This past month has proven to be an extremely busy month. I have spent so much time away from my children that suddenly I see how much they have grown. My teen and tween have impressed me with their ability to get things done without my telling them. Even my littlest who just turned 3.5 years old has surprised me with what she can do.
In this post, I will share a little on how we can help our children whether they are preschoolers or teenagers be the independent beings they were meant to be.
Independence Is Inborn
I have been a stay-at-home mom ever since my first child was born more than 14 years ago. I know I am very blessed to have had the option of staying at home. For me, being a mom means wearing many different hats and playing a wide variety of roles. From Day One, I told myself that my job as a mom was to work myself out of my caregiving role.
Contrary to what many believe, I do not feel that independence is something we train our children to be. Children are BORN to be independent. If you have preschoolers, you will know what I mean. They want to do things themselves. They want to brush their teeth, put on their shoes, zip their jackets, button their shirts etc, ALL BY THEMSELVES even if it takes them a million years to do it. Many a time they would disintegrate into tears when they cannot do it themselves and STILL they would refuse our help. Understandably, their demand for independence can drive us up the wall.
Independence Stifled in Preschoolers
What do most pressed-for-time parents or caregivers do with their preschoolers struggling to do things themselves? Most of us would just do it for them. We end up feeding them, dressing them, putting their shoes on for them etc. We believe they are too young to do it themselves, and most of the time, they ARE too young to do it themselves.
Gradually, our preschoolers relinquish their desire to do things themselves and let us do it for them instead. That’s when they stop YEARNING and learning to do things for themselves. They start relying on others to help them. And we wonder why we have such reliant children and why they cannot lift a finger to do anything themselves. The reason, unfortunately, is because we have stripped the independence off our children by depriving them of opportunities to do things themselves.
How Can We Help Our Preschoolers Be Independent?
What then can we do? The answer is simple.
1) Empower them
Allow them to do things for themselves, even if it takes a much longer time or even if they cannot do it as well as we can.
The question I usually ask myself is, “Is this something I still want to do for my child when she is 5, 10, 15 years old?” If the answer is no (like brushing her teeth, giving her a shower, dressing her etc), then at the soonest appropriate moment, I will teach and let my child do it herself. And the best moment to teach is when she asks to do it herself.
Without fail, each of my 3 children had asked to brush his/her own teeth when they were very young. So I always had 2 toothbrushes for each of them, one for them to use, and one for me. As far as possible, I encouraged them to have their teeth brushed twice: once by themselves and once by me. That satisfied their need for independence and it satisfied my need to ensure their teeth had a thorough brushing. My preschooler now looks forward to brushing her teeth every morning and every night. She would grin from ear to ear after brushing to show me how glistening her teeth are.
Of course if I had brushed for her myself, the whole process would have been much faster. But I would have robbed her of her natural desire to pick up a new skill, to be a “big girl”. If I deprived her of her desire to be independent over and over again, she would grow up thinking either she is not capable enough to do anything for herself, or that it is easier for someone else to do things for her. Neither of these mindsets would serve her.
2) Accept the work they do
How well can a preschooler clean her teeth? How neat can a 4-year-old fold his laundry? How thorough can a 6 year-old vacuum the floor?
There are days my preschooler refused to let me brush her teeth. She feels confident that she has done a good job. And I let her be. I do not insist on brushing if she doesn’t want me to.
When my son was 4, he wanted to help me fold the laundry. So I showed him how. But being only 4, he could not line the seams up and so his clothes were never neatly folded. But I never refolded his clothes nor commented on how untidy his folding was. After all, he was only 4. Instead as he got older, I would show him how to line up the seams and his folding became neat and neater.
I did the same thing with my tween when she was 6. She was proud to help me vacuum the floor. But from the lines made by the vacuum cleaner on the carpet, I could tell there were parts that she had missed. Instead of telling her where she had missed, or taking the vacuum cleaner and doing it over, I praised her for helping me. And the NEXT time she vacuumed, I showed her how to manoeuvre the vacuum cleaner to make patterns on the carpet. Over time, her skill improved and she felt valued.
What I have strived to achieve was not perfection in the work they do at that young age. Instead, I wanted them to feel empowered, that their contribution mattered, that they were capable. These fueled their desire to continue helping and contributing. It also boosted their self-confidence.
If I had redone their work, or criticized their work, they would have felt demoralized, that they could never measure up to my standard. By and by, they would stop offering to help because they were never good enough. That would lead them to letting me do all the work and discourage them from being independent. Those were not prospects that appealed to me.
Drive for Independence in Teens
The good news is, even if we had unknowingly stifled our children’s independence during their preschool years, they have not given up innately. Like I wrote in a previous blog post, our teens are very much like preschoolers. Their need for independence peaks again during the teenage years.
They want to hang out with their friends. They want to have a say on what they want or do not want to do. They stop listening to us and the list goes on. Unfortunately, that is when we parents feel they are being “difficult” or worse, “rebellious”.
How Can We Help Our Teens Be Independent?
The teenage years are challenging. Sure, it is because our teens are now different from when they were younger. But it is also because our expectations of them have changed, and sometimes those are not aligned with what our teens can really do. So what can we do?
1) Respect them
The first thing we can do for our teens is to respect them. I assume we all love our teens. But respect is a little different, and probably more difficult to do. When we respect them, we will be more open to their views.
Respect is a two-way street. If we want our children to respect (not fear) us, we must first be respectful of them. Hearing them out is being respectful. Asking for their views and opinions is being respectful. Getting their input before making a decision that impacts them is being respectful. I could go on, but I believe you get the idea.
Our teens have come of age where they are learning to be adults. They are learning to assert themselves so their voices are heard, so their opinions are heeded, so their views are counted. We are providing the training ground for them to be assertive adults. We may not like the idea of them being assertive towards us. Yet, unless we want our children to be walked upon when they become adults, we need to be very mindful of our interactions with them at this age.
2) Provide guidance and let them make their own decisions
When we respect our teens, we can discuss issues with them and then trust them to make their own decisions. This is a skill our teens NEED. The younger they learn how to make proper decisions, the better it is for them. And it is our job as parents to ensure we give them enough opportunities to make decisions. Will our teens always make sound decisions? Obviously not. But they will learn. And we must let them learn. The good news is typically, the decisions they make when they are teens have far less serious consequences than the decisions they make when they are adults. And since they are going to make mistakes anyway, it is better they do it when they are younger and learn from there.
3) Teach them responsibility
When we allow our teens to make their own decisions, we are also teaching them to be responsible for those decisions. If we make all the decisions for them, it is very easy for them to turn around and blame us when things do not go well. By putting the responsibility of the decisions on their shoulders, we are training them to think of consequences, to work hard, and, if things mess up, to take responsibility.
Being responsible and accountable are important traits we want our children to develop. These traits need time to develop and groom. It is better our teens learn and take responsibility for small misjudgments they make when they are younger than having to face misjudgment with immense consequences when they grow up.
Independence is not something we train in our children. Independence is something we strip off our children when we do not allow them to do things for themselves when they are young and when we deprive them of making decisions for themselves when they are teens. Let us honour our children and trust their instinct when they seek to be independent. Let us give them the space when they want to stretch their wings.
They will take a longer time doing what we can do for them. They will make mistakes. But it’s ok. Let them do it anyway. It’s better for them to feel valued and trusted than invalidated that they cannot do it as well as we can. And it is infinitely better for them to learn from their mistakes when they are young than when they are adults.
How do you help your children be independent? Do share your journey with us in the comments below.
– Vivian –