Teach me to teach an adult to tie his shoelaces!
August 17, 2014 12:53 AM   Subscribe

My SO is in his thirties and has never really learnt to tie his shoelaces properly. How do I teach him?

The main problem is that his knots and bows are terribly loose, so that they don't remain tied for longer than a few minutes. As far as I can tell, this is due to terrible technique. (rather than, say, a strength problem). He picks up and drops the laces whilst tying them, instead of holding them tight throughout the process. He also...just....handles the laces like an alien...I don't know how else to describe it! Like he has no understanding of the underlying mechanics of knots, but is just going through the motions like a robot. (Sorry for the unkind description - he is a wonderful guy who is incredibly intelligent, just not in this area).

He currently uses the "form two loops, then tie the loops in a knot" method of tying his shoelaces. He would like to learn the "form one loop, wrap the other lace around, pull through" method.

Yesterday I started trying to teach him how to do this, concentrating on how to keep the laces taut whilst tying the initial knot and then the bow. Yikes, is it ever HARD to teach this stuff! I've been doing it unthinkingly for the last 30 years or so and actually explaining what I am doing is frying my brain.

He has tried watching videos on youtube but they didn't help. I think the reason for this is that no amount of watching someone else do it can teach you the technique.

For him, this whole thing is infused with anxiety and shame. He finds something difficult which most people learn well before the age of 10. He is generally rather uncoordinated and slow to learn tasks of this kind. His impatient (I would say, abusive, but he doesn't really acknowledge this) parents tried to show him how to tie his laces when he was a child but then simply yelled at him when he didn't learn instantaneously. Now, when I try to explain the steps involved, he tenses up and also starts tuning out. I'm a pretty patient person who is not easily frustrated but I've got to admit I'm not a good teacher.

Anyway, my questions are: how do I explain the whole "keep the lace tense with some of your fingers whilst the other fingers are doing the tying thing" part of it?

Are there are any activities he could do which would teach these skills without being associated with the anxious activity of shoelace tying?

Would it help if I actually held his fingers in place?

How do I keep him from feeling discouraged and ashamed when he doesn't "get" it right away?

Finally, are there any resources out there (eg videos) which are designed for smart adults?
posted by Sarah Lund's Jumper to Education (38 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I learned to tie my laces 'properly' in just this way some time in my twenties. No one taught me, I just practised again and again until it worked. Then I practised some more until it felt right and came naturally. Each step took weeks. I still use a double knot every time (tie the bow a second time) to help stop them coming undone and I also still have to retie my laces way more than most people. But since no one cares, neither do I. If my then-boyfriend had put the focus on what I was doing by trying to instruct me or by commenting on my laces it would have been horrible, so much better to just fiddle around and work it out alone and in my own time.

There's no reason why I didn't learn to do this earlier, just laziness I guess. It's not some kind of failing, just a weird thing that some of us don't bother with until we're adults. I'm sure your boyfriend knows what needs to be done he just needs to retrain his fingers. He has spent years doing it a certain way so that's always going to take time no matter how nimble or dexterous his fingers are. Based on my experience I'd suggest he works at it alone until he figures it out then practises (also alone) until it works right, and that you never bring it up again.
posted by shelleycat at 1:01 AM on August 17, 2014

Also sometimes it's helpful to try on a shoe that's not on your foot at that time. The angle down there is kind of awkward and makes it a lot harder. So the first step is to try tying bows in general, like on a shoe sitting on the table or something, then move to the awkward foot angle. Even then putting his foot up on something will really help, preferably something stable and about knee high. I know all the fences and convenient stones in my neighbourhood for lace-retying.

But still alone. Having someone watch and comment, ug, makes it so much harder.
posted by shelleycat at 1:06 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Internet classic Ian's Shoelace Site finally got my shoes in order.
posted by Theiform at 1:12 AM on August 17, 2014 [34 favorites]

You don't mention this, so worth checking... is he left-handed by any chance?

I am, and growing up everyone who tried to teach me was right handed. My shoelace tying was learnt after all the other kids, and remained awful until I had to learn more general knots (for sailing) in my 20s. I simply couldn't tie a bowline to start with, until a left hander noticed my struggles. When he demonstrated it was a pretty much instant click as to why I'd always been awful at knots, and from there on it was much easier to work out where the problems were.
posted by protorp at 1:16 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: protorp: interesting point, but he's not left-handed.

shellycat: I agree that nothing is worse than trying to learn something whilst someone is watching and commenting. Which is why I have never said a word about his laces in the eleven years we have been together, until he brought up the subject and asked for my help.
posted by Sarah Lund's Jumper at 1:23 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I came in to point you to internet standby Ian's Shoelace Site and I see Theiform beat me to it. But did you know there's a whole page with Shoelace Tips for Teaching Children? I know your SO is not a child but the advice is good for all ages. The most important thing I think that's emphasized is the sheer variety of knots and their different benefits. Perhaps your SO would find one more natural to tie than the others? Let him direct himself to find the way he prefers.
posted by Mizu at 1:24 AM on August 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

