Today Maximus sprayed sunscreen all over the dining room floor, the curio cabinet, and probably even got a little on himself. Hubby just sighed and said, ‘Let Daddy help next time, please Max’. Now personally this type of stuff makes me laugh. I can just see his logic- going outside on a hot day, mommy’s already got sunburn, there’s the sunscreen, maybe I’ll put some on. It’s called approximation.
We do this with babies. Babies babble; it’s an approximation of language. Babies scoot, or roll; it’s a step toward walking. It’s a baby step, to be sure, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. We cheer them on, we babble back, we help them stand, and we laugh at their attempts. Somewhere around the end of toddlerhood, we stop encouraging approximation. It makes no sense, since we continue to learn by approximation our entire adult lives. I learned to knit a few years ago and I remember what my first attempts looked like even though I picked it up pretty quickly. I had to watch my friend and try to duplicate what she did. I am sure you can think of something that you learned that way, too. (cooking experiments anyone?)
Back to Max… Maximus was approximating behavior he had seen repeated many times. There’s only one problem; he doesn’t possess the skill to accomplish the behavior effectively. He made a mess. I know what happened when I did those kinds of things as a kid. I was punished. I don’t know why, and I’m not sure whichever parent it was knew why either. The stated reason was, ‘you wasted it’ and ‘you should have known better’. The message that I got from it was, ‘don’t try to do things by yourself’. The problem with that is that my parents never told me when that rule expired, probably because that wasn’t what they thought they were ‘teaching’.
I have a couple of options when Maximus and Minimus make messes. First- I assign Positive Intent. Yes I have to do this consciously, because the first thing that pops into my head is ‘mess!’ and ‘waste!’ and ‘stupid thing to do!’ I have to mute that voice and look at the situation- sometimes that happens while I’m trying to mop up the milk before it runs onto the floor- but I have learned that the first thing I need to do is Shut My Mouth!! Someone once told me you can’t think with your mouth open, and I found they were right. I have been the most hurtful when I opened my mouth before shutting it to think. By now I have a stock answer, ‘Oh, the milk spilled! Let’s clean it up. You can use that towel, and Mommy will help’. Some of you are yelling at the screen- “What?! There has to be a Consequence for that! It was careless! It was…!!!!”
My only answer is, ‘You’ve never spilled anything then?’ Do you smack your own fingers when you spill your coffee? Do you berate yourself for sprinkling garlic powder all over the stove while you’re cooking? (well some of us might…but that’s a topic for extended discussion) I hope you don’t. The natural consequence of making a mess is cleaning it up. So that’s what I teach. Is it a deterrent? Sometimes it’s not, because the mess is small and the spray bottle of cleaner is fun. Then, my responsibility for being the authority comes in, because I don’t want to award mess makers with the use of Mommy’s fun spray bottle! So if I think it’ll be a little too much fun, I use the spray bottle and they can wipe. If the mess is big enough, or it happens often enough and interrupts play enough, it becomes its own deterrent. Not because there needs to be a punishment, but because cleaning up messes all day isn’t very much fun, and there are better things to do. Approximation of carefully handling messy stuff is rewarded by having more time to play.
So how does an adult prevent the same thing from happening next time? You can remember, and you have the language to plan ahead. The next time you’re pouring coffee you’ll think, ‘argh! Last time I spilled it, I’m going to do XYZ this time’ Viola! You avoid spilling the coffee! Yay you!
Do you know how much brain maturity it takes to predict events? It takes TONS. Very simply, it isn’t till after adolescence that the brain can consistently do this. Add to that, you must have experience in a similar situation AND be able to apply it to a new situation- something a baby/toddler/school-age child can only do with limited success. That’s why it’s so important to ask myself (and Max, too- he can articulate quite a bit of his thoughts now) “What was he trying to do?” If we can figure it out, I can help him work through how to avoid the problem the next time. Yes, this takes more work than smacking his fingers to get him to leave the sunscreen alone- not that it’d work anyway. But, instead of punishing, I am teaching! A positive response changes a mess into an opportunity for learning a new skill.
I guess it’s time to help Maximus learn how to apply sunscreen. 😀