My five-year-old is fascinated by The Little Engine that Could. He leans his curly head against my arm while I read from the exhausted halt of the story’s toy-and-food-laden train — bound for the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain — to where the victorious little blue engine pulls the loaded train down said mountain, “I thought I could! I thought I could!”

Unfortunately, my son is not always able to make the connection from “I think I can!” to real life. If I had a nickel for every time those melancholic shoulders sagged with a whine (“I can’t!”), we’d have a nice little nest egg for his college fund … or, you know, his unemployment fund.

For a number of reasons, I’ve been reading on how to motivate this son. He occasionally flirts with the phenomenon of learned helplessness, “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed” (from Google Dictionary). I’m truly blessed that my son doesn’t experience failure most of the time, but he can get a little hyper-focused on the few events in which he hasn’t found success or in which another sibling has found it faster.

So I was intrigued by a valuable little nugget I found in a secular book, The Motivation Breakthrough, by Rick Lavoie. This was fascinating for me — an intriguing hybrid of an “aha!” and a “that’s so obvious!”

The Learning-Teaching Cycle

  1. Do it for him. Right now, for example, he’s learning to brush his hair. So first, I do it for him, and talk him throught it, explaining things in doable, simple chunks.
  2. Do it with him. There are two mini-steps here. At first, your child is your “assistant;” in the end, you’re his assistant. In the hair-brushing scenario, he holds my hand as we part his hair, looking in the mirror. Then, I hold his hand to comb the hair in the right directions; maybe the next morning, I let him do the parting while I lay my hand on top of his, applying a little guiding pressure.
  3. Watch him do it. Your child completes the task on his or her own, but you hang around, checking out what he or she is doing with some positive feedback and helpful words. Here, I let him brush without me touching his head. I give a few “you can do it!” pointers.
  4. Have him do it. This is the point where I let him brush on his own … but only after I’ve done the first three steps well.

Truth is, I’m often leaving a step out. Then I wonder why my child doesn’t succeed. Here’s where I often remember a situation a friend of mine wisely related when his teenage son had a bit of a mess. He said to me, “I had to ask myself: Was I really equipping him to succeed, or just putting my expectations out there and not teaching him how to meet them?” (emphasis added).

Intriguingly, I think the above steps could apply to a lot of life skills that we teach our kids: how to balance a checkbook, change a tire, make dinner, do their own laundry — and more abstract opportunities, like resisting peer pressure.

But even more, I think these apply to how we impart authentic faith.

  • First, we “do faith” for them. We show them what our personal faith looks like, living and breathing. When they’re toddlers, for example, we fold their hands and pray for them. Note: It can be difficult to give your child what you spiritually don’t have yourself.
  • After that step, we invite them in, talking with them about their own lives, their own faith, and how God’s Word and the Holy Spirit can be welcomed in each circumstance (Deuteronomy 6 has a great picture of this). We may teach them prayers that we pray together or pray with them (first leading, then following them in prayer) in anything they face.
  • Soon, we’re watching them live out their own faith, coaching them through each step with loving encouragement. They pray with us at bedtime or at the dinner table, leading the family, which may even prompt some discussion.
  • It’s all followed by the best part: watching them do it on their own. In the prayer example, by God’s grace, our kids develop their own intimate relationship with God that thrives whether we’re there or not.

It’s an outworking of Proverbs 22:6, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” And while that kind of “train” involves no little blue engine, at our house — in matters of faith and otherwise — I’m already noticing a little more of “I think I can.”