Why I Love Working with Kids

October 18, 2010

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All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school. - Robert Fulghum

Children give you a lot of perspective on life. They are impossible to keep in order, except when you do seemingly trivial and silly things. They seem very rude and uncouth most of the time, but the best way to get them to do what you want is simply to ask nicely. They remind you what’s important in life, and the importance of friends, food, and enough rest. They also teach you how to appreciate the little things in life, like the wonder of floating on a surfboard in the sun (something I find endlessly tedious) and how stupid things can be really, legitimately funny.

I spend large chunks of my day attempting to get 10 and 11-year-old boys to run faster or engage in complex (and often dangerous) gymnastics skills. I have also spent more time than I like to admit as a camp counselor of similarly-aged boys, teaching them how to ride large (and often dangerous) horses or navigate beautiful (and often dangerous) lake country. I do not really consider myself the kind of person that does well with kids, but seeing as I’ve not yet lost or seriously injured a child, I suppose I must have more skill than I credit myself with.

Herding Cats

Because so much of what I do involves teaching kids how to do dangerous things safely, or to do things they would not otherwise be inclined to do, I’ve learned a few things about how to motivate them (though certainly not as much as I’d like).

  • Be polite. A lot of kids are really sensitive to ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They get reminded all the time, and they will remind you if you neglect your manners. Adding a simple ‘please’ to the beginning of a request will get your further than forgetting it.
  • Don’t talk down to kids. Maybe this depends on the age group, but the boys I deal with seem to do better when you talk to them like (attention-deprived, hyperactive) adults. Obviously, I don’t use words like ‘ubiquitous’ or ‘egregious,’ but then again, I don’t usually use those words around most adults.
  • Take the time to explain your requests. Considering that I can’t always keep an eye on every kid I supervise, I find that impressing them with the gravity of the safety precautions we use helps keep them in-line. Instead of simply telling them something is a rule, tell them why, so they actually have a good reason for their own sake to do it. This works with adults too, but kids seem to insist more on having their actions justified.

Lessons Learned

Some lessons on life I’ve learned from coaching kids:

  • Don’t waste time doing things you don’t enjoy. The conversation went like this. “Is it fun?” “No.” “Then why are we doing it?” I didn’t really have a good answer for him, since “because we have to” is not a valid reason to do anything.
  • People really appreciate manners. An adult reminding you to, “say please” is condescending. Having a child do it makes you feel thoughtless. When they actually follow your instructions, it’s pretty awesome.
  • Reward before punishment. One of the most surreal experiences I ever had was getting a room full of rowdy kids to quiet down by saying, “You guys are doing a great job of being quiet” and watching the room fall silent within seconds. People feel guilty when you praise them for something they are not doing, and they’ll try to live up to your expectations.
  • Make chores a game, provide rewards. The best way I’ve found to get my cross country kids to run was to have them race each other and give them points. The person with the most points gets to pick the game at the end.
  • Take Joy in Simple Things. When I was volunteering at a daycare center for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the greatest benefit I brought to the team was entertaining the kids with my guitar. Ridiculously simple chords and songs sent these kids off the wall dancing with abandon, simply because I was playing the guitar.
  • Talk less, do more. Sometimes, we spend too much time explaining things. Instead of providing endless explanation and useful tips and pointers, just have people start their projects and let them learn as they go. Too much explanation makes them overthink and jittery.
  • Have a sense of humor. Kids will tell stupid jokes. They find the most inane things wildly entertaining. If you insist on maintaining your refined, delicate sense of humor, you’ll never relate to them. Poke fun at them, and let them entertain you. They are just trying to impress you with their wit.
  • Have patience. Despite all this, kids talk, chatter, interrupt, get distracted, run in circles, make faces, push each other, ignore you, etc. You’ll have to repeat yourself over and over and over. Just go with it. They don’t really hold grudges, and you shouldn’t either. In the end, we’re all just trying to have fun, so keep things light and breathe.

In the end, I think most people are still kids at heart. We cover up our childlike nature with propriety and grace, but every now and then we act like children, especially when our passions come up. It helps to realize that some people are still children both inside and out, and that life is pretty fun and crazy when you let your inner child run around.

What lessons have you learned from the children in your life? Or are you freaked out by little kids?

- (**