Purposeful Work

Once a child can walk, he finds new purpose for his hands.


He can do! Before now he has explored many things with his hands. Usually he was lying down or seated. Now he can walk. He is in an upright position, with the ability to move toward whatever he chooses. With his hands free to carry, to touch, to tip over, to pour, to build…he moves with a purpose. His purpose is to seek out and learn about his environment.

This means he needs tools. He needs tools for cleaning the floor, for building a tower, for pouring water. In order to do, he needs access to all of this. And all of these tools must fit his hands and his height and his strength. He will be most successful when he is empowered by an environment that is just his size.

A parent recently remarked about her daughter’s experience in one of my infant parent classes, “She rarely puts on a fit at home, but when we are in this class she wants to hold it all at the same time.”

I explained that her daughter is in an environment that is made just for her. It is designed to call out to her urge to do. In the environment there are ten other children having the same experience. And that is wonderful, she is feeling empowered, drawn (called) to purposeful work. She is so drawn to clean the floor that she has a melt down trying to decide if she should sweep or mop.

I love this moment for young children. It shows the intensity in their need for purposeful work. In this moment the child is faced with a challenge, a decision to make. And the parent must guide her child. Be clear; let her know that you hear her frustration and that she must choose, or the tools will be put away until later. There will be a chance to clean the floor later.

By setting this clear limit, the parent helps her child to understand that although one wants something, it is not always possible. That waiting for what one wants is an important skill. These lessons start young.  They are also continually referenced by researchers who explore what makes “a successful person” and they must be initiated by the parents (a child’s first teachers).

For a time, it may seem that this leads to many meltdowns or tantrums, depending on the personality of your child. Not all children have tantrums.

Tips for working through those intense moments of frustration…

Change your phrasing
This may make a difference. Instead of, “No, you can’t have both the mop and the broom.” Try, “Yes, you may mop after you sweep. I will hold the mop while you sweep and then we’ll trade when you are ready.”

Follow through!
Always, as a parent, if you say it, you must follow through. Your child depends on your honesty and clarity. This builds trust in you, in herself, and in the world.

Have high expectations.
Hold them in your mind. Know what she is capable of. It’s probably way more than you imagined. Know in your heart that she has the potential to make it through the decision making process without a Meltdown.

Don’t be disappointed.
It takes time to learn new skills, and the ability to wait is a skill. It will take many opportunities. And once you think she has it, it may be gone the next moment. That is ok. Be in the moment with her and cherish that she is growing stronger by working though this with you. Her meltdowns are not your failures. They are moments for the both of you to get to know each other and your selves better.

So if she wants to stand at the sink and let the water run, but you have set the limit that the water is being wasted, give the need to work with water a purpose. Give her a sponge, some dishes that need to be washed, and a bowl of soapy water at the sink. Acknowledge (don’t praise) her contribution to keeping the house tidy.

There are so many opportunities for her to contribute in daily life. Be open to these and watch to see the purposeful work to which she is drawn.

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