It is another frigid Wisconsin day here at LifeWays and we are getting all bundled up to go outside. We begin by making sure everyone has at least two layers on top and bottom. The children go to their drawers to fetch extra pants, socks and sweaters and we start pulling on all of our layers. I help the youngest children by laying out their snowsuits for them and helping them get their legs into place. I remind them to keep pulling until they see their feet. We go on like this for quite some time, singing a merry tune as we work, “Snowpants, boots, jacket, hat – Mittens are always last.”
Each child approaches this challenge in their own way depending on their personality and development. Some children bundle themselves up in a flash while others are daunted with the task at hand, and just lay motionless on top of all their gear saying, “I can't!” Now and then a couple of children grow weary of dressing and start up a game of ring-around-the-rosie or chase. Others struggle to fit their growing bodies into their gear despite their best efforts. Snow pants are backwards with straps caught between little legs. Boots almost always find their way to the wrong feet. Sweatshirts bunch up and sleeves get confuffled. Yet they keep working at it.
I offer assistance when it is truly needed. Usually, a bit of coaching and emotional support is enough to help them along. I encourage them to remain calm even as they struggle and strive to dress themselves by modeling a patient, calm and joyful demeanor. We sing while we work and we take a moment to laugh at our huge muscles when we put our coats on while hats and mittens are tucked still into sleeves. Even as lunch time draws near and we have yet to step out the door, there really is no hurry to get out into the 10 degree air. Half the fun is getting there.
Now, there are times when we must head out to meet the school bus and some friends are still working (or refusing) to get dressed. If they have indeed been working at it, I will calmly help expedite the process. If not, I may leave a friend to finish getting ready with another caregiver because we have waited long enough for them to join us at the task at hand. Sometimes the child is just distracted, or perhaps they are not in the mood to cooperate. In any case, they usually find motivation to dress once their friends are outdoors climbing snowbanks and eating snowflakes.
Of course, we adults are also struggling and striving and sometimes our patience wears thin. We may be short with others because we feel hurried, tired, hungry or stressed (or our children are driving us crazy because they are feeling hurried, tired, hungry or stressed). We know that the adult's attitude is of the utmost importance. The children feel our inner tension even when we think we are masking our frustration. At home, I have had to haul a tantruming toddler out to the car in pajamas in order to be punctual. In these moments, I remind myself to remain calm and patient and forgive myself when I am not and learn from my mistakes.
While it would be faster to dress the children ourselves or to carry them up the stairs, it is better to let them to explore their own growing capacities by doing things for themselves. We can honor the child's emerging independence by assisting them when they need a little boost without doing too much for them. Whether it is climbing a tree or negotiating a disagreement with a friend, I find it is best to observe and only interfere/help when it is necessary. If a child has spilled her milk or splashed her paint, I calmly direct her to the cloths so she can clean up after herself. I could do it more quickly and thoroughly myself, but I want her to learn to clean up her own mess. When an older baby is learning how to use utensils, I let him make a mess of it and work at getting the spoon into his mouth. I resist the urge to take the spoon and feed him and trust that he will use the spoon and his fingers to take the nourishment provided.
With our patient encouragement our children gain independence and confidence. When we offer them the time and space to persevere and master life skills, they will grow to cherish the opportunities to do things for others. The oldest children in our suite love to help their younger friends put on their boots, turn on the water, reach their hooks, and do all sorts of things they couldn't do when they were little. And when the weather takes a turn for the worse, they are happy take their little friend's hand and help him traverse the deep snow.