The ability to deal successfully with everyday situations, whether these situations are familiar or new, is one of the main building blocks of a child’s confidence and self-esteem.
Confidence is all about knowing you can handle challenges. It is the attitude of “I can do it!” or “I’ve never done this before, but I’ll give it a try!”
Self-reliant children can do many things for themselves and for others without needing or wanting much help from adults - and without needing to be reminded! Self-reliant children also think independently, coming up with their own solutions and strategies for dealing with challenges.
Most parents are aware of the importance of guiding children to become independent, but even so it is very easy to find oneself doing far too much for them. We could be teaching and training our children to get themselves dressed, take care of their belongings, manage their time and money, help with household chores and meal preparation, tackle their homework without automatically assuming they need help. But day after day, year after year, parents spend endless hours doing all these things and ending up feeling exhausted, drained and often resentful.
I’ve mentioned teaching and training. That’s because there are always two steps on the path towards self-reliance. First your child needs to be able to do what you require of him, and to a good enough standard. This is what we need to teach him.
However, knowing what to do and how to do it are not enough. The child also needs to be trained, so that doing the right thing becomes a habit. Many times we make the mistake of assuming that a child will automatically remember to do the right thing once he knows how to do it. But even when children know how to clean their teeth, many are not in the habit of doing it without a reminder. Even after a child knows how to hang his jacket on the peg, he may be in the habit of dropping it on the floor as he runs off to play.
A large measure of self-reliance follows naturally from cooperation. This is how it happens: When children are in the habit of doing what they are told, and when we tell them to do the same thing at approximately the same time on most days (because we have a routine), after a while children will start to follow the routine even before we give them the instruction. For example, if we always insist that children wash their hands properly before a meal, quite soon all we will have to say is “Dinner time”, and they will go and wash their hands.
In this article I will explain how we can teach and train our children to become more and more self-reliant. But first let’s look at the kinds of skills it is useful for children to develop and what are the benefits of self-reliance. I will then explore some of the obstacles that may stop us from teaching and training self-reliance, and how we can overcome these obstacles.
Here are some areas where training our children to be self-reliant would be useful for them and for us. For each area I begin with what they can learn to do when they are younger, and I go on to what they can achieve as teenagers:
- Be independent with food: learn to use cutlery correctly, learn to pour their own drinks, make their school lunches, and later shop for and cook whole meals for themselves and the family.
- Be responsible for what they wear: learn to get dressed and tie their shoelaces, choose what to wear for which occasion. As teenagers they can learn to shop independently for their clothes, staying within their budget. They can learn to take care of their clothes: wash, iron and mend.
- Be in charge of their personal hygiene: learn to take a shower or bath on their own, including washing their hair. Later they need to get into the habit of doing this without being reminded.
- Keep their room and the house tidy and clean: start with simple tasks like tidying away their toys every day, clearing the table after a meal, putting dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Later they can hoover, do the washing up, clean windows, mow the lawn, etc.
- Manage money: start with making their pocket money last all week, then saving towards bigger purchases. Later they can learn to manage an allowance that includes all their expenses, and to do small jobs to supplement it.
- Organisation and time-management skills: pack their school bag for the next day, and eventually plan their schedule so that they can fit in both work and fun activities, arrange their out-of-school activities, and make sure that they have everything they need for each task or occasion.
Many Benefits to Fostering Self-reliance
- As I have mentioned, becoming more and more self-reliant increases a child’s self-esteem.
- Parents’ lives become calmer, easier and happier. When our children do more and more for themselves and for others, and when they contribute to household maintenance, we don’t need to work as much. We don’t have to constantly feed, clean, cook, get children dressed and entertain them. We don’t need to remember their PE kit, their lunch box and violin. We can relax much more, and we will have more time to rest and to do the things we enjoy doing, either with our children or on our own.
