TEACH YOUR KIDS TO USE TOOLS
by Dorothy Ainsworth
Kids have an incredibly low boredom threshold. That's why they are so attracted to the fast-paced virtual world of TV and video games. Their little coconut heads are compact computers just waiting to be programmed. They are born with a built-in operating system consisting of a hard drive (genetic predispositions and yet-unused storage vault) and lots of RAM (for processing everyday experiences). They can readily accommodate all the specialized software and files of information that their parents can lovingly import. If you don't program their brains, somebody else will. The giant sponge analogy fits best...kids soak up whatever comes along.
I believe in teaching kids from a young age some practical real-life skills...like how to cook and sew and build things using real tools. When my grandson Zane was just three we started with hammering nails into a 2"x6" board that had tiny pre-drilled holes in it. That way he could get the nails started without frustration, then wail away on them with a small but real hammer. (Of course he was never done until all the nails were gone!) After some practice, he discovered on his own that he could hit the nail head better if he used the hammer with one hand instead of both. Look out!
At age four he graduated to using a small cordless drill to pre-drill his own holes, then put screws in the board. It wasn't long before he perfected the technique for successfully driving them home. He learned the drill had to be held straight up and down or the driver bit would slip out of the screw head, the trigger had to be feathered a little as the screw went in, and he had to have his weight pressing down on the drill by being in the right position in the first place. I continually reminded him never to put his hands anywhere they could be injured if he missed his target, and monitored him closely every second. Using the forward and reverse buttons was his favorite thing, and good exercise for his brain. I could see the wheels turning each time he paused to contemplate which button did what. He was a quick study and his coordination developed to an amazing degree by age four and a half.
When he was five we sawed boards with fine-toothed handsaws, used clamps to hold them in place, and learned how to use sockets and wrenches on nuts and bolts to fasten his contraptions together. We assembled pipe fittings for fun, but also for the hidden lesson of righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.
Zane is almost 7 now and looks like a pro when using tools. He draws his own plans of things he'd like to make, and we collaborate on the feasibility of his ideas, which are usually outrageously creative but impossible to build. We end up reaching a compromise, which sometimes involves tears, but it's all part of the learning experience of being realistic if you're going to be a do-it-yourselfer. Then I help him measure and mark cut-lines with a carpenter's square, and we proceed with caution. Recently, with close supervision, I let him use the electric jigsaw to cut his boards to length.
We work on a project, try to finish what we set out to do, clean up the site, and put the tools away. Zane knows I'm a stickler for perseverance, so he can't just run off when the going gets tough. In the planning stage, I take into consideration his attention span, but if I miscalculate, we find a good stopping point. Grandma is flexible because after all, I'm there for him. It's not about me.
Kids are extremely capable...much more so than we think they are or give them credit for. Biology itself dictates the true nature of children. I've never met a child, even an older baby, who didn't want to do it him or herself, whatever it is. Children are adamant about that, and we, as parents and grandparents should take heed of that, and restrain ourselves from being overly helpful.
Kids appreciate acknowledgement and moral support, but they need to suffer their own mistakes and celebrate their own successes. I believe we unwittingly rob them of the self-esteem and confidence that comes with real live accomplishments by doing too much for them. If we give in to their demands for instant gratification it can retard the development of their character.
The process of creating something with their own two hands, and sticking with it until it's finished, is infinitely more valuable than the object itself. The object is just the frosting; their inner growth and satisfaction is the cake.
Kids need to earn their own approval. All the I-love-you's and praise in the world from the outside-in doesn't do it, although encouragement definitely helps spur them on. Confidence and self-esteem are earned in small increments over time, and there is no shortcut to feeling good from the inside-out.
A sensitive child can be damaged if a well-meaning parent isn't careful, so it's very important to use suggestions instead of criticism during the teaching/learning process. Hurt feelings can be more devastating than a cut finger. The finger will heal. Patience (beyond belief) is mandatory when working with small children.
Every chance I get, I have Zane help me in the kitchen. From the time he was three-and-a-half we made pies and cookies and bread...all from scratch. Zane held the apples with a fork with one hand while with the other, he sliced them with a sharp paring knife. No problem...no accidents. I was the monitor lizard. He rolled out the pie dough with a rolling pin and fluted the edges all around the top crust with his tiny fingers, while his tongue stuck out on one side from extreme concentration.
