From a fellow choice theorist in southern California —

The weather had been nice for awhile and when I got home from work the other day I decided to wash the car. My almost-three son, Jacob, was playing at his train table and on the way back to my bedroom to change clothes I asked him if he wanted to help me. He said that he would like to do that. By the time I changed, my wife and mother-in-law were getting ready to leave and take our three dogs for a walk, assuming that Jacob would be going with them. He declined though, and said he wanted to stay and work on the car project. I was kind of touched by that, although Jacob is a bit of a homebody at the moment.

The dog-walking group headed out and I proceeded to collect things for the car wash. I like to do things in a certain way. For instance, when washing the car I get all the supplies out–the sponges, the bucket, the soap, the ArmorAll, the rags, the vacuum cleaner, the vacuum attachments, and a small trash can. I like to thoroughly do the inside of the car first, and then finish with washing the outside. I start by getting everything out of the car, including the floor mats. I throw any trash items into the trash can and vacuum everything. I was basically going through this routine, getting the shop vac out from the garage, when Jacob, standing on the front porch, asked me if the vacuum was going to be noisy. I said that it would make some noise, but not too much. He said that he thought it would make a lot of noise and explained that he would probably go back inside the house. I wondered what to do at this point, as no one was home, and I was supposed to be supervising him. I continued plugging the shop vac in as he moved toward the front door. I asked him to leave the front door open, intending to check on him regularly.

I started vacuuming and noticed that he was back standing on the front porch. Apparently, the noise wasn’t too loud after all. After vacuuming one side of the car, I started to ArmorAll the dashboard area. It was about then that it hit me. Jacob had said he wanted to help me wash the car, but I was doing it in a way that eliminated him. At the rate I was going the dog-walkers would be back around the same time I was ready to wash the outside and Jacob would probably want to head into the house with them. I realized I needed to change the order in which I usually did things. So, I cleared away all the inside-the-car cleaning stuff from the driveway, and got out all of the outside-the-car cleaning stuff.

Jacob picked one of the sponges as I put some car washing soap into the bucket and began to fill it with water, creating overflowing foam in the process. He was joyful as the foam in the bucket grew and talked about his sponge and how he was going to wash the car. He lightly touched his sponge to the foamy bubbles, never submerging it down into the water beneath, and then moved to the car where he then just as lightly touched the bubbles to the headlight. “Look,” he said. “I’m cleaning the light!”

“Excellent,” I replied. “I really appreciate your help.” We continued “working” together, him often re-doing places I had just rinsed for the final time (I thought), until mom and grandma returned. Jacob actually didn’t head into the house with them when they got back, but instead stayed with car washing job. I liked having his company a lot!

“From what I understand, one of the traits of a lead-manager is that he will try to fit the work to the needs and abilities of the student, rather than forcing the student to fit the needs of the work.”

Later in the evening it struck me that, while I didn’t really do it intentionally, that maybe I had acted like a lead-manager when washing the car with Jacob. From what I understand, one of the traits of a lead-manager is that he will try to fit the work to the needs and abilities of the student, rather than forcing the student to fit the needs of the work. I guess that’s how you say it. I wasn’t thinking, ok, now what would a lead-manager do? It just hit me, what would be best for Jacob? Even though I had to change my usual practice and do things in a different order (gasp!), it wasn’t that big of a deal and it made a huge difference in Jacob’s involvement. I think lead-management has a lot to do with my own thinking and comfort zones, rather than on what I am doing to my students.

Another thing I realized was how sincere Jacob was in his desire to work and to help. He was doing his best and wanted to contribute. I suppose I could have criticized and scolded him for occasionally adding to my work, but to what end. (A Gary Larson cartoon comes to mind, which I have included below.) At two years of age I just wanted to affirm his desire to help and to make his car washing experience as positive as possible. As he developmentally matures, then my communication will change, too. For instance, I will coach on how to clean the wheels and tires and will offer tips on how to get sap off. Through it all, though, I will want to keep the principles of affirmation and appreciation in mind.

Dog mowing lawn cartoon

Choice theory can really begin at birth. It’s more than just giving kids choices. It has a lot to do with how I show up as the parent or the teacher. My expectations set the tone. To that end, I look forward to many more car washes with Jacob. I always want him to feel the same way.