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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Competent Child

Over the years this statement has been something I have returned to many times.. in blog posts, and in other writings and presentations.

As I have been entering some dialogues in social media ( Instagram ) about the competent child, as it is clear I am far from alone in thinking this is a problematic statement, I felt that returning to this once more felt appropriate - especially with my two books newly released - The Original Learning Approach and Riskfylld Lek och Undervisning - both mention how the "competent child" is at risk of not being able to remain competent because of the way adults interfere with the way children play and learn - especially when it comes to riskier forms of play or play that is viewed as behaviour rather than play.

But first the words... what do we mean by competent? What is meant by child (as our way of perceiving what a child can do or can't do is going to impact how that word competent is going to have impact): and then the word "the" is also problematic as it implies there is a standard child, which is often extremely normative and then children who do not fit the adult interpretations of competent child are then viewed as deficient, and the desire to "fix" them and close the gap.

A friend of mine shared today a book with the title "Successfully Teaching and Managing Children with ADHD". I think the idea of the competent child as something fixed/standardised makes such titles inviting for many adults who seek to manage children. This need to fix children who do not interact with the world as this standardised view of the child is. It's a big reason why I shifted my way of thinking from play-based to play-responsive - that instead of basing my teaching on play (and often the adult interpretation of what play is) I wanted to teach in response to how the children are playing, and then provide what they need to expand their play repertoire and play skills - with the knowledge that the children's own curiosity will lead them to wanting to know many things and that then this is my responsibility to make available the things they need to discover what they want to know... so in this sense my belief in their competence to play what their brain needs provides many different clues as to how I can teach... and how I can make informed decisions as their educator.

When we refer to children being competent, I think often it is forgotten that it is about the evolving child rather than putting adult expectations on them... after all a competent adult is very different from a competent child... or is it? An incompetent adult is one that is not capable of making their own decisions... is this not something that children have problems with... because they do not have enough experience they have not learned enough about the consequences of their actions. Or is it that we are putting the wrong kinds of choices for children to make decisions about... within their play they make loads of decisions - do they want to play, how to they want to play, would they rather watch, do they want to lead, what kind of actions do they want to do, how long do they want to play for etc etc

My dad used to say that the older you get the further you see... and I guess to get the balance right in life you need to be able to see further, to see the consequences, but you should not forget to see what is close up to... the now. Sometimes I think that adults can have a tendency to forget to think of now, to forget to think as children... and focus too much at looking far down the road and all the possible things that go wrong... do we really want children to be learning this skill at an ever younger age? Don't we want them to keep their sense of play, their sense of living now, their sense of not fully appreciating the consequences in their actions (and being able to trust in the adults around them to do that for them) - so that they can take risks, they take chances, they are not afraid of making mistakes... something I think cripples adults and prevents them from trying out new things...

In risky play there is a certain amount of assessing that needs to go on to keep ourselves safe... if we are not letting children make mistakes (ie be incompetent at risk assessing in a safe manner - so falling over, crashing into something because not able to stop in time etc) then how are they going to practice how to be competent? Because if children are always being rescued by adults, and over protected then there is a real danger that when children are older, stronger, taller and less likely to be under the watchful eye of adults they will not know their own limits - and the mistakes they make will be higher, faster and harder - and more likely to result in the need for medical care than if they tried it out when they were younger and could not get as high or as fast and therefore mistakes are more likely to result in a bruise or a scratch.

As adults our competence is about ensuring the children are safe from dangers, but not free from adventure, mistakes and tummy-tickling fear.

Alison Gopnik talked about birds - comparing crows and hens and the length of childhood with the size/capacity of brains/intelligence... and that the longer the childhood the more intelligent the animal (this apparently occuring across the animal world).

This got me really thinking...