- Our relationships with our children become calmer, easier and happier. We won’t need to give many instructions, and we won’t be tempted to remind, nag and complain about what our children do or don’t do. Children resent being nagged and criticised by parents and teachers, and it does not help them to improve.
As a result of teaching and training our children to do things on their own, we will have many opportunities to Descriptively Praise and to show how proud we are, rather than to criticise or complain. The atmosphere at home will become much more positive.
- Children develop better skills. A child who can complete routine tasks by himself develops the confidence to tackle challenges at home, at school and in other places. His reasoning and communication skills will be better developed because his parents are not doing his thinking or talking for him. His organisational skills will be better because he has learned to take care of his own belongings. He is not only more confident, but also more able!
Typical obstacles and how to overcome them
Given the obvious benefits of fostering self-reliance, why is it that so many of us still do far too much for our children? Why don’t we teach and train our children to be independent as soon as they are able to learn? Let’s look at some of the obstacles to fostering self-reliance. By addressing these typical obstacles we can free ourselves to support our children’s learning and enjoy all the benefits of self-reliance.
a) As parents, of course we perform most tasks faster than our children do. Sometimes we just don’t have the patience to wait for a child to do things inefficiently or slowly, such as putting on his coat or tying his shoelaces, especially if he is resisting or misbehaving. We want to get it done quickly so we can move on to the next task. We also know that we can do a much better job than our children on most tasks. In the short term, it is easier for us to keep doing it than to teach our children to do it.
If we keep on doing things for our children, they will not get enough opportunity to improve. Although it may not be easy in the short term, if we take the time and make the effort to teach and train our children to be more self-reliant, we will see the benefits very soon.
Start by allowing more time for everyday tasks, such as getting ready for school in the morning. That way you are less likely to get impatient or stressed and end up doing it for your child. Gradually children will become more skilled, and gradually their speed will improve as well. And over time we can require children to do their tasks to a much higher standard than many parents realise.
b) We may underestimate our child’s ability or willingness to learn. We may not know how to teach and train in a way that will motivate the child to learn, and we may be worried about a possible negative reaction if we ask him to do things he might not want to do.
Children are much more able than we realise. They will be motivated to learn if we set up the task so that they can succeed, and if we keep Descriptively Praising the little steps improvements as well as the big achievements. Teaching children to do new things can be a very rewarding and exciting activity for both parents and children.
c) We love our children so we want to please them. Perhaps we want to feel needed and valued for our effort. We want to be good parents, and we may believe that doing things for our children is part of doing a good job as a parent.
Loving our children and doing things for them are not the same thing! It is not our job to do things for our children that they can do for themselves. Our job is to transmit to our children the skills and values and habits that we believe are important. Teaching and training children to be self-reliant will actually make us better parents!
Children who have too much done for them come to expect to be served, and they take it for granted. Rather than appreciating what we do for them, they value us less and less. After all, if we don’t value our time and effort, why should they? They may also resent us for not giving them enough opportunities to do things on their own. And if you act like an unpaid servant, you may be treated like one, with disrespect.
d) Some parents keep themselves busy by doing things for their children in order to avoid dealing with their own life issues, including their adult relationships.
If we become aware that we are using childcare tasks or household jobs as a way of filling our time or avoiding dealing with other issues, we have already taken one step in the right direction. We need to recognise that it is not fair on our children to have to fill this purpose in our lives, and they may grow to resent it. The way out of this situation is to honestly face our own issues, whatever they are, possibly with outside help. Also, it is very important to find more things we enjoy doing apart from our children, perhaps seeing friends or taking up a hobby, so that not all our energy is focused on our children.
How to Teach and Train
First we need to teach a new skill. We always start teaching by Preparing For Success:
- Be realistic about what you expect your child to be able to learn. If you are not sure what your child is capable of, just teach one more step on from what he can do right now. When he finds that little step easy, you can teach the next little step. It is much better to proceed gradually and to experience success, rather than to do too much too quickly and end up discouraged.
- Make enough time for teaching. Choose a time when you are not in a rush.
