Let them try! (Delaware Wave)

Noted educator Maria Montessori once said, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.’ This beautiful statement has many implications for children and for education in general. I’d like to generalize a bit more by putting it this way: “Never help anyone with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

Daytime TV culture loves to spout off about “empowering” others. I have come to avoid that term, because it’s so often used under false pretenses by those who actually want to control others. It’s better to simply say, “Don’t help someone when he or she doesn’t need help.”

Our world is filled with compulsive helpers. Everywhere you turn, there is somebody — in your household, in the community, or (worst of all) in the government — who stands ready to “help.” As a result of this meddling, many people, especially kids, never get the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. On a psychological level, this breeds anxiety. When you constantly do things for people, you convey to them, “You’re not able to do this.” Well, maybe they can’t. But maybe they can, or at least they need to try. If they don’t get the chance to test their limits, they develop anxiety and will never gain confidence.

You can’t open a newspaper without reading about the purported self-esteem and self-confidence crisis in our society. If that’s true, there has to be a reason why this problem is not getting better and, if anything, is getting worse. Enter the wisdom of Maria Montessori: The amazing thing about her statement is how refreshing and how unusual it is. Sadly, that shouldn’t be the case; the concept should be universally accepted. But something must be deeply wrong for this self-evident fact to be so revolutionary.

It’s hard to imagine a more loving challenge to a child (or any loved one) than, “I think you underestimate yourself. Why don’t you give it a try?” Of course, control freaks and self-proclaimed ‘saviors’ in our government will never do this, as they engender irrational beliefs about mistakes. Doesn’t it make sense that an honest mistake that doesn’t kill you teaches you more than you knew before? With each success, you’re stronger, and with each mistake, you’re stronger as well.

A control freak can’t stand looking at it this way, and as a result, he or she — especially a teacher or a parent — projects this attitude onto a child. This misguided emotion, if it could speak, would say, “No child of mine is going to make that mistake. I’ll do it for him! That way it will reflect well on me.”

Bottom line? This compulsive need to ‘help’ is really all about the helper. This is why you should be wary of people rushing to help you. There’s a difference between that and the people who value you and are there for you IF you request it. But compulsive helpers — meddlers — don’t even wait for a request. They’re only there to help themselves.

Of course, some people actually do mean well, but they just haven’t thought it out all the way. Could you be one of those people? Take a moment to reflect on your true intentions when you help someone do something they might be able to do for themselves. Don’t steal their confidence. It’s the most important thing they have.

Maria Montessori is one of those rare souls who comes along once or twice a century, and her wisdom has changed peoples’ lives. In the field of education, we’ve never seen anyone quite like her.

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