Help yourself! 8 tips for teaching kids to be more independent

Do you do too much for your kids? It’s time to flip the script.

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It’s 7:55 a.m. and my six-year-old daughter is singing Pharrell’s “Happy” in her pyjamas while bopping to the beat. I’m not happy, knowing that the school bell rings in 15 minutes. I pull her PJs off like they’re on fire and tug up her tights so brusquely that I practically lift her off the floor. We make it, barely.

I know she can dress herself, but my blood pressure starts to spike watching her stalling shenanigans, and I often end up doing it for her to avoid facing yet another late slip.

Read more: Stalling at bedtime> 

Sound familiar? Jeanne Williams, an Edmonton psychologist, sees many parents coping with the time crunch by using a “parenting to get through the day” approach: They worry about what needs to be done in the here and now, not about the long-term effects of these daily choices. “I’d go so far as to say that all parents do this at some point,” she says.

Read more: The debate: should you pay your kids to do their chores?>

Well, if we’re all doing it, it can’t be that bad. Right?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a strength-in-numbers thing. “Habitually doing things for your child that she’s capable of doing herself sends an inadvertent message that you don’t have confidence in her abilities,” Williams warns. The outcome is a child who lacks independence, self-esteem and problem-solving skills and who can’t—or won’t—do age-appropriate tasks. This is sometimes called “learned helplessness.” Learned from whom? You guessed it.

Read more: Changing the morning routine>

But Williams doesn’t want us to feel guilty. She knows we’re just trying to keep all those balls in the air and explains that this problem is fixable—and there’s huge payoff: confident, capable kids, and tasks removed from your plate. Here are eight tips for teaching kids to be more independent:

1. Give notice
Get your child on board by encouraging her to help “you” change. When Williams realized she was doing way more for her son than was necessary, she told him, “I’m sorry. I’ve been treating you like a little kid when you are ready to do some big-kid jobs!” She warns against using phrases like “You’re not a baby anymore”; baby can be a sensitive word in this age group.

2. Identify opportunities
Make a list of things she could be doing herself. Mine had 13 tasks, including brushing her teeth (gah!). Ask her which duties she feels she’s big enough to take on—it’s likely to increase her willingness to try.

3. Target priorities
Tackle one item at a time, so you don’t overwhelm her.

4. Make time
If it takes her 10 minutes to brush her own hair, start your morning 10 minutes earlier (and put down the brush!). When she’s not being micromanaged, she may surprise you with her co-operation, and you’ll be a calmer influence when you’re not racing against the clock.

5. Negotiate compromise
If she digs in her heels, compromise and inject some fun. For a few days, I took shirt duty, and she did the bottoms. I said that her tree branches (arms) needed their leaves (her shirt) and that she did a great job—and would also be awesome at putting on her own shirt.

Read more: Dealing with a defiant kid>

6. Forget perfection
Accept that she won’t do the task as well as you. If the milk spills, show her how to clean it up without criticism and assure her it happens to everyone.

7. Praise something
Instead of pointing out that her shoes are on the wrong feet, say, “You put on your own shoes! Good job!” She’ll discover the discomfort on her own. Give positive follow-up like, “I bet you’ll get them on the right feet tomorrow.”

Read more: How to build your child’s self-esteem>

8. Consider circumstances
If kids are tired, sick, stressed or adjusting to a change, it’s not the time to introduce new responsibilities. And don’t be discouraged if they regress, wanting you to do a task after they’ve mastered it. This is normal. Temporarily sharing the load can help them bounce back more quickly than if you scold or criticize them.

Try to stay relaxed. Like me, you may find more messy beds and puddles of milk, but hearing your child proudly say, “I did it all by myself!” is so worth it. —Jackie Gillard

Don’t rush in to solve minor issues when they crop up, says psychologist Jeanne Williams. Encourage your child’s problem-solving skills by asking if she can come up with a fix. If she’s stumped, give her time to think before offering up your ideas.

A version of this article appeared in our August 2014 issue with the headline “Help yourself,” p. 50.

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