What I've Learned From Working in the Preschool Ministry

My son was born on July 31, 2008.  To prepare for the trials and travails of fatherhood, I spent my Sunday mornings working in our church’s preschool ministry.  It was really, really fun, and I look forward to getting back to it over the next couple of weeks (I’ve taken a hiatus because of travel and fatherhood).  In the process, I learned a lot about productivity, management, and life.  Here are a few lessons from working with kids:

  1. It happens.  You know what I mean.  It happens, it’s messy, and it stinks.  It can always be cleaned up, though, and it is important to remember that “this too shall pass.”  And it passes pretty quickly: after a few icky minutes, everyone affected will be happy again soon.  It’s upsetting, but fretting about it won’t fix it.  The damage has been done, the diaper needs to be changed, and the kid is crying.  This isn’t the time to step back and think about strategy, meaning, or values.  This is the time to get the kid on the changing table, get the wipes, get a new diaper, and take care of business.

  2. Kids cry and kids bleed, but kids bounce back.  No matter what you do and no matter the adult-child ratio, accidents will happen and someone will end up crying, bleeding, or both.  This isn’t the time to lament circumstances or think about the meaning of life or your goals for the next five years.  It’s time to get the band-aids and peroxide and fix the problem.  This requires a steely resolve, too: peroxide on a scrape hurts, and a two-year old doesn’t understand that a little pain now is necessary to prevent more pain later. 

    There’s a leadership and management lesson here, too.  In the short run, it would be easy to pacify the child and let the wound go without proper treatment.  Dealing with a screaming kid who is irate about the fact that you’ve put peroxide on a scraped knee or elbow can be heart-wrenching.  In the long run, though, this creates problems in the form of potential infections and also signals that you aren’t doing your job.  You end up passing the buck to someone else and showing that you’re irresponsible.  In a child-care setting, I wouldn’t trust someone who is afraid to clean up scrapes and bruises.  In a management setting, the ability to grit your teeth and do what you know needs doing even over the protests of your subordinates will pay off in the long run.

  3. Keep your eyes open and be able to see the field when appropriate.  It’s you, a few other adults, and a swarm of screaming toddlers on a playground.  You can’t focus on just one kid or one group of kids for too long, nor can you let them monopolize your attention.  Other people under your supervision need your attention and your guidance, too.  For managers and leaders who are in a position where they have to develop others, it is important not to develop tunnel vision.

  4. Get into the action and have fun.  Aloofness is a vice among managers and knowledge workers.  Never be afraid to get your hands dirty.  If you’re working with toddlers, pretending to be the giant monster storming the Fisher-Price castle isn’t beneath your dignity.  It can also be a lot of fun.  Similarly, when the context is appropriate, don’t be afraid to interact in a meaningful way with your subordinates on projects they find important.

  5. Tell the truth, share, and don’t take things that don’t belong to you.  If you mess up, admit, be honest about it, and do what you need to do to fix it.  Share and share alike, but always remember not to take anything that doesn’t belong to you.  These are great lessons for the kids, and they’re great lessons for adults, too.

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