To be clear, I'm not trying to imply that you're doing anything wrong or that it's your fault he's having problems or anything like that. I get that he's pro-actively asking for help and think it's great you're supporting him. It's just that, as someone who went through this process myself as an adult, working on it alone is really what helped me and is the reason why I was successful. Given how your boyfriend freezes up when given instructions I think it would be a good thing for him to try too.
posted by shelleycat at 1:51 AM on August 17, 2014

You might give Going Deep with David Rees on tying shoes a go. Maybe watch it first to see if you think it would help. It's definitely for smart adults.
posted by grapesaresour at 2:02 AM on August 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I teach knots and I've found that people tend to learn one hand at a time. It simplifies things when you concentrate on one hand forming the knot and then the other. One hand does the work while the other hand stays still (and vice versa).

Tying a shoe for most of us is very rudimentary… once you learned it, you don't have to think about it and your hands tend to work in unison. But when you are first learning to tie a knot, it helps to see that one hand will usually be holding the knot while the other is tying it.

It helps to demonstrate tying the knot with the same perspective as the student and I've never helped a student learn a knot by holding their hands/fingers. They need to feel it on their own.

I've seen some pretty smart folks get flummoxed when trying to learn what should be a simple knot. Add some repetition and encouragement and your SO will learn in no time.
posted by jabo at 2:20 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Runners have many ways of tying their laces. They also love to talk about different lacing methods. I would go to a running shoe store and have a salesperson demonstrate.
posted by kinetic at 3:23 AM on August 17, 2014

He currently uses the "form two loops, then tie the loops in a knot" method of tying his shoelaces. He would like to learn the "form one loop, wrap the other lace around, pull through" method.

Is there some reason he wants to change methods rather than just improve his original technique? I tie my shoes with the two loops method and as long as you tie the loops in the opposite direction of the original knot, it should stay tied. See here. Regardless of method, I think you should point your partner in the direction of Ian's site and his YouTube videos and take a giant step back and see what happens.

As far as the tension goes, I remember learning by tying the first knot and having someone put their finger on it to keep it tight while I did tied the loop. Just so I could get the feel for how tight the knots had to be without having to do everything all at once. Also, I hope he's learning on flat laces and not those round ones. Those are a nightmare to keep tied! ( though I'm sure Ian has a solution; I still think it's an advanced skill)
posted by bluefly at 4:50 AM on August 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

He currently uses the "form two loops, then tie the loops in a knot" method of tying his shoelaces.

FYI, this is known as Bunny Ears.
posted by kinetic at 5:09 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I second Ian's shoelace site. I would also reframe the problem as "learn to tie shoelaces faster than 90% of people" because then it feels worth his time to sit down and practice. (And it's totally true! Bunny ears is fine but so slow compared to Ian's method.)
posted by yaymukund at 5:37 AM on August 17, 2014

Be sure and tell him that he already has "Step 2" (the bunny ears) mastered. This is how you keep the laces from coming untied. He just needs to step back and work on Step 1, the loop-around-through bit that he's attempting now.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:58 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Personally I would work on trying to just teach him how to keep the laces tighter with the "bunny ears" thing first rather than trying to switch him over to a completely new method. I'm 28 years old, use it myself and it's never been a problem to keep my shoes tied.

I've had tons of people try to teach me the other way (to no avail) and I still don't understand why it's considered the proper "adult" way to tie shoes or why they care.
posted by Kimmalah at 6:03 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Terry Moore: How to tie your shoes (TED/YT).
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:41 AM on August 17, 2014

First, this isn't that important. Make sure that gets emphasized as part of this mini-struggle. The only reason to worry about shoelaces at age 30 is to slay this little demon in his head. The skill itself doesn't matter.

In my opinion this is not a skill to explain. It is a skill to show, with as few words as possible.

My son had trouble learning to tie his shoes and it was bugging him. I taught him to tie his shoes by watching me. It can work. I had him sit down close to me and each of us put out one foot, so his right foot was sitting very close to my right foot, and you could see both of them at the same time. Then I very slowly went through the steps of tying my shoe, my son followed along, and I corrected if he did something wrong (but not if he did it clumsy).

There did come a point where he was doing everything right but the knot wasn't catching. I told him this and we just kept practicing. Eventually it caught a little and then he started to understand how to make it catch deliberately.

This is similar to what your boyfriend would get from a video, but you as a teacher can go as slowly as needed, match his pace automatically, and point out mistakes.

