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When Dads Stop Doing For Kids And Start Teaching, The Rewards Are Huge

They learn to be self-sufficient much more quickly if we're not always doing things for them.

by John Hoffman

Not long ago I read a British news media article that claimed today's dads aren't teaching their kids skills the way fathers did in days gone by. Mind you, some of the examples they gave were little odd. In fact, the headline listed "making a catapult" as one of the "basic life skills" fathers were no longer passing on.

Making a catapult?

Well, my dad never taught me to make a catapult. Come to think of it, I've never felt the need for a catapult. But Dad did teach me a lot of things. He showed me how to cut the grass, wash a car, paint, catch a ball, fly a kite, fix a flat bicycle tire and a bunch of other things I can't recall right now. And when I think about it, I didn't teach my kids all those things. Catch a ball, check. Cut the grass, check. Fly a kite, check. Wash the car... no. Actually, I could count the times I washed the car during my kids' childhood on the fingers of one hand. Still I never did teach them some of the useful skills my dad taught me, like how paint the living room or fix a flat tire on a bicycle.

Quicker and easier isn't always better when it comes to passing on skills and knowledge to our children.

I can still picture Dad showing me how to use two screwdrivers to pry the tire off my bike's rim. He said to be careful not to poke another hole in the inner tube while I was doing that (and I never did). Then we'd pull the inner tube off the rim, pump it up with a bit of air and put it in a tub of water to watch for bubbles. When we'd spotted the leak, we'd circle the spot with a pen, let the rest of the air out of the inner tube, dry it off and glue on the patch.

I patched lots of inner tubes as a kid. Having that skill was great, because I didn't have to wait around until Dad was available to help. I'd just fix the flat myself and I'd be back on the road pretty quickly.

But I never taught my kids that skill. I always fixed their flats for them. It seemed quicker and easier. One of my little character flaws is that I tend to be in a hurry to get things done, even when there really isn't any rush.

But quicker and easier isn't always better when it comes to passing on skills and knowledge to our children. And while skills can be learned at various ages — I don't think I harmed my kids by not teaching them to fix a flat — learning to do various things for themselves is good for children. It gives them a sense of being able to get things done — self-efficacy, as psychologists call it. And that's important. When you feel like you can look at situations and know what to do or how to help yourself, you feel like you have more control over your life. That's valuable in a practical sense, but self-efficacy is also a core part of mental health.

I'm not in a position to make a declaration that today's fathers are doing less skill-building in their kids. But I can see how it could be true. These days, children and parents spend a lot of time on devices and social media. That probably takes up some of the time when dads and kids could be doing more interactive things, like working on new skills. I expect it's also challenging to get kids away from the tablet or video game console so you can show them how to wash the car.

Obviously, we're never going back to the old days. All I'm suggesting is that it's worth thinking about teaching practical life skills to our kids. Learning skills from Dad or Mom gives kids very valuable experiences. It provides lots of opportunities for positive interaction that build and sustain relationships. I strongly believe that kids love, and crave, the time we give them when we teach them things. If we take that time to teach a skill, it shows children that we think they're important — important enough to spend time helping them become more competent people.

So next time you're inclined to do something for your child, think about the possibility of showing them how to do it rather than doing it for them. You won't always have the time to "show" rather than "do." But when you can make the time to "show," it will be time well spent.

Originally posted on Apr 25, 2018

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