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Get Out of Your Children's Way to Build Competence!

Children gain competence by doing, if their parents let them.

Competence is an essential quality that children need to develop to become fully functioning adults. In fact, one thing that separates adults from children is the former's broad repertoire of capabilities that enable them to navigate the world including physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and practical skills. But competencies are necessary, but not sufficient to become a capable adult. Of equal importance is the belief in those capabilities; children won't use the competencies that they develop unless they believe they have them and also believe that those skillsets are adequate for them to succeed.

Early childhood is the time when not only the basic competencies are established, but also when that fundamental belief, “I am a competent person,” is instilled. The initial experiences that children have as they first engage in the world, from grasping your finger in infancy to sitting and standing, to walking, eating, dressing, and talking, lay the foundation for their future beliefs about their ability to master the ever-increasingly complex world in which they will live as they mature.

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Early experiences are vital to establishing competence beliefs. Negative competence beliefs are more resistant to change once those beliefs become ingrained. Conversely, positive competence beliefs that are established early on will foster more competencies and be more difficult to alter when faced with the inevitable ups and downs that life throws as children as they move toward adulthood.

Children crave opportunities to demonstrate their competence. They love to contribute and they love to do adult things. Why? Perhaps they are hard wired to want to do what adults do, the value of which is that it ensures that they learn what they need to survive as adults.  Regardless of the reasons, even if they aren't actually doing anything of consequence, just “being in the game” gives them a great sense of accomplishment and competence.

For example, whenever I am carrying or moving something around the house, our daughters, Catie and Gracie, want to help, even if that means just placing their hand on the side of a box I am carrying. From an adult perspective, they aren't doing anything of consequence because they aren't bearing any of the weight. But through their eyes, they are doing the same thing as I and they are helping. For young children, that is a very big deal!

Even when children don’t ask for their parents’ help when they are trying to do something, I often see parents try to help, whether out of expediency, to make things easier for their children, or because they see that their children can't quite do that thing they are trying to do alone. And, to their credit, I often see parents rebuffed with an “I can do it myself!” in parents’ efforts to help them. A powerful lesson is that your children are willing to work hard and struggle to develop their competence, and intervening too early or too often sends the message that you don't think they can do it.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to providing these naturally occurring opportunities to develop competence is time, or the lack thereof. It's just easier and quicker (and often less messy) for you to do it yourself. From your perspective, allowing your children to help you, for example, prepare dinner, repair something, or do the laundry, is often more trouble than it's worth; it takes time, it's harder, and it may not turn out as well as if you just did it yourself. But in your children's shoes, these experiences, and the sense of competence that emerges from them, open a world of possibilities from which they can learn and benefit. When you deprive your children of these opportunities, you are preventing them from gaining very positive messages about their competence, but, more detrimentally, you are sending them unhealthy messages that you don’t think they are competent.

Patience is the key here. Let them struggle for a while. If they realize that they aren't quite ready to do what they are trying to do, your children will ask you for help and you should then only lend a hand enough for them to surmount the immediate difficulty and then turn the task back over to them to finish. The rewards of overcoming what are for them monumental challenges are immediate and clear. A bright smile of accomplishment spreads across their face and they gush with pride.

Yet, many children can be seen who have already internalized a sense of incompetence. You see them on playgrounds, in classrooms, and on sports fields. They are pessimistic (“I can't do it.”), fearful (“I'm afraid.”), and reluctant to even try (“No, Mommy, no.”). Certainly, some of these children were born with cautious or fearful temperaments (all the more reason to provide them with the attitudes and tools necessary to gain that sense of competence). For others, you can see why they haven't developed a sense of competence by observing their parents, who are worried, anxious, overly protective, and intrusive. They intercede at the first hint of difficulties, seemingly worried that these struggles and possible failures will hurt their children's self-esteem.

These parents also see danger everywhere and communicate that message to their children. They don't allow their children to take even benign risks and hover over their children to swoop in at the first sign of potential harm or distress. These parents are, of course, well intentioned and believe they are doing what is best for their children. But they are unwittingly sending messages that “You are not competent” and “The world is a dangerous place” to their children that will undermine their sense of competence and willingness to take appropriate risks as they progress through life.

Though almost all children will undoubtedly gain mastery over the basics of their world, only those who develop a strong and resilient sense of competence will truly gain dominion over their lives. The early messages that you send about your children's competence will play a vital role in its development.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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