The Law of Readiness: Already, But Not Yet

Already, But Not Yet. This is when a little child is really interested in doing something about six months before they are able to do it well. You want to keep them from doing it because they’re messing it up, taking such a long time, but if you stifle their ability to work on it now you inevitably find them resistant later–exactly when you want them to do it!

I caught onto this law when my third little toddler wanted to get the stepstool so he could get up on the couch. In our house, the kids’ stepstool is kept in a particular spot underneath another chair. Unfortunately, the stepstool is wooden and so are our floors, so when my little toddler went to go get it from underneath, he was scraping it into the chair, floors, walls, and everywhere else, trying to maneuver it out of there. My first instinct was to rush at him and say, “No! You’re scraping the floors!” Or at least take it away from him since he could barely lift it anyway. But it was as if this little voice came into my head at that moment and said, “Wait and see.” So I did, and I found out that even though he was only twelve months old, he was seriously interested in getting this stepstool so he could fix his own problem. Rather than correct him, I ended up putting felt pads on the bottom of the stool legs, and letting him bang it around for a month until he could maneuver it quite well. When he was older, he was even able to go look for it if it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and carry it all the way down the hallway to where he wanted it.

It finally dawned on me that this child was exhibiting behavior that I wanted at some point, but before he was really ready to do it independently: the Already, but Not Yet. Since then, I have seen this over and over. Sometimes I squelched the activity because I wasn’t thinking.  They were likely making such a big mess or going at a snail’s pace so I took over. But then inevitably I couldn’t get the kid to do it again later when I thought they were really ready for the responsibility. Other times I caught myself and encouraged the activity, watching new things blossom forth as a result. Here’s a brief list of both successes and failures I remember.

Successes:

  • getting the stepstool when something was too high
  • being able to work the seatbelt from the booster carseat
  • using a spoon
  • using an open cup
  • wiping up a spill
  • sweeping with a dustpan
  • filling the dishwasher (with help)
  • washing a tabletop with a sponge
  • putting on their own shoes
  • washing their own hair/bodies
  • taking stuff to the laundry, sorting it
  • toileting (a younger child)
  • opening car doors

Failures:

  • undressing, especially socks and pants with elastic at the cuffs
  • brushing teeth
  • doing buttons, snaps, zippers
  • turning doorknobs
  • climbing the changing table/crib (not that I wanted them to do this, but then they wouldn’t climb up on anything else I needed them to)
  • using their own stereo
  • toileting (my oldest child)
  • holding onto their own cup/bottle
  • letting a child get themselves up after a fall (as opposed to helping them up)
  • letting a child call/locate Mommy by themselves when they needed something
  • baby gates up too long
  • drawing objects
  • coloring inside the lines
  • cutting with scissors

So basically the lesson I learned is, if I want a child to learn to do something independently, there is probably going to be a struggle before the victory and I can’t take over.  If I take over, even if it is just to help them or ease emotions, then I am taking power away from them that they need to be an active agent in their world.  For some children, this makes them lazy and passive, or at least whiny.  For other children, it exasperates them or at least makes them bored, resentful.  This doesn’t mean to neglect them, or let them do age inappropriate things.  It just means to assume if they are showing interest, that they are possibly ready and I have to let them stumble through it a bit.   If I take over the skill, or if I prevent them from working on it because I don’t want to deal with the trouble of being vigilant about it for as long as it takes, then I really cripple them.  Now there are definitely times where Mommy’s needs have to prevail: pregnancies, life crises, or too many battles on the table are good reasons.  But those kinds of times are justified; we’re all human.  It is more the times where I’m just tired, annoyed, or fearful… at those times, I have to ask myself whose welfare is at stake if I take the path of least resistance.  Fortunately, history + three toddlers has helped me remember by now =)

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