It's a school day. It's 8.45am on a Monday morning and my five-year-old is singing a little One Direction number into his hair brush while still in his pyjamas. I'm not happy with 'his direction', knowing that school begins in 15 minutes. I pull his PJs off like they're on fire, break the world record for putting on a child's school uniform, bundle him and his brother into the car and we make it, barely.
I know he can 'kind of' dress himself, but it's not good for my blood pressure when I see how long his shenanigans take, and I often end up dressing him rather than run late. But who am I kidding? This is not good for his long-term development, so my resolution for 2017 was to teach my child some better independence.
Young children can learn how to do simple daily self-help activities - they just need to be taught what to do.
After researching the topic, the best advice I can pass on is…
Set the alarm clock for 15 minutes earlier each morning, so you can give your child the extra time he needs to complete his tasks. That way you won't lose your cool and it will give everyone a little extra leeway on those busy mornings. Trust me when I tell you that you'll be a calmer influence when you're not racing against the clock.
Get them involved
Get your child on board by encouraging him to help 'you' change. When I realised I was doing way more for my son than was necessary, I said to him, "I'm sorry. I've been treating you like a little boy when you are ready to do some big-boy jobs now!" He loves the idea of being a big boy.
Narrow it down
Make a list of things he could be doing himself. My 'big boy' now has 10 tasks, including brushing his teeth, putting on and taking off his own PJs, buttering his toast, bringing his plate to the sink when he's finished eating, amongst six others. To get to our first 10 tasks I asked him what duties he felt he was big enough to take on and I found it increased his willingness to try.
He needs a warning a few minutes prior to the task. So I let him know there are only a few more minutes of play time and then it's time to... wash hands, eat dinner, undress/dress, brush teeth, etc.
If he digs in his heels, compromise and inject some fun. For a few days, I did the bottoms and he did the top. We then swapped around and I pretended to put his shirt on backwards. He took over then because "Mum was not doing it right", and he's now doing it all himself and getting dressed all on his own.
Don't strive for perfection
He won't do the task as well as you. For example, when getting his breakfast in the morning, if the milk spills, show him how to clean it up. Don't criticise and assure him that it happens to everyone and tomorrow will be better. You'll find many puddles of milk, but hearing your child proudly say, "I did it all by myself!" is so worth it.
Stoop to their level
Place the things he needs at his level. Put bowls, snacks, cups, etc on the lowest shelf so he can serve himself without needing help. A good tip is to watch your child's daily routine and ask yourself what changes you can make to allow him to complete this task without help.
Give lots of praise
So he puts his shoes on the wrong feet? That's OK. Tell him: "You put on your own shoes! Well done!" He'll quickly discover something's not right and change them around. They won't feel comfortable and when he figures it out say something like "I bet you'll get them on the right feet tomorrow". Kids love praise (if truth be known, we all do).
You don't want them to be afraid of making mistakes - they need to realise it is a part of life.
Timing is key
Pick a good time to introduce new responsibilities. If your child is tired, sick, or stressed adjusting to other changes, it's not the time to introduce more. Also, don't worry too much if they regress, it can happen. My son still wanted me to do one particular task this week after he had mastered it. This is normal. Temporarily sharing the load can help them commit again, much more than if you give out or criticise them.
Give Them Choices
Part of being independent is being able to make decisions for yourself, so let your child make some of his own choices throughout the day. The key is not to ask open-ended questions. Narrow down the options to two, for example: "Would you like a ham sandwich or crackers and cheese for lunch?". They're making the final decision, but you're still in control.
Don't rush in
Don't rush in to solve minor issues when they crop up. Encourage their problem-solving skills by asking if he can come up with a fix. If he gets stuck, give him time to think before offering up your ideas.
So why is independence so important from an early age?
One of your most important goals as a parent is to raise children who become independent and self-reliant people.
In their younger years, as we know so well, our children count on us everything. As infants, they rely on us for nourishment, cleaning, and getting around.
Later on when our children reach adolescence and move toward adulthood, they will become less reliant on us and gain greater independence in all aspects of their lives. As sad as it might make us feel right now, this is our hope!
If our children are independent, we have provided them with the belief that they are competent and capable of taking care of themselves. We offered them the guidance to find activities that are meaningful and satisfying and to live a happy life. We will have given our children the freedom to experience life fully and learn its many important lessons.
Remember, independence is not something that our children can gain on their own. They have neither the perspective, experience, nor skills to develop independence all by themselves. They need us. It is a gift we give our children that they will cherish and benefit from their entire lives.
Olivia Willis is the co-founder of familyfriendlyhq.ie, an Irish family lifestyle website with information for parents, things to do, daily articles, reviews, competitions and expert family advice
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