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Raising Future Grown-Ups

A friend told me she started saying “yes” to her kids more. She had noticed she almost always said “no” whenever her kids asked to do something, often without really thinking about the question.

Sometimes, I catch myself going down a similar “automatic no” path. Much of the time, it’s a response born of tiredness rather than what’s best for my children. Saying “yes” often allows them to be more independent. And that’s a very good thing. What are the ways we can build independence in kids from toddlers to those in middle school?

Let them struggle. It’s hard to watch my children falter and not want to step in—whether they’re spreading peanut butter or resolving a conflict on the playground. Mix foot-tapping impatience with mother-hen protectiveness and I’ve got a nice set of reasons to swoop in and save the day. Ultimately, though, I’d only escape this one issue on this one day. What about next week? Next year? Sure, we can offer help as we reflect on situations after they’ve happened. But we need to step off before we step in.

Encourage. My 2-year-old son’s phase of “I want to do it” was unexpectedly followed by one of “I can’t do it.” Perhaps this is because he’s a younger sibling. While I tried to hang back, his sister rushed in with a quick fix, eager to demonstrate both her love for him and her own capabilities. After a time, we all decided to say: “You can do it” or “Sometimes things take time.” Soon, he stopped saying “I can’t” and started saying “I can.”

Develop good habits. What age-appropriate chores can your child complete? You might be surprised at how much she can do. Toddlers can hang up their coats, put away their shoes and scoop food into the dog’s dish. Let those tasks become regular “jobs.” As your child grows, she can take on more tasks such as raking leaves, folding laundry or cooking dinner.

Shrink your stuff. Don’t outfit your house in expensive child-sized items. But do get down on the ground and look at the space through their eyes. When we child-proof, we think about what we should remove from their reach. However, what should we place within their grasp? In your entry way, hang a coat hook lower on the wall. In the kitchen, place your child’s bowls where he can reach them. On the first shelf in the fridge, place peeled carrots so that he can get himself a healthy snack.

Permit bad choices. If your middle school student puts up a fight about studying for a test on Monday and spends the whole weekend with her friends, remind her of what might happen Monday, explain how you might study, and then let go and let her fail. Middle school is a great time for this experimentation. First of all, early teens test out how to separate from their parents as their friends become more important. But it’s also a time that’s hidden from college applications. As far as college is concerned, life starts in ninth grade. Of course, what happens prior to ninth grade matters. But don’t panic over one failed test. Rather, it’s an opportunity for a calm talk about choices and consequences. 

Ask questions and paraphrase. Instead of giving answers, ask questions. Toddlers often ask the same questions on each page of a favorite book. Instead of providing answers, ask, “What do you think?” As your child describes a struggle he has, ask questions and sum up his thoughts. Paraphrasing can be a surprisingly powerful tool for validating emotions and sorting out options. And the strategy allows him to provide answers instead of you. This builds self-confidence and independence as he realizes that he is more resourceful than he knew.

Assess problem areas. Does your daughter consistently forget her lunch or lose her coat? Does she play enthusiastically but become “too tired” when it’s time to clean up? If the lack of responsibility comes from forgetfulness, build memory. Ask her to write a checklist by the front door on yellow paper. (Yellow aids memory.) If the cause is resistance, make a list of the jobs of each family member. Everyone in the house contributes to the family in different ways but sometimes that’s hidden from children.

Allow for choice. When your children are young, offer simple choices: “It’s warm today. Do you want to wear sneakers or sandals?” Be clear about expectations but allow for flexibility. Perhaps your school-age child would like to focus on homework after a half-hour of outside play. Be clear about the amount of money he has for clothes, but let him choose the clothes within those parameters. When your child has a suggestion for a different way to do things, listen, explore the options, and be open to ideas. When your child chooses the experience, he has a vested interest in getting something out of it.

Play free. In our highly scheduled world, it’s hard to find pockets of free time between soccer practices, swim lessons, art classes and homework. Scale back on planned activities to allow for free play—without you. As your daughter amuses herself or organizes a game in the back yard with her friends, she develops skills that build independence, confidence and sustained attention.

I vividly remember the day each of my children entered the world—and yet here they are, years later, walking, talking and creating. Just as they learned to crawl before they walked, I need to set up opportunities for them to flex their independent muscles. I need to say “yes” to nurturing independence. One day, they’ll have to pay bills, cook dinners and fix things—by themselves. They’ll have to negotiate relationships with their children, bosses and spouses. As they feel trusted and supported by us, their confidence and capability will bloom. And I won’t still be doing their laundry when they’re 30.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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