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If Your Kids Can Do It Themselves, Let Them: 4 Ways to Foster Independence

I walked over to the coffee pot to put in the filter and spoon the tiny black granules into the basin. Above the soothing drip drip drip of coffee entering the pot, I suddenly hear my oldest daughter’s voice. It is getting louder and faster with each word, in a shrill crescendo.  “But Jason’s mom writes his,” she fired back. “I don’t care what Jason’s mom does. You will write you own books down, in your own reading log, because it is your homework assignment, and you can,” my husband retorts.

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My daughter then begins listing the names of every kid in her class whose parents write down the books they read in their reading log for them, one by one. “I already write all day long. We do so much writing. Why can’t you just write it down?” she asks.  I can see that this is headed for full meltdown town. Brew faster, Brew faster, I think. Can I just get my coffee in my cup?

“Ms. Southern doesn’t expect us to write it down anyway”, she insists, her little fists clenched by her sides, tears just behind her eyes. “But you can write it, so you will,” my husband says again. “Just copy the book title in your reading log,” I interject. “I know what to do! It’s just that everyone else’s parent does it for them,” my daughter snaps back. She adds, “Also, I can’t write small.  What if I write small, and I can’t write big again? Then I will get in trouble.”

On and on it went, for what seemed like an hour but was probably more like two minutes, before my husband said, “It’s your homework and we are not going to do your homework,” in a voice that indicated finality. She knew the conversation was over. Then my daughter, who writes pages of neat sentences in her journal for fun, took her reading log in her hand and in less than a minute copied the title of the book in neat print.

I tell you this story because I understand that sometimes it takes our children forever to do things. We are all so busy and tired that it just seems easier and less time consuming to write the assignment for your kid or help them along than to let them slug through it themselves. We also do not like to see our children struggle. It is out of this good intention to protect our children and save time that I think we can make the mistake of not adequately preparing our children for the future. Here are four ways to foster independence instead of dependence in your children the next time you encounter a similar struggle:

If Your Kids Can Do It, Let Them (Make Them)

If your kid has a task to do, and you have seen them do similar tasks before or know that they have the required background knowledge, let them do the task on their own. Being able to do things for themselves will  increase their confidence, self-esteem, and independence. Remember that the decisions you make when your child is young lay the foundation for who they will become as a teenager and young adult.

I often hear people complain that today’s generation of kids has not developed the life skills that kids had 30 years ago.  As a teacher I have noticed that many times this is because parents swoop in and save them from problems or take care of things that kids could and should be doing themselves. It gives kids the message that someone will always be there to save them if they fall short or jump in and do it for them if life gets too difficult. This damages their capacity to develop the combination of perseverance and passion that expert Angela Duckworth calls grit– the ability to stick with it even when the task or life in general becomes difficult.

Take a Step Back

Many times as parents we jump in before observing to see what our kids are able to do on their own. Parenting expert, Judy Lythcott-Haims suggests in her book, How to Raise an Adult, that doing kids work for them or taking over sends the message “I don’t think you can do this without me.” This is damaging to developing independence.

Remember, just because a task is not in your child’s comfort zone does not mean that they are incapable of doing it. Instead of jumping in, try acknowledging the challenge and also your confidence in your child’s ability to accomplish the task on their own. Then let them try. They may succeed beyond your expectations. They may fail (and there is a lesson in dealing with that too). They may complain, as in the example above, which often intensifies parental anxiety. This brings me to my next point.

Don’t Let Guilt Get in the Way

It is okay for your child to be angry with you when you make them do something they don’t want to do. They will get over it. What they will not get over are the effects of having everything done for them. Even though we may feel a pang of guilt, telling our kids “no”, “not now”, or “do it yourself” is not bad parenting. Conversely, it teaches them that if they want something they will have to work for it because success or failure is dependent on our own effort.

Let Go of Perfection

Allowing your kids to do things themselves means that at first they may not be done exactly how you would have done them. So, their ponytail is lopsided or their book title in the reading log slants downward. That’s okay. They picked up a wet towel and put it directly in the dirty clothes making it smelly even after washing or they balled up their clothes in their drawers making them a wrinkled mess. There is a lesson in that. Offer them feedback and support, but don’t do it for them. Let them learn from their mistakes so they can improve. Eventually they will be able to do these tasks on their own and do them well.

From the story above, you know that I understand that the struggle to get kids to do things they should do on their own is real. It will sometimes make you want to curl up in a little ball under your covers, hide from the world, and quit adulting for the day. But it is a struggle worth having — one that will challenge you to step back allowing your kid to step up. What if they don’t, you may ask? Well, there are consequences for that too. Ones you should let them face. Because really it is their work and their life anyway. One you can not live for them.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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