Why are we then in such a hurry to make children "competent" - when often the competent means doing adult things... scraping plates, putting on own clothes etc etc etc... to the extent that we are working hard to enable the children to be independent rather than competent... are we, possibly, taking away play opportunities from the children? Are we then actually taking away children's real learning - play - because we want them to be "competent"? Shouldn't we be serving them for as long as possible to allow these YOUNG children to PLAY as much as possible? BUT, if the children want to scrape their plates, serve themselves, put on their own clothes - which I think most children do want to do - they do enjoy helping, but it gets made into a chore rather than the child wanting to help or do. We should encourage the children, and find ways to help them rather than making them.

After all Alison Gopnik talks about children's learning in a totally different way from us as adults... that we as adults can focus and close off what we do not need... whilst children, Alison compared to being like in love in a new city after three espressos...

When visiting a new place everything that is new grabs your attention, trying to sort out what everything is, what is important, what is not... walking in a familiar place means I can shut out all the extra and focus on where we were going.

If we are in a hurry to get children to focus, to be "competent" - are we then stripping them of their way of learning? Of their way of being able to make sense of the world and deciding themselves what is important and what needs to be focused on... are we stripping their potential to be creative? Are we creating competent children at the cost of allowing creative children?... can we allow the children to become competent in their own time... understanding that they are "competent" in their own learning and play - but maybe not on the timescale that is always expected of them...

and we return to TIME again. We need to give children TIME.

Is it that we, as adults, loan our competencies until the children don't need us. Like when a child is learning to walk, we offer our hand, and our walking competence, to help the child develop their own. And once they have mastered walking we no longer loan that competence. So back to the words...

Competent means

sufficiently qualified, capable, efficient - having ability or capacity

Etymology- from Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary -

"to strive after together, to agree with; hence, to be fit. See compete"

from Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary

"to seek, to strive after"

I do not think being a "Competent Child" means that I should let them do everything themselves, but that I should provide them the opportunity to learn so that they are capable... I don't think allowing children to take too much food so that more than half a plate of food is wasted every day is a good way of teaching them to be competent? I think we need to intervene and show them how to take an appropriate amount of food, and if still hungry to take a little more. I feel that sometimes there is a confusion between allowing children to be competent and allowing children to do everything themselves... we would never let someone get into a car believing in their competence to drive... they are required to practice and prove their competence first - they are driven around from place to place until they have that competence (ie they borrow the competence of others)... the same for doctors, teachers - for just about all professions - there is a requirement that competence is proved before we allow them to get on with their work...


Why is there this difference between children and adults?

I am by no means saying that we should be doing everything for the children or testing them, but maybe we should be enabling them before giving them tasks that maybe they are not physically/socially/emotionally prepared for .. because as Dr Laura Markham writes

"Rescuing children can prevent them from learning important lessons. But research shows that children who see their parents stand by and let them fail experience that as not being loved. Instead of learning the lesson that they should have practiced that clarinet, or read the directions on that science kit, they learn the lesson that they are failures, that they cannot manage themselves, and that their parents did not care enough to help them not be failures or teach them to manage themselves."

So how does that relate to the plate of food or preschoolers in general... should we allow children to make the same mistake over and over and over again... because serving themselves makes them competent... should they be allowed to think it is OK to waste food in this way? Is it Ok that they fill their plates with food they are not keen on because they like the senstation of pouring/scooping and serving themselves, depriving the other children who do like the food from eating as much as they would like? OR could we provide these children with the need to pour and serve opportunities to play pouring/scooping and pour/scoop to their hearts content so that when it comes to food they do have the competence to make the decision about how much food they want to eat and take an appropriate portion, rather than focus on the wonderful sensation of pouring/scooping?

