GRACE Parenting: How to use a knife to teach kids Autonomy and Confidence – Yu-kai Chou: Gamification & Behavioral Design


It was 7:30am. I was getting breakfast ready and the 5-year-old was sitting on the couch reading a book.

Suddenly she plopped down on the couch and exclaimed, “I’m bored.”

First and foremost, it’s ok for kids to feel boredom. Actually, it’s beneficial. But often times parents see this as a requirement of their attention. A parent will drop everything that they’re doing in order to entertain the kid, or likely, just turn on the television and let YouTube entertain them. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

But let’s flip the script. Instead of seeing boredom as something bad, let’s see it as an opportunity for something good.

In this case, I was getting breakfast ready, so I let the 5-year-old know, “if you’d like, you can help me make the smoothie.”

Examine how I carefully worded my statement, “if you’d like.” It’s not a demand — it’s an invitation.

A demand won’t work in this instance: Do our demands really work on children? Do our threats actually get our children to willingly and happily comply? If I want my child to brush her teeth, should I threaten her to do it right now “or else”, or should I let her know that her toothbrush is hungry and it wants to eat the germs on her teeth?

Because I didn’t word it as a demand, the 5-year-old eventually sat up and waddled over to the kitchen island.

She’s made the smoothies with me in the past, so immediately knew where to start: spinach, carrots, beats all go in the blender. She saw me cutting the cucumber and asked, “Can I cut the cucumber?”

Surprised, I say, “of course!”

I proceed to give a thorough demonstration:

  1. Hold the knife like this with 1 finger here to give extra pressure
  2. Your other hand should hold the cucumber like this with your nails protecting your fingers in case the knife slips
  3. Move the cutting board closer to you so that you have a better angle to cut

After that, she was on her own cutting away.

Autonomy in Children leads to Confidence

In the GrACE Framework that I developed for parenting, each skill/trait to master leads into the next one:

  • Growth: The growth mindset is the base for all traits and skills to grow from. A child must know that they’re not stuck or doomed; rather, their job is to learn and grow through practice.
  • Autonomy: An autonomous child is different from an independent child. An independent child can play by themselves. An autonomous child can set the table when needed, can help with the breakfast every morning.
  • Confidence: Autonomy leads to confidence, self confidence. A confident child does not seek attention or validation from others; a confident child won’t grow up desperately needing the social media validation of likes from others.
  • Empathy: Once a child is self confident in their own skin, then they can master empathy. An empathetic child is open minded, can understand how others feel, can let their guard down, and can make the world a better place.

In this example of teaching the 5-year-old to cut the cucumbers using a sharp knife, she not only practiced Autonomy, but gained Confidence. She was given a sharp knife, something just for adults. She understood that I took the moment to teach her, but then gave her the space to work on it by herself, without hovering over her to make sure that she didn’t cut herself.

This is key: Don’t hover. Teach and walk away. If you hover, it communicates that you believe she’s not ready for the responsibility, and you’ll be reducing her self confidence.

This article was written by Jun Loayza, creator of Dad Smarter Not Harder. Yu-kai and Jun work together on Octalysis Prime and Metablox.

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