September 19, 2019

Be Less Helpful or Be More Grandparent

Dan Meyer talked about “being less helpful” in his 2010 Ted Talk and has resonated with many since. Essentially the idea of allowing students to learn and struggle within interesting, useful problems. On the surface, this sounds simple but the reality is most of us, whether we’re teachers or parents or leaders of any kind often resort to providing answers, or highly structured supports in order to see children and learners succeed. In many respects, this is the greatest challenge we face as educators. 


While I don’t think I’ve ever written about it here (confession: I honestly have written much about anything lately) becoming a grandfather has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I’ve said many times since that if you can bypass the children part and go right to grandparenting, I would highly recommend that! While the benefits are many, one of them is that I have fresh eyes when it comes to how humans learn. As a parent, I probably missed much of this because of the overwhelming feeling of responsibility you have. As a grandparent, I reap all the benefits of parenting but very few of the challenges. 

This quote by Urie Bronfenbrenner, a noted child psychologist resonates with me.

I’m not sure if it’s my love or perhaps wisdom that allows me to see her experience the joys of childhood in a way I likely may have missed with my own children. Those “joys” are about experiencing learning that includes overcoming challenges. A great example of this came recently at a playground. I was there with my 22-month-old granddaughter Harriet aka “Pete” (it’s a random nickname I gave her, no back story) and her father. She wanted to climb up some wrings on the playground. There were about 4 of them spaced a foot apart totally vertical. As she stepped on the first wrung I could tell it was likely too high for her to negotiate. She reached up to grab the next wrung and tried to get her foot up. She almost got there but slipped. I was right behind her and just supported her but didn’t fully hold her. She kept trying and with as little help as I possible, She was able to get up to the landing. She yelled, “I did it!”  After 20 minutes playing, I took a break and her father took over. As she came to the same set of wrings, her dad grabbed her and put her right on the landing. I knew why he did it. It was safe and efficient. She couldn’t do it by herself anyway, why waste time or let her get hurt? 


My wife was a teacher-librarian and often talked about young kids signing out books that were way above their reading level. She would sometimes get complaints from teachers saying they should stick with books they can read. My wife knew there was more of a chance the student would dig into the book if it was something they were interested in as opposed to something that was at their level. Not that she didn’t encourage them to find books at their level but didn’t feel the need to take away the books they might struggle with. 


Both of these examples might seem obvious but my guess is we all struggle with the concept of being less helpful. Sometimes it’s because we just want to keep things moving and struggling can be inefficient. Sometimes we do so to avoid negative experiences. There is a great skill in knowing how much or little support a teacher should employ.   I’m not sure as a teacher you can fully embrace the grandparent sentiment but think about when you could be less helpful.