I was prepared for it to take a few sessions--main limiting factor being his patience and frustration--but it only took one.
posted by mattu at 6:54 AM on August 17, 2014

Internet classic Ian's Shoelace Site finally got my shoes in order.

Holy crap, thank you for this. At the age of 39 I've just learned that I've spent my life tying ineffective granny knots.
posted by dismitree at 7:00 AM on August 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

My stepson, age 14, sounds like your SO. He never learned to tie his shoes and generally has difficulties with fine motor skills - holding a pencil, scissors, cutting food, etc. In stepson's case, it stems from having ADHD and NLD diagnoses. He usually opts for slip-on sneaks or shoes. I'm wondering if your SO may have some underlying issue with fine motor or processing which is making this harder. Just something to consider.
posted by Sal and Richard at 7:07 AM on August 17, 2014

Super fast!
posted by microcarpetus at 7:07 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Elastic laces? Velcro closures? Buckles?
posted by SemiSalt at 7:29 AM on August 17, 2014

He isn't going to learn this overnight. It is basically a muscle memory skill that you pretty much learn how kids do, practice. Next time you guys are sitting on the couch watching tv or whatever he should just grab a shoe stick it on his lap and practice. You sit there and ignore him unless he asks for help our to offer encouragement when he gets it. A session or two like that and it's will click for him.
posted by wwax at 7:51 AM on August 17, 2014

I think practice is probably the only answer. I learned when I was quite young, but I just looked at Ian's Shoelace Site and it made me feel a little anxious. I hate trying to learn motor skills (say, knitting) from diagrams or videos, personally. I think the idea of practicing one hand at a time, with you doing the other, is interesting.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:09 AM on August 17, 2014

I don't think you need to teach an adult how to tie their shoes - that's pretty demeaning, even if it's well meant.

What you can do is show them a good video, and let them figure out the rest on their own. I say a video because there are two ways to tie your shoes in the traditional sense (left over right or right over left), and one of them stays tied better than the other, so it's worth watching the youtube video because the 'wrong' way is a very subtle thing.
posted by zug at 9:16 AM on August 17, 2014

You might give Going Deep with David Rees on tying shoes a go. Maybe watch it first to see if you think it would help. It's definitely for smart

I was going to suggest that too---if nothing else, it's kind of funny. You could start with one of the episodes first ("how to make a paper airplane" was pretty good, as was "how to kill a fly") to make it not all about the laces.

One of the things I learned is that he---along with my daughter---is probably tying a granny knot instead of a square knot, and the fix is super easy; just make sure that you do "right over left, then left over right" (or vice versa) for the two steps of the knot, bunny ears or no.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:17 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think you need to teach an adult how to tie their shoes - that's pretty demeaning, even if it's well meant.

I'm pretty sure you missed this part:

I agree that nothing is worse than trying to learn something whilst someone is watching and commenting. Which is why I have never said a word about his laces in the eleven years we have been together, until he brought up the subject and asked for my help.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 9:27 AM on August 17, 2014

I hate shoelaces. Usually when people point out to me that they are constantly undone, I remind them that life is a temporary existence, and the laws of entropy dictate the shoelaces always come untied. There is no point!

I solved this problem by eliminating shoes that had laces from my life.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:33 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Came in to say same as some of the other posters: Ian's shoelace site. There was a discussion on the green here a couple of years ago about shoes coming untied when running and someone mentioned Ian's Secure Shoelace Knot, which uses an extra twist for the conventional knot all of us learned as kids. Invaluable for tying laces on running shoes/athletic shoes, and for men's dress shoes that have the very skinny waxed laces.
posted by kovacs at 10:36 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might give Going Deep with David Rees on tying shoes a go. Maybe watch it first to see if you think it would help. It's definitely for smart adults.

Funnily enough, that show heavily features "Dr. Shoelace," Ian Fieggen!
posted by bluefly at 11:33 AM on August 17, 2014

Best answer: Yeah: Ian's, Ian's, Ian's, Ian's... I return there several times a year to remind myself how to do closed lacing (some dress shoes), and to re-re-break bad knot tying habits (his balanced knot is totally stable, and just so much better).

One thing I like about the site is that the diagrams are "animated," in a sense; clicking the different steps in the illustration individually works much better for me than watching a full-motion tutorial video.

... the laws of entropy dictate the shoelaces always come untied. There is no point!

I get this line of reasoning, and had to chuckle, but I disagree. "Little" things like properly tying a shoe can matter a great deal. Learning to do stuff with care, and knowing that you're doing that stuff the "best" way, can be deeply satisfying. In terms of clothing, something as simple as a handsome shoelace knot can give a person a tiny boost of confidence as they go about their day, and free up some valuable mental space for worrying about more important things than whether a shoe will fall off. (When I finally broke down and got glasses, the relief was immediate and intense; I no longer had to use x% of my brain constantly guessing/deducing my surroundings! I felt figuratively several pounds lighter.) Additionally, there's the benefit of sending subtle "I'm competent" signals to others, too.

