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Let Your Children Lead

Your child is not your clone.

My first grandson, Jacob, didn’t want to walk. When he was 18 months old, the whole family would watch in anticipation as he scooted around the living room on his butt, waiting, just waiting for him to prop himself up and take that first step. It was cute, but it concerned us. Susan, his mother, was really worried. So was I. But the doctor assured us there was nothing wrong with Jacob’s legs. He was a healthy, normal toddler — except for the walking part. He seemed satisfied, scooting on the carpet to grab his toy truck or a stray Lego. It was as if he’d decided he would skip walking altogether. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

 Courtesy of Esther Wojcicki
Esther and daughter
Source: Courtesy of Esther Wojcicki

Jacob’s greatest love at that time was basketball. I used to visit him several times a week, and the main thing he wanted me to do was hold him up so he could throw a basketball into the hoop at the nearby park or into any hoop in anyone’s driveway that he spotted from his stroller. I helped Jacob make baskets for hours on end. So did his parents. He would squeal in delight as the ball wound around the rim and then dropped through the basket. To him, it was the greatest thing on earth. So one day I took him to Gymboree, a gym for children, so he could crawl around and play — and be around a lot of basketballs.

The second we walked through the door, Jacob spotted a group of kids playing basketball. He lit up watching every move as they dribbled the ball and darted from side to side. One kid scored a three-point shot. After a brief celebration, the game was over. The basketball sat at center court. I swear to you Jacob got up and ran to the ball. He didn’t walk: He ran! I watched him bend over and hoist the ball to his chest, triumphant. He’d known how to walk and stand the whole time. He just hadn’t found a good reason to do it.

When we got back to Susan’s house, I said, “Guess what? Jacob walks.”

“What?” she said, turning off the tap and looking at me as if I were crazy.

“He walks and he runs,” I told her.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a magical transformation. The minute he got home, he was back to scooting on his butt. It took a few more days for him to realize that walking was more than just a faster way to get to a basketball hoop. It also meant he could hold the ball at the same time — a very important skill. But once he understood the clear advantage of walking, he was completely hooked. And the rest of us relaxed.

I’m going to say this more than once: Parents need to calm down.

Your kids will walk. They will talk. They will learn to use the bathroom. They’ll do it in their own time. No one asks how old you were when you were toilet trained. Or when you gave up your pacifier. This is never cocktail conversation. My grandson was adhering to his own schedule, and he’s turned out to be very smart.

Respect is a complicated topic. First, there is respect for your child as an autonomous person. Respecting the timeline of a child’s development isn’t only about walking and talking. Patience — sometimes lots of it — is needed there. Development is also about turning into the person we’re meant to be. And this process requires a deeper layer of respect: accepting a child for who he is and letting his life unfold accordingly. Kids need to be allowed to take the lead. That means you follow them. Children know who they are. Your job is to honor and respect that.

It pays to start early. Letting kids take the lead when they’re young is important training for parents. It gives us the skills we need to deal with more, should I say, advanced tasks once they’re older. Finding out who you are can be a messy and inefficient process. When kids are leading, they take all kinds of detours. Few find their passion right away. Honestly, most kids go through a period where they don’t know what the heck they’re doing — but I promise you eventually they’ll figure it out.

Excerpted from HOW TO RAISE SUCEESSFUL PEOPLE: Simple Lessons for Radical Results by Esther Wojcicki. Copyright © 2019 by Esther Wojcicki. Published and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.


About the Author

Esther Wojcicki is a leading American educator, journalist, and mother.