Does the action of young children serving themselves make them competent?

or is it the opportunity to be able to practice doing this that allows them to be competent? After all taking a portion yourself requires understanding how hungry you are and taking the appropriate amount of food, it requires an understanding of what foods taste like and understanding that sometimes a very small portion of something new can be a good idea to test whether or not you like it (the number of times I have seen children not able to eat any of their food on the plate because they have put too much of something they really don't like on their plate smothering everything they usually like), it requires hand strength, it requires hand and eye coordination, it requires an understanding of mathematics and how the food can be shared between everyone on the table, it requires empathy so that food is shared fairly (and that does not mean that everyone gets the same amount, but everyone gets what they need - and that is advanced thinking indeed)... serving food offers a great amount of learning opportunities... so I am all for it... but not to expose the children to making the same mistake EVERY SINGLE TIME, and there are no problems with mistakes, mistakes are there for learning, but if there is no learning happening then there has been a stage missed somewhere and a lack of adult support. I think it then means we have to back a step or two and allow the child/ren to develop the skills required, at their pace, and through play. Through sharing games, the pouring games, through tasting games - through a whole variety of play and learning opportunities we can allow the child to be competent - to be "sufficiently qualified, capable, to have the ability". I also think this is the same for scraping plates... so many children that are physically unable to hold the plate at the correct angle and scrape into a small container. I feel it is setting up children for failure, or for thinking it's OK to miss (because no one minds, or hides that they mind... or does mind and the child feels shame). Think about what strategies can be put in place - a special plate holder, a bigger container, hand strengthening games - or maybe waiting until they are older and have showed signs in their play that they are physically capable. Child:

Over the years I felt like I hear more and more children desiring, from an ever younger age, to be an adult. When I ask why they want to be an adult it usually comes with the desire to be able to do whatever they want - as for some reason they think that is what we adults have the luxury of having.

And yet I understand why they say that... there is so much that is controlled by adults - mostly for their sake (of course not all adults have that approach, and not all systems are as child friendly as they ought to be). Adults have had the opportunity to gain so much more experience, and it is this experience that becomes the controlling factor... whether or not it is applied right is another story though.

When my son was young he and I were talking about the whole adult/childhood phenomena and his desire not to be a child anymore because "being a child is pathetic..."

I answered him that I believe that childhood is a superpower

He looked at me with disbelief and challenged my superpower theory...

I continued... "the childhood superpower is imagination - most adults lose that superpower, they lose the ability to see the many possibilities that children can dream of, adults choose to follow what they have been told is right rather than discover and understand what is right. They forget to question everything, they forget to play. Being a child is the best time... the trick is to keep your childhood superpower with you when you become and adult and not to lose it..."

Play is fundamental to learning and development... regardless of age. Yet play is often something assigned to childhood and therefore made less important than what adults are made to do... work. So despite the fact that the play is the brain's way to adapt to a complex world - to thrive - it is seldom seen as the true power it is, because it's something that is most visible in children.

Over the years I have been asked why I prefer interacting with children better than adults... my answer is simple. Children accept me as who I am - with adults you always have to try and work out what their expectation is of you (even as a child interacting with an adult) and therefore there is the pressure to adjust to their thinking to feel accepted (and feeling seen and accepted is an important human need). Adults are less frequently open to new perspectives in the same way as children are. Being with adults is much more limiting than with children in many senses. Of course it is always wonderful to meet up with other adults who have their inner-child intact - to play, to imagine to try and view things from all perspectives. Yes, I am an adult. I do adult things, I fall into the trap of being an adult too... but I am so aware of my inner child and to allow my superpower to guide me too.

“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” ― C.S. Lewis

To read more on this check out the following posts

Or check out the categories "Competent" and "Listening" for further reading.

  1. take time to consider whether it is the child your are seeing/listening to - or wheter it is the stereotype or your bias that is the loudest.

  2. slow down, and notice what is really happening

  3. play is essential... here is where understanding the competence of children lies, and what competencies they need to borrow from us

  4. children given the space to help each other, rather than the adults making the play easy

  5. space to be themselves

  6. and if lunch times are being disturbed by someone blowing bubbles in their milk (and then everyone doing it, and some forgetting to eat and then getting grumpy later) then bubble play is provided later - so they can eat at lunch knowing their play needs are being met.

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