Sitting at the kitchen table, attempting to drink a few gallons of coffee (because Insomnia is a Callous Bitch), I heard my oldest caterwauling, "HELP! Mommy! I can't do it!"
I took another sip, braced myself, and then felt my ears melt down the sides of my head.
My son may be a masculine little dude, but he can squeal with the best of them.
I eventually walked into the bedroom. Owen was on the floor, attempting to wrestle out of his pajama top. One arm was dangling freely, but he had managed to twist the other arm into a straitjacket-worthy knot. His face was red, and he had clearly shut down.
I attempted to walk him through the motions of taking off his shirt. I would like to say that I had the patience of an occupational therapist, or the empathy of a preschool teacher, but I didn't. My voice cut through the room as I groaned, "Just bend your elbow, Owen! You're making this harder than it is!"
Naturally, this only added to his perceived stress, and he responded, "This is TOO HARD!"
I heard my mother's voice come out of my mouth and I said, "Sweetie. You can do hard things."
I've been doing some editing work recently which discusses self-efficacy, which is the belief that one is capable--that one can do hard things. Although the work in question involved teaching and education, I naturally transferred the information to my present situation.
How do I make efficacious children? How do I teach my sons that they can do hard things?
This is not the same thing as the "everybody gets a trophy" mentality of self-esteem. When people have high self-efficacy, they believe in their capabilities, because they have experienced success. Success, thus, builds success.
If I do not help create efficacious children, I have not done my job as a parent. I feel that strongly about it.
As a child, I was classified as "gifted" and placed in special programs for reading and language. Now that I've been a teacher, I recognize that I was probably not gifted at all, just verbal.
Nevertheless, I was taught from an early age that I was smart and capable and special. I could do hard things without even trying.
So, not surprisingly, the first time I had to try anything, I had no coping skills. I remember as clear as day, sitting in math class. The teacher was explaining a concept and as she talked, I felt my heart race, my palms grow sweaty---all of the classic signs of panic. I sat at my desk, rubbing my eraser back and forth along the desk until it was nothing but rubbery ash.
Tears pricked my eyes. "Stupid," I mumbled to myself. "This is stupid. I hate math."
This belief stayed with me for about thirty years. It shaped my career pathway, and my life choices. Just the other day, I turned down a part-time job teaching GED classes, because I didn't feel confident enough to teach basic algebra.
The fact of the matter is, I never was successful at math because I didn't believe I could do it.
I didn't even try.
I needed to be taught how to try hard things.
When I see the boys retreat into learned helplessness or rage at me in frustration, I need to remember that self-efficacy is nurtured, not assumed. I did some research, and I am going to try to develop self-efficacy in the following ways:
Provide Kids with Reasonable Responsibilities
The boys are fully capable of picking up their toys, putting their dirty clothes in the washing machine, and clearing their plates. I hold them to it.
When my oldest wants to earn extra money, I have him vacuum the carpet or mop my floor. He also shakes out rugs, dusts, and cleans the sliding glass door.
I'll hire him out for the right price.
When learned helplessness rears its ugly head, I sit with them and break the tasks down into steps. Admittedly, I get testy more often than I should, as demonstrated by the Great Shirt Freakoutgate of This Morning.
Yet, more often than not, I resist the urge to do the hard things for my kids, and I try to model ways that they can solve their problems.
I encourage them to ask for their own ketchup at restaurants. I ask them how they will wash their hands in public restrooms when they can't reach the sink.
I hope I keep this resolve when it comes to the science fair projects and three-dimensional dioramas in their future.
Allow Kids to Make Decisions
I firmly believe that you don't let kids make all the decisions. The boys eat what I make them, or they don't eat. We don't discuss going the gym, because my need to run is more important than their need to make a six-foot Lego tower. However, we do include the boys in low-stake decision making. Do you want a grilled cheese or macaroni? Do you want to wear your Crocs or your shoes? Do you want to go up the stairs right side up or upside down?
Right now, it's the little things. But I believe it all matters.