The child’s development follows a path of successive stages of independence, and our knowledge of this must guide us in our behaviour towards him. We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the art of serving the spirit.
– Maria Montessori
Helping our children grow into fully functioning, happy, independent people isn’t easy, and the way to do it isn’t obvious. Growth doesn’t happen in the same way or on the same timeframe for every child. We’re all still figuring out how to be fully functioning, happy, independent adults ourselves; teaching someone else how to do it requires a knowledge and confidence that most of us don’t possess.
We want to help our children, but we don’t want to push them away. We want them to grow up, but not too fast. We want them to be autonomous, but we want to have a strong bond. We want them to be creative and explore the world, but we want them to be safe.
It’s a daily dilemma, and while I certainly don’t have a foolproof methodology, I do have a few ideas. These are the basic principles of our family life that consistently help my children become capable and confident enough to gain (age-appropriate) independence.
Remember It’s a Gradual Process
This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. My oldest (she’s almost nine) zips through her chores now, but her little sister (just turned four) needs a pep talk just to brush her teeth. Let’s not even get into the brushing of the hair, which is often accompanied by tears and screams of terror. And that’s just when I’m getting the brush out of the drawer…
There are natural limits in place, and it takes time for children to shed these limits. Emotional or habitual limits can be more powerful than physical ones. Kids are often physically and mentally capable of accomplishing a task or using a skill long before they’re emotionally ready to do it on their own. As a parent, that’s frustrating, because there’s always so much to do. You could get the kitchen cleaned up if Billy would just put his own pajamas, already.
Encouraging your child is good. Rushing or pushing, however, tends to backfire. Try not to worry. Readiness will come, but it takes time. There’s no way around this. Wherever your child is on the independence scale in any given area, the best attitude to adopt is one of acceptance: This is where we are; this is where we start.
It takes time to move from the starting position. Acceptance breeds the confidence that helps kids become emotionally ready to move forward.
Build on Basic Skills
Learning is difficult. Learning requires focus and effort, and it can be really frustrating. So much of our adult life is habitual, we forget how much learning goes in a child’s daily world. Everything is new, so every new experience or skill requires a lot of effort.
Sometimes our kids resist a new skill or level of independence because it’s simply too much. They’re mentally and emotionally (and perhaps physically) exhausted from the effort of learning and trying new things. To ease the process, it’s helpful to add new layers onto already learned skills rather than introduce an entirely new task or concept.
Sometimes this is all about presentation. For example, let’s say you want your child to start picking up her room at night. Instead of introducing this idea as a new task, simply add it (just a little at a time) onto a ritual she’s already comfortable with: “Okay, you’ve brushed your teeth. Now let’s put your books on the shelf. I’ll get this game picked up while you put your stuffed animals in the bin.”
Then move on to the next normal step. Repeat that additional action at the same time, and after a few days’ of repetition, give it a name as you’re doing it: “We’ve brushed your teeth. Now it’s clean-up time again. Remember? We’ll put your books on the shelf. Let’s pick up your blocks…”
Make Things Child-Accessible
The world is sized for adults. Our kids are shorter, smaller, and weaker. They can’t see into the mirrors, reach the door handles, or lift and use things the way we can. Imagine how frustrating it would be to told to write a grocery list with a two-foot long pencil.
Everyday, our kids have to assimilate and retain all sorts of new information as well as deal with over-sized objects in adult-oriented environments. We can’t, of course, miniaturize our homes, but for the things that specifically belong to our kids, let’s try.
As a general rule, just make things smaller, lower, lighter, and easier to access for kids. Get child-sized tools for gardening and housework. Put bins and baskets lower, hang up low shelves, and put hooks at their eye-level. Keep a stool handy so children can reach the light switch, the cabinet, the sink, or actually see their faces in the mirror.
Reduce Choice Fatigue
Having unlimited options leads to mental exhaustion. This is true for adults as well as children. Ironically, we often feel like we’re being kind or generous with our children when we let them choose everything. But having too many choices can simply make them tired. It’s too much. They already have so much information to handle.
Habits of family life are a great tool for reducing choice fatigue, for both you and your child. When you ritualize the normal behaviors of any given day (morning routine, meal times, homework, family time, bed time, so on), you remove the need for a hundred tiny decisions. You remove the opportunity for conflict. You give your child the ability to predict what’s coming next in his or her day.
Predictive ability is something we take for granted as adults; we know what’s coming in a day, for the most part. Kids without stable routines, however, don’t. Thus they tend to react more, becoming emotional, resistant, and dramatic, because they’re stressed out. They lack a sense of security, which can be provided pretty easily by incorporating stable routines they can depend on.
Just like adults, children have natural talents and strengths. They’re going to mature faster in some areas sooner than they do in others. This is not a flaw or a thing that needs to be balanced; it’s simply part of being human.
What we really need, as parents, is permission to quit freaking out if our kids don’t meet an arbitrary set of standards at any given time. Childhood is one big training process. Every child is unique. Some parts of the training are more difficult and time-consuming than others. This is okay and doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you or your child.
We make it more difficult when we stress out, express undue criticism, or convey a negative attitude toward our kids when they don’t “get” something we think they should be capable of getting. Instead, let’s take a deep breath and accept our differences and our weaknesses. Increasing the pressure or using frustration as a tool will simply backfire, causing your child to feel helpless, discouraged, and unable to succeed.
Calculate the Risks
Learning necessarily involves risks; when you’re learning you’re not yet good at what you’re trying to do. Without those stretches and those risks, however, there can be no learning.
As much as we want to protect our kids, we can’t keep life with all its inherent risks from invading and creating what-if scenarios. These scenarios scare the crap out of us, but our children still demand to experience life, to be involved in it. It’s their birthright as our fellow humans.
How do we keep our kids safe, then, while also encouraging their growth and autonomy? We calculate which risks are worth it and which are unwise. I’ll let my five year old try riding her own bike without training wheels, if she wants to; I won’t let her try riding her big brother’s bike, since her feet can’t even reach the pedals. That’s just certain injury.
We can use our grown-up perspective to predict which risks have a good potential for success and which ones have a large potential for failure or injury. Then we steer our kids toward the risks we think they can handle and away from the ones doomed to fail.
We’re all in this together. In fact, the following principles work well for adults, too: remember that growth is a gradual process, build on skills you already have, make things easier for yourself, reduce your options (and build rituals), expect variation, and choose the best-scenario risks.