Sure, it's more work than sending the kids off to play or to watch TV while you make the pie yourself, but the experience.... teaching them how, the giggling that ensues during the process, and eating the pie together after it comes out of the oven...is priceless!
We all love those old-fashioned movies and stories and pictures of moms and grandmas in the kitchen with the kids laughing and getting in the act. Well, you can create your own good old-fashioned memories by doing exactly that with your own kids in your own kitchen. It can be quite the bonding experience.
A Case in Point
One hot summer day when Zane was five we decided to make strawberry smoothies in the blender. We went to the store in my old granny pickup and bought an entire flat of fresh strawberries and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream. We were thinkin' big!
We rushed home and washed them, cut the stems off, cut them in half, and piled them into the blender. Zane was on his regular booster stool at the butcher block, helping every step of the way. We were a team! I let him press the "grind" button over and over so we could fit more and more strawberries in. Oink! Oink! Next we added some ice cream and a little milk and put the lid on. Then Zane kept pressing the loud whirring "liquefy" button (his favorite of course) until the delicious pink frothy concoction was bubbling out of the lid.
He was leaning way over against the block to stabilize the vibrating blender by hanging onto its handle with both hands. We were drooling and licking our lips anticipating how good it was going to taste, when all of a sudden Zane's stool slipped out from under him, and the blender went along for the ride. Our precious strawberry smoothie splattered everywhere like a giant paint ball! Zane ended up flat on his back in the middle of the mess with pink foam dripping from his eyelashes.
We were frozen in absolute shock...for a few moments. Then we laughed...and laughed...and laughed...until our bellies ached. To this day we call ourselves The Disaster Team.
Going to McDonald's to buy a ready-made smoothie? Not very exciting. Our memorable experience? Priceless!
Zane and I do all kinds of things together. I've let him steer my old truck (since he was two) when going 5 mph on my dirt road. I've allowed him to sew on my 1929 Singer sewing machine since he was five. He learned to thread it, sew in a straight line, and use the reverse lever to bind the end of the seam.
Deja vu. His mother made her first little apron on a Singer Featherweight when she was a featherweight herself...at six. Son Eric was a mad scientist and I encouraged it. He loved microscopes, telescopes, experiments, and the piano. Cynthia was into gymnastics, springboard diving, guitar, and horses. Everything was real...including the chemistry explosions and the horse sneaking (coaxed?) into the house when I wasn't home!
One thing I know for sure is that kids lose interest fast in plastic toys and/or tools that don't do anything. They like to be challenged, and they seem to lose respect for anything that can't potentially hurt them. As soon as they instantly figure out that a big yellow plastic saw can't cut their fingers or the furniture, they throw it down and run off to stick their finger in a light socket. It's nature's way.
Mom and Dad's stuff is infinitely more fascinating because adult tools aren't toys. That why I encourage parents to introduce their curious kids, who want to feel all grown up, into the world of working for some of the things they want and actually creating them out of raw materials.
The most important point I want to emphasize is that every child is a unique individual with his or her own interests, abilities, personality traits, and timetable for learning. And every parent has his or her own parenting style and interests and things to teach that may have nothing to do with hammering and sawing. Steven Spielberg's mom gave him a movie camera to play with when he was a child...and we all know the rest of the story.
It's all about being tuned into your children's interests and talents and giving them the special time and attention they crave, while at the same time they are learning real-life skills and feeling good about their accomplishments. What could be better than that combo?
Anything that keeps kids active and productive and learning, I am all for, but energetic activities should be balanced out with plenty of down-time for reading and playing and loving. Daydreaming can be just as important as busy work...for us too!
Parents know their own children best. If you think your child isn't ready to handle certain tools without injury, I wouldn't recommend doing some of the things I let Zane do. When teaching your child how to work with tools...whether in the kitchen, the shop, the garage, or the great outdoors...I can't stress enough that you should provide patient guidance, close supervision, and sensible safety precautions above all other considerations.
My motto for working with kids is, "Hover, but don't smother." Accidents may happen, but so far The Disaster Team has had only one biggie-piggie mishap!