One day in 1969, the county extension agent came to my fourth-grade class to tell the girls about a 4-H sewing contest. She gave us a list of rules and a registration form. I had watched my mother expertly transform piles of shapeless material into exquisitely crafted garments with her magic machine. Now I was going to make some magic of my own. I could not wait to get home and get started!
Ignoring my mother’s warnings, I selected a material far more suitable for a party dress than an apron: pale, lavender organdy covered with delicate daisy appliqués. It was the most beautiful cloth I had ever seen.
Anxious to begin, I was disheartened to discover all the preliminary steps necessary to sew. Ironing the material, trimming the pattern, ironing the pattern, fitting the pattern to the material, pinning the pattern to the material, cutting the material according to the pattern, matching up the pieces and pinning them together — it was like assembling a limp puzzle. With pin-pricked fingers, tired and sore from cutting with heavy, pinking shears twice the size of my hand, I was finally ready to sew.
Having supervised my clumsy efforts through the preparatory measures, my mother cautiously introduced me to her prized Singer sewing machine.
Her fear that I might pierce my finger with the needle or sew a few inexperienced digits together was not lost on me. Nevertheless, she proceeded to instruct me on the process of inserting the bobbin, threading the needle, and gently pressing the lever that controlled the speed of the needle with the right knee while smoothly guiding the material under the tension foot to create an even seam. Describing this is so much easier than doing it!
Hunched over the Singer cabinet, feet planted on the rung of the chair (so my knee would reach the lever), tongue placed firmly between my lips, eyes fixed on the pieces of material about to be joined, I made my first tentative stitches. A few days and some tears later, I completed my first sewing project. While recognizable as an apron, it was nothing like the exceptional creations my mother produced.
My initial enthusiasm for the contest was replaced by dread at the prospect of judges seeing those imperfect, wavy seams and that uneven hem. Sensing my weakening resolve, my mother carefully tied the freshly ironed apron around my waist. As I stood scrutinizing the reflection in the mirror, she tenderly shared her thoughts. Her exact words are lost to me now, but the gist of the message was this: Having the courage to try something new is more valuable than the outcome of a contest. If you are going to do something, do your best. Learning to do something well takes time and practice. Strive to make your best better as you go.
“You can be proud that you gave this your best effort, and that it’s your work,” she reassured me.
Fortunately, my mother did not succumb to the temptation to protect me from possible disappointment by doing the work for me. Nearly every generation of parents wants a better life for their children. They want to provide opportunities and advantages they did not have. Unfortunately, the word “better” often becomes confused with “easier.” Making things easier can actually stifle development of desirable qualities. The challenge — to learn, to improve, to meet the next challenge — propels us toward realizing our potential.
We can prepare our children to meet the challenges they will face with courage, enthusiasm, and determination:
Find tasks they can do. Children want to be useful. They feel valued when given opportunities to be helpful. Encourage their initiative by finding age-appropriate ways to include them in everyday tasks.
Take time to teach. Show them how to do what they are expected to do. Merely telling them is not sufficient. Give them a standard to work toward, but have realistic expectations for their early attempts.
Appreciate effort and recognize improvement. Express appreciation for their efforts to perform the task at hand. Provide assistance when necessary. Expect mistakes and offer guidance in correcting them. Keep examples or take pictures of their early attempts, so they can see their improvement over time.
Find the fun. Make the work environment pleasant. Listen to music, chat, tell jokes, share stories, sing while you are working. Remember this wise advice from Mary Poppins, “you find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game!”
Strive for excellence. Discuss what excellence means and how to recognize it. Demonstrate or supply examples of excellence. Practice makes excellence. Help them recognize when they are doing their best and have achieved excellence so they can become their own best critic.
Learn something new. Let your children see you struggle. Let them see your progress. Don’t be afraid to let them see you sweat!
My apron received the blue ribbon, primarily because the judges could tell a 9 year old made it. The ribbon has long since been misplaced, but I saved the apron along with the lessons my mother taught me. They have served me well in every facet of life.
Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Ky. She has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail paren