I just returned from a conference on community building called The Urban Village: From Cloud-Castles to Blueprints, sponsored by The Servi Institute in Oklahoma City, OK, where I gave a presentation on passing on manual skills to children by letting them work alongside you. (The conference itself was about so much more than this, and I plan to write at least one more post with additional reflections from the conference.) What follows is an outline of the presentation I gave there.
As an avid woodworker and a father of several children, I want to pass on my skills to my children as much as I can. And in doing so, I hope to craft a home environment where skilled, meaningful work is a normal part of everyday life.
Perhaps I’m more naively optimistic about this than I should be. After all, each child is his or her own person, and as the children grow and mature, each one gravitates toward very different things. Some kids really love working outdoors and getting their hands dirty. Others prefer to explore the great indoors, especially when there are toys and books to be had. But everybody is capable of doing meaningful work, and working skillfully builds prudence, patience, and courage, no matter what kind of work is being done.
If you want to help your children learn to work with you—especially as you work with your hands—there are some principles and guidelines to keep in mind. I’m using my own craft–woodworking–as an example, but these principles apply whether you are teaching kids to cook meals, clean a house, repair a car, write poetry, or play music together.
1. Learning starts with observation and imitation. If you want children to learn about your craft, you have to begin by letting them into your workspace while you yourself are at work. Once children see you work, they will begin to imitate you.
A few years back, I walked into the dining room to find two of my little daughters doing this:
They had a chair turned over on the floor. One of the girls was “fixing” and “cleaning” it. The other one had stopped to “take a picture.” They had clearly been watching my work habits closely–including my habit of stopping to take pictures of my work to post on the internet!
Just make sure that your work–and your work habits–are actually worth imitating.
2. Let them play at your work. Mr. Rodgers was fond of reminding adults that, for children, play is serious work, and that children learn to work by playing–an idea he got from educational psychologist Jean Piaget. Let children try out different tools on ordinary materials and see what happens.
Above, two of my daughters practice carving with a carving gouge on a scrap board. The gouge in use is razor sharp–a real tool–and it works very well when handled properly. (This is an excellent opportunity to train children in taking the right safety precautions.)
Don’t bother about getting “kids’ tools.” I find that a child who can write his or her own name usually has the dexterity to handle the smallest of regular, “adult-sized” tools, whether it’s scissors, a spatula, or a power drill. I keep a few well-maintained tools in smaller sizes around for the kids to handle–small eggbeater drills, 12 oz. hammers, and short handsaws–but these are all real tools, not imitations.
Don’t give kids dull, shoddily-made tools to work with, either. They will frustrate the kids just as much as they frustrate you.
3. When they are ready for simple projects, distribute the work between you and the child. That includes planning and designing the project. Don’t do anything that the child can do by him or herself.
A couple months ago, my son brought me some scraps of wood he had been playing with. He showed me how he wanted to make a little train engine out of them. So we spent some time going back and forth about different design options, and we began shaping the pieces and putting them together. I did most of the sawing. He helped drive in nails and spread glue. At each stage, I told him what I was doing and why. He stuck with me through the whole project and came away with something he and I can be proud of.
4. As the child becomes more capable, you step farther back into an advisory role. This can be difficult, especially if you think the child has taken on a project that is a little beyond his or her actual capabilities. That may be so, but that’s the only way we learn anything. Set the child to work and walk away.
I mean it: Walk. Away.
Here my daughter is building some “fairy furniture” to set out in her little garden. She came to me with the idea, I provided the materials, and she put everything together.
As they get older, they will become more ambitious. Just go with it.
Here my oldest daughter is laying out dovetails for her tool chest. It was a challenging project for her, and she learned a lot along the way.
If you’ve spent the last several years closely supervising the child’s every move, it can be hard to walk away and let the child work unsupervised. But you have to. You don’t work well with somebody hovering over your shoulder, do you? Nobody does.
Your child will eventually run into a problem, so let him or her come to you once the problem arises, even if you saw it coming all along. Learning when to figure it out yourself and when to ask for help is an important step in the maturation process.
5. Remember that the ultimate goal is not necessarily a finished product.
It is good to make an object.
Following through and finishing a job not only brings satisfaction, but it also develops the habit of endurance. Above, the children are helping me sand spoons to sell at a local market. They know they have to do the job well and completely, otherwise we don’t get paid for it.
So making an object is good, but building skill is even better.
The more the child builds skill, the more capable he or she will be, and the more he or she can work independently. Here, my daughter carves out a ladle–a custom request from an acquaintance. She had never made a ladle before, but she had made many stirring spoons, so applied her skill and did something new.
As we build skill, we learn to shape our surrounding respectfully, to work within the natural limits imposed by our materials. And skills build upon skills. Learning to work effectively with one tool naturally leads to a second, and a third, if we are willing to follow our craft.
So building skill is better than building an object, but building a relationship is best of all.
I don’t want to idealize the process of passing on your craft to children. It’s slow going. It requires a lot of patience. There are setbacks and disappointments. People make messes. They lose interest. They break things.
Teaching while working is massively inefficient. At least in the short term. If you just want to get something done, then having little apprentices around will definitely slow you down. But if you care not only about the longevity of the craft itself, but about your own personal relationships, then you have to be willing to slow down and invite others into your work life.