I really feel for your dude, and his sense of shame. It's rough to feel like you can't do something that any child (or even barely-functional adult) can do. Especially if you're an otherwise very intelligent and capable person. I felt like that about driving for a while, until I put in the work to get my license back, and will feel that way about basic math forever. It's cool that he wants to improve this, and extra-cool that he feels relatively comfortable asking for your help. He's on the right track; mastering small details like shoe tying can snowball into a larger sense of self-assurance.
posted by credible hulk at 11:39 AM on August 17, 2014

How do I keep him from feeling discouraged and ashamed

Tell him that Daniel Radcliffe can't tie his shoes, either. Some people's brains just don't work that way. He could see a physical or occupational therapist for help.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:23 PM on August 17, 2014

Take it completely out of the "tie your shoelaces" context, since that's a fine-motor-skills benchmark for children and also sort of shorthand for a certain level of intellectual maturity. (I have all kinds of sympathy since I was never able to learn to "tell time" very well.)

Forget shoes completely. Just learn to tie some basic knots in a nautical or camping context, and practice. Short length of soft thin rope or cord in his pocket, and he can practice anytime as a fidgeting/time killing thing to do...waiting for the bus or whatever.

Once he gets the hang of the tension/grip thing while memorizing the which-way-around thing, it'll be easy enough for him to tie the same knot on his shoes or anywhere else.
posted by desuetude at 1:06 PM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have skimmed and I don't think I have seen this:

I taught my shoe-lace challenged older son to tie shoes by sitting him probably in my lap and wrapping my arms around him and putting my hands over his hands and physically guiding his motions. If your boyfriend is about your size or bigger than you, you might need to creatively modify it, maybe you be in front with his arms around you and your hands over his that way. But the point is to get his hands nested inside your hands from the same direction (not you two facing each other) so you can help him make the motions. Most people tie shoes by muscle memory and often can't even begin to verbalize what they are doing. So I didn't even bother to try.

Second, I finally learned how to "tie shoes" (make this kind of bow-knot thing) when my mother crocheted me a vest that had a single string tie in the middle of my chest. I loved the vest and wanted to wear it all the time and had to master tying it myself so I could take it on and off at will without running to an adult constantly for help. (I was five and attending kindergarten.) So I will second the suggestion of "learn to tie knots in another context instead of shoe laces per se" as an option.
posted by Michele in California at 2:19 PM on August 17, 2014

A standard trick for learning knots in a professional (e.g., sailing, camping) context is to keep a length of rope in your pocket and practice whenever you have a moment free. E.g., waiting in line, on the subway, doing laundry, talking to people. For something like a shoelace, to simulate the tension provided by the shoe, you can pass the rope under your knee when sitting or around your waist when standing.

Also, nth the Ian's Knot method. Much easier and faster than either the method he's using or the one you propose to teach him.
posted by d. z. wang at 3:06 PM on August 17, 2014

3rding Going Deep w/David Rees--funny AND informative!
posted by oh really at 3:11 PM on August 17, 2014

FWIW, I can't get a good, tight knot using the two-loop method either. Maybe your SO and I are doing the same thing wrong. I have no problems using the one-loop method. Also, if your SO doesn't know about the magic that is double-knotting (i.e., tying the two loops together one more time after the bow has been made), that helps a lot with keeping them tied even if the original knot isn't that tight.
posted by karbonokapi at 4:35 PM on August 17, 2014

I use the two loop method, and the trick is keeping the loops super small. If you keep them small, you can easily keep tension using your pinky fingers on the section of lace that's leading out of the original first knot.
posted by Youremyworld at 5:02 PM on August 17, 2014

Don't see it in the thread, it may be on the site but no time to read that just now--Some shoelaces are easier than others (and I don't mean quick laces/elastics/velcro, although those are awesome, too). Some laces are just longer and "grippy"-er so that you can get away with letting go a bit and have them still retain tension in the original simple knot. Also it seems like sometimes having a bit more tension throughout the whole shoe actually helps them stick, because the tongue of the shoe presses the laces together and increases the friction there. Starting with loose shoelaces up and down is definitely a fail because even if the knot is good the tension will redistribute until it sucks. You should go through all his shoes/shoelaces and tie them yourself, and start him on the pair that is most "easy mode"...and absolutely not dress shoes, those are miserable.

Also, sometimes I "cheat"--tie the simple knot, get my bow set up but loose, and re-tension the simple knot (I think I use my middle fingers for this, but maybe ring fingers sometimes instead) before I pull the bow tight.
posted by anaelith at 5:02 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

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