elementary school teacher, I’m here to tell you that “don’t help me” is pretty much MIA in the classroom. In fact, my colleagues and I used to remark upon the frequency with which we heard the opposite.
“Mrs. Olson, can you help me find my pencil?”
“Mrs. Olson, can you help me do this word problem?”
“Mrs. Olson, can you help me spell this word?”
“Can you help me?” It seemed we heard it all day, every day. About everything. From everyone – even the really “smart” kids.
Yet, here was Katy, cautioning me in a most serious tone NOT to help her. Even though it was a hard problem for her. Even though she was momentarily stuck.
What’s up with that?
Well, here’s my take: when you’re in school, being asked to perform tasks that may or may not be interesting or relevant to you, it’s hard to muster up the persistence it takes to power through a momentary – or not so momentary – obstacle. In school, the goal is: get it done, and get it right. With a goal like that, it’s really just plain efficient to ask for help.
But when you’re solving a problem that matters to you – like Katy’s money problem – the goal isn’t “get it done”. The goal becomes “I want to figure this out.” And when you’re invested like that, you don’t default to “can you help?” Instead, you become engaged, doggedly determined to conquer the conundrum. Because it feels fantastic when you do.
Unschooled children have these opportunities every day. They are immersed in real life, solving problems that matter to them in the moment. Does it mean they never ask for help? Of course not. But they tend to see themselves as competent – able to solve the problems that come their way, and they engage in, rather than shy away from, the rigorous mental process of problem solving.
Imagine – a world filled with children whose default mode is “Don’t help me. I can do it myself.”
Now that’s really worth something.