Giving your little ones the tools to try their hands at something new holds lessons in resilience and creativity — for kids and adults alike.
Among my family’s inside jokes is a line that came from my daughter when she was a toddler. Whenever she wanted to express her independence, she would angrily decree, “Do self!” Generally I backed off, as long as she wasn’t in any danger. This led to ridiculous amounts of lost time waiting for her to buckle her own five-point seatbelt, button her cardigan with the teensy buttons, lace up her complicated snow boots, make her own Halloween outfit, and so on. Years later, the independent streak continues. At ten years old, she wriggles out of my grasp and waves me away when I try to help, saying, “No thanks, I’m good.” My husband and I look at each other and say, “Do self!”
This is one of the hardest parts of parenting for me. It’s not that I’m a control freak, it’s that I like things done a particular way — can labels turned outward, T-shirts folded to the same size, crayons in rainbow order — and I have to quash every impulse to micromanage my children’s projects, from hair brushing to coat zipping.
When I came home from work one day with a copy of Sewing School tucked into my bag, my daughter snatched it up, flipped through the simple instructions, and ran away to find my sewing box. Over the next few days, she stitched small pillows, stuffed animals, and purses. I’m not an expert sewer, but as I watched, I could see when things weren’t turning out right. The purse she made, for example, was actually a cool mash-up of two projects in the book — the Hold-My-Stuff bag and the Get-to-Work Apron — with improvised pockets on the inside. It had a very thin fabric strap that I knew wouldn’t hold up. I bit my tongue. I didn’t want to stifle her creative ambitions. After two days of carrying her purse, she announced that she should have used a ribbon for the strap so it would be stronger, like it said in the instructions. Lesson learned.
But purse-making missteps didn’t discourage her. She generously offered to sew something for her little brother, and he wanted a stuffed star. I saw her drawing free-form on the material and suggested she measure it. “No thanks.” As she cut the material, I asked if she’d like me to help her even out the star’s points. “No, I’m good.” She took a painstakingly long time on the stitches, which I suggested ought to be done on the wrong side so she could turn the pillow inside-out. “No, I like it this way.” I worried that her brother would make fun of the end result. He didn’t. He was so thrilled, he gave her a huge hug and has kept the star in a place of honor ever since.
The same snatch-the-book-and-run-to-create thing happened when I brought home Cooking Class; only this time, both kids absconded with the book to plan their culinary adventures. I was chased out of the kitchen while the Amazing Apple Crisp took form, and my daughter wore a huge grin when she served it after dinner that night. My son created some “scary sandwiches” from the Mix-and-Match Sandwich Shop and took delight in serving them for lunch the next day.
I wasn’t even allowed out of bed for the Sleepover Party Pancakes until they were ready, but I did get to lend a hand cutting up fruit for the Breakfast Sundaes. It’s nice to be useful.
Honestly, I don’t even think Horse Play! had been in my possession for ten minutes when my son presented his version of the Barn-in-a-Box. Excited to use the stickers from the book to decorate his own barn, he didn’t waste any time looking for boxes. He just grabbed a paper bag, cut a barn door, and improvised. I winced. “Cool idea!” I said. After I thought about it a while, I figured, you know, it kind of was a cool idea.
And that’s the thing I realize in looking back through these books for young makers: the instructions are straightforward and easy to understand, but nothing is saying You must do it this way. Creativity isn’t about perfection; the process of making something involves improvisation and mistakes, and this is essential for learning how to get through a rainy Saturday afternoon, a homework assignment, and life.
So take it from me: hand your kids one of these books, back off, and allow them to “mess up.” You’ll be amazed by what they can do.