We allowed our four-year-old to get breakfast for our two-year-old on Saturdays. Some may have thought we were crazy, but he was proud of his accomplishment and we believe it fostered a sense of independence.
We often talk positively about raising an “independent child” and juxtapose this image with that of a dependent, overly clingy or needy kid who can’t try things out on her own and who leaves us feeling drained. So, of course we feel clear about encouraging independence…right?
Deep down, many of us may actually feel conflicted about fostering independence, especially very busy parents who have less time with our kids than we might like. On one hand, when we’re present and have the opportunity to help, we may dive in, seeing this as the way to engage. But, on the other hand, we know we want to raise kids who are prepared to get ‘out there’ and navigate the world with confidence.
Parental over-involvement (aka “helicopter parenting”) has been correlated with negative mental health outcomes including higher anxiety, lower self-esteem, difficulty with decision-making, and academic challenges. But let’s bring it to the everyday – kids who are independent take responsibility for themselves. They honor commitments (e.g. showing up on time), they are confident in making their own choices, and they self-advocate. They know how to engage with others without someone designing it for them.
What To Do (Bites)
Be a secure base rather than a hovercraft
Countless studies of attachment tell us of the benefit to young children of being able to explore the world knowing that mom, dad or another caregiver is nearby. Encouraging your child to get things you need to leave the house, to try putting his coat on, or to grab his shoes himself can give him the satisfaction of being a “big boy” and save you the time and energy of constantly running all over the house. Returning to you with a sense of accomplishment and seeing your excitement for him is emotionally fulfilling for both of you whereas you taking charge all of the time to “help” is not only draining, but cheats you both of the satisfying “look what I did!” moment.
Stop overcompensating; value frustration
Learning to tolerate frustration is an important component of development, and kids have an immense amount of earned pride when they figure out how to do things themselves. But this requires that you allow yourself to step back and not get confused about your role: by hanging back, you are encouraging, not withholding. And just because you’ve been gone all day doesn’t mean that jumping in is going to make up for missing your kid. You can show your love by helping him tolerate the steps before mastery of a skill, e.g., “I know, it’s so hard to put the puzzle together. You’re almost there! Try it three more times and then mommy will show you if you want.” “It’s clean up time! See if you can put the dolly’s hat on and put her in the basket with the other toys…almost…it’s hard! Keep trying…I know, it’s so hard!”
Hone your “overinvolvement meter”
Try asking yourself these questions when you find it hard to decide whether to jump in (these will become automatic reflections over time with practice):
- Would she feel good about herself if she did it herself, especially with your positive feedback?
- Is it in the realm of possibility that she can do/try at least some of it on her own, with or without verbal guidance (e.g., bringing you her shoes from the shelf even if she can’t tie them)?
- Have I set things up enough to make it possible that she try on her own (can she reach her toothbrush and toothpaste, or should I get her a stool?)
- Am I feeling a pull to do this for her because of guilt, or because she needs and wants assistance? (If the word “should” comes into your thought process, guilt is likely).
If the answer to all four is yes, it’s probably worth letting her give it a go. The decision doesn’t have to be rigid and sometimes you might jump in because you feel like it or long for a moment of closeness and coddling, and that’s totally fine! Just know that if your goal overall is to encourage healthy independence and decrease your own exhaustion, honing your over-involvement meter can be a good practice for both of you.
In a camp setting it’s really easy to spot the kids who have developed a sense of independence. They’re the kids who are comfortable asking for help – they don’t wait for someone to see how they’re feeling. They’re the kids who grab another kid to go play basketball, or tetherball, and aren’t dependent on someone organizing activities for them. Mark Diamond, Camp Director, Camp Manitou
Keep in mind, independence is not so much about living without you as it is about raising a kid who feels confident to try things out, to speak up, to initiate, all the while understanding that you (or a caregiver proxy) are there for her when she truly needs you.
We’re professional problem solvers so it takes strength to silence that learned behavior. Research shows that working moms in the Cram it all in Years make twice as many decisions as others, largely because we add all the choices we make for our children to all the decisions we make at work. No such research yet on working dads, but any of us who works is a pro at problem solving. So while we can easily slip into problem solving and decision making for our children (and it’s expedient), we’re better off trying to resist our wiring, stop and transfer the choice to them.
Resist temptations to tell your children you’ll step in if things aren’t going their way. They should know that they’re supported, but be careful of giving them an ‘easy out.’ Our camper friends shared that the children whose parents tell them they’ll pick them up if they’re unhappy are the ones that get picked up. At daycare or nursery school, kids should learn that they can speak to their teacher if they need help or are feeling sad. The first line of response isn’t to “call mommy or daddy to be picked up.”