Last Updated on October 5, 2018

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.”

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  1. I have a son who is into learned helplessness a little too much for my liking. 🙂 I do think that some kids are very determined and simply won't allow someone to show them straight off or even after a while. You have to wait for that moment just after they realize they can't do it themselves and before they are into the hopeless stage. Then you have your teaching moment. Sort of like a mini adolescent.

    1. Well spoken, Allison. I'm sure God has great purposes for those kids determined to figure out things on their own :). Good word about still teaching them teachability.

  2. It is VERY difficult, not only when you are seeking faith, but also if your faith is more abstract than most. Before I had kids I was on a Sufi path (it eventually, slowly, led to Christianity), BUT I always wondered how could I possibly teach my kids about a faith that was 100% internal and abstract? I ended up doing what you say…well, my kids have disabilities so I'm still on #1 with my 5yo and just on #2 with my 8yo. But this difficulty is compounded when your spouse does not have faith (my situation). But I plod on, trusting God. To be honest, working on teaching faith to my kids built faith in me: I was proclaiming faith BEFORE it truly took hold inside me but I KNOW it led me there

    . Interesting how that works 🙂

    1. You are so right about how teaching changes *us*. And it sounds like if you're still on #1, your faith has become external, too–something that's consistently teaching your kids thru your example, which is so awesome. Praying for your husband's salvation right now; it's cool to hear how God led you to Himself!

      (BTW, has some great articles to encourage you, like 10 things to pray for an unbelieving spouse; just search "unbelieving spouse" or "spiritual mismatch" on the site.)

  3. I have a 9 year old that struggles with "just doing it". On one hand, she's paralyzed by the potential of doing it "not mom's way" (a micromanaging aspect that I have to work on) but also, at her other house (she's my step) she has sibling who will do for her or just give her the answers instead of giving her the freedom to give it a shot and fail or succeed on her own. Really, at the end, it comes down to me and making sure, like you said: that I am not just putting out my expectations but not teaching her how to meet them.

    1. Praying right now for grace and wisdom for you to teach her well, Melissa–and trusting that God will give you just what you need to help your daughter.

  4. I've had this post sitting in my google reader since you posted it so I'd remember to leave a comment when I have time! The 4 step approach you described is the HEART of my blog – I'm a Lazy Mom! LOVE this. And I love how you applied it to faith at the end! AWESOME!

    1. I'm so glad you came back to comment! Thank you for visiting and helping us to promote MomLife Today!