“I think you’ve outgrown that,” I mused as my 5-year-old daughter, Fiona, wandered into the room in a sweatshirt that had definitely seen better days. “We’ll have to see about getting you a bigger one.”
“Get something tie-dyed,” suggested my husband, who runs a youth-oriented market research firm and studies trends. “It’s making a big comeback this year.”
Fiona and I were sold, so we ordered some plain tees, a white hoodie, and a tie-dye kit. As we pulled our order out of the box, Fiona asked this simple question, "How does this work?"
“Um, actually, I don’t know,” I admitted. Truth was, I hadn’t ever tie-dyed anything before. But how hard could it be?
Who's the student, and who's the teacher?
Luckily, it’s not hard at all. But as we reviewed all of the gorgeous product photos covering the tie-dye box, we realized that there are lots of different designs. And we had no idea where to start. How do we make a swirl? Or stripes? Or a circle? The included instructions, although colorful, were a bit vague on the details.
I grabbed my phone. “YouTube!” my daughter said. (Yes, she knows exactly how to find out what she wants, as I talked about in my article about screen time.) Together, we searched for some how-to videos. We watched several, each showing the folding and scrunching techniques used to make a particular design. We even found a teen who demonstrated how to make a heart! Armed with our new expertise, we got to work.
Many times, when we set out to do something with our kids, we parents play the role of teacher while our kids serve in the altogether-too-familiar role of student. We teach them to bake a cake or make mac and cheese. We show them how to ride a bike or ice-skate. Often, we are thinking about how we can pass along some craft or skill that we’ve already mastered.
The tie-dye experience was different.
Suddenly, we were both students, both finding our way together. In this activity, my 5-year-old was on the same footing as my 40-something-year-old self. Neither one of us knew more than the other, giving her the rare chance to be an equal, independent participant in the entire experience. Together, we huddled over the videos, trying to mimic the folds. We learned, together, that you can’t squeeze the bottle too hard or the dye squirts all over the place and makes a big mess. (I managed to make that same mistake, even after watching her do it!) Together, we learned that you have to be really careful about touching things once you start working with the dye or you’ll leave colored fingerprints everywhere.
And together, we attempted (and failed) to make a heart. But I’ll never forget Fiona’s comment when we unrolled the finished shirt to find that our heart looked more like a fat teardrop: “It’s alright mom. We can try again next time.”
We both learned some independence along the way.
At Let Grow we talk a lot about the importance of independence and how failure is good for kids. They need to try things on their own and see that you can't always do it perfectly the first time (if ever!). When they see us try something new and we don’t do it perfectly the first time (if ever!) either, that’s even more proof that mastery takes effort, failure isn’t fatal, and we can (usually) try again.
This tie-dye project ended up being a perfect lesson in independence and failure. And not just for Fiona—it was good for me, too.
Often when we do things together as parent and child—especially when we’re in the more typical teacher and student roles—I find myself struggling to be patient, to give Fiona enough time to work on a new task at her pace. I suspect her flares of frustration on those occasions stem from her sense that I’m getting restless.
When we were learning to tie-dye together, I was no more capable or faster than she. So we naturally operated at the same (slower) speed as we honed our skills. My own inexperience stifled my usual tendency to “take charge.” Here, when our pacing was in synch, the entire experience was a calmer, more enjoyable one.
Altogether, our first day of tie-dye took about six hours, including a short break for lunch. It was a long day! During that time we managed to dye five t-shirts and a sweatshirt. I wouldn’t have believed a single task could hold Fiona’s attention for so long, much less without a meltdown.
Learning to tie-dye was a great opportunity for me to step back as a parent.
This ended up being the perfect project for us to tackle together. Tie-dye is so forgiving. There's really not a lot that can go wrong, and there's so much more that can go right.
I discovered when I took a backseat to this project, Fiona really stepped up to lead the way. It was amazing to see her confidence blossom and how she wanted to share her new knowledge with others. In fact, we decided to make a video of the process to show other kids how to tie-dye, and Fiona was a great leader.
As we filmed our second experience, which you can see below, I played the role of equipment manager and camera operator, while she took charge to show all of the work. It made me proud to watch her confidently narrate and move through the steps.
I know she'll be wanting to do her new DIY project all by herself, and I’m excited to give her that opportunity.
Moreover, mastering something together (including filming the video, another first for us both!) provided benefits that neither of us had anticipated. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more DIY projects to try.