- Remember that you have to be there to teach. Telling your child what you want him to do and walking off rarely works.
- Break the task you want to teach into smaller, achievable steps (micro-skills).
- Decide on the order you want to teach these steps. Sometimes it is easier to teach the last step of a task first.
- Remind yourself to be positive, and use Descriptive Praise both for effort and for achievement. Pretending you are a teacher, rather than a parent, will help you to stay calm.
- Slowly and patiently, demonstrate what you want the child to do.
- Ask him to repeat what you have just shown him.
- If the task is still difficult, break it into even smaller micro-skills, and have him practise each step separately. Be willing to go very slowly.
- Review your child’s effort, and explain what improvements you want.
- Descriptively Praise a lot: for not giving up, for being patient, for being willing to practise and learn, for mastering a tiny micro-skill.
- If your child is still not learning the skill, think of other ways to teach him. Different people learn differently.
- You can ask your child what will make it easier for him to learn the skill. Sometimes children have good ideas about how they learn best.
- Once your child has shown that he can perform the task independently, ask him to practise it again a few more times with you supervising.
- Do not assume that if a child can do something one day, he will necessarily be able to do it again the next day. You will probably need to have him practise the task again and again on different days.
- Use everyday situations as opportunities for teaching. There is a useful lesson to be learned from almost every situation.
- Teaching children can be very enjoyable. It can make for a delightful Special Time activity, and it is an opportunity to celebrate your child’s achievements.
Examples of teaching a new skill:
- To teach your child to zip his coat, button a shirt or tie his shoelaces, you can put the coat, shirt or shoe on the table so he can see what he is doing more easily. Have him practise the steps one by one. You might want to start a task and let him finish it. When your child is confident, which might take a few days, have him do the same thing while wearing the clothes.
- For an older child, using public transport can be taught step by step. First go on the bus with your child a few times and sit next to him, asking questions about where to get off, what to do if he gets confused, etc. Next, get on the bus with him, but sit separately. Next have him get on by himself and travel just one stop, and be waiting for him when he gets off. Then have him make longer and longer journeys, with you waiting at the other end.
- You can teach many social skills by using rehearsals, taking turns playing each part. You can have your child practise greeting someone when he is introduced, asking for assistance in a shop, ordering a meal or answering the telephone. If you stay positive, this can be great fun!
Once your child knows how to carry out a task, you will need to train him so that he develops the habit of doing what you require:
- Explain clearly that from now on you want him to remember to do this job.
- Don’t give in to the temptation, when you’re in a hurry, to do it for him or to keep reminding him.
- Create rules and routines, rewards and consequences to help him remember what he needs to do and to be motivated to do it. (I talk about this in my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys’.)
- Require children to do their best. You need to stay around for a while and supervise to check that your child is doing his best.
- Keep Descriptively Praising effort, achievements and his newly acquired independence.
- Don’t rescue your child from the consequences of his actions. It is not
your job to make everything OK for him. (You can read more about this in
my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’.)
- If your child can carry out a task but is still very slow, you can help him to speed up by using a timer and getting him to try and break his own record. Most children love competing against themselves, and the improvement is often dramatic.
Examples of training a new habit:
- To guide your child into the habit of remembering to clean his teeth before bed, together you and he can make a list of all the things he needs to do at bedtime. Post this list on the wall as a reminder. (If your child is not yet reading, use pictures). In the beginning, you will need to be present to check that he does everything on his list. Descriptively Praise every task he remembers to do. Once good habits are established, you can be there less and less.
- Make it easier for your child to get organised by having him prepare for the next day as part of the evening routine. If he still forgets his lunch money, homework or PE kit, let him deal with the consequences. He will be much more motivated to learn this way.
Having a self-reliant child does not mean that you can never again do things for him. When his independence is established, you can sometimes do things for him as a treat. He can also do things for you on occasion! You will both appreciate each other much more when you have a choice about what you do for each other.