A few years ago my little girl and I were painting the back door of the house. Most parents are familiar with the stage of “helping” from their kids, which is more about spending time together and starting them off on being familiar with some sort of potentially useful skill than actually getting help. As I’m sort of a closet DIY guy, I set the bare minimum for both of my kids to have experience fixing things around the house and on the cars, with tools, so they would less likely feel afraid or uncomfortable attempting anything like that as an adult, and maybe, just maybe, actually be able to change their own oil when they grow up.
But on this particular summer day, the door actually did need to be painted, and I watched as she eagerly muddled through applying the paint - some on the door, some on the floor, a good bit of it on the brush handle. I watched the paint pool and run, and gently tried to give her tips, trying not to calculate how much time it was going to take me to fix it after she “helped."
Trying to teach something definitely tests the limits of one's knowledge, and I found myself at a loss trying to figure out why she seemed to be putting the entire brush, handle and all, in the the can, or why she couldn’t just apply even pressure and spread the paint out.
And then it kind of struck me - if I was asking myself why she couldn’t just do it, then that probably meant I was just doing it, and not thinking about it. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, my effort was automatic, and actually thoughtless.
If I wanted to relate, so that I could really help her, I needed to experience what she was experiencing. So I switched the brush to my left hand - and then, magically, there were now two eight-year olds slapping paint around, streaking, puddling, dripping. From a tradesman’s point of view, it was a complete mess, but for the parent-child learning experience, and for my own sense of understanding and awareness, it was just becoming clear.
Now I had to think and struggle not to get my own hand covered in paint - and because of that, I was more aware. I could feel the newness of how the brush felt in my hand, experience the frustration of watching the paint not go where I wanted it to, and I had a whole new way to explain to her what to do. I also had to shift my body, think differently, and my brain had to adapt. In short, I no longer could ignore, thoughtlessly, what I was actually doing.
This insight led me to create awareness by doing some other things differently - brushing my teeth with my other hand, putting on my clothes differently, even using the trackpad on my computer. It was often frustrating (like an 8 year old trying to paint for the first time) and sometimes comical - nearly suffering a self-inflicted tonsillectomy the first time I tried brushing my teeth with my left hand.
Studies of people who have trained themselves to use their non-dominant hand show that different parts of their brain have higher levels of activity during the effort, and this can only help our attempts to become more aware. There are also claims about learning to use your non-dominant hand increasing creativity and brain activity.
But for now, perhaps consider a simple shift of mechanical habit to develop awareness. My little girl has moved on to a 12” miter saw, biscuit joiner and has mixed her own mortar for a tile floor.
And the door? It came out fine.