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Encouraging Independence in Your Child

December 7, 2009
Times Observer
BY LISA JORDAN, FAMILY CHILD CARE PROVIDER

When my children were young, I wanted to do everything for them because after all, I was the mom and it was my job to care for them. But I realized doing everything for them was not doing them or me any favors. They needed opportunities to make choices both good and bad that would encourage more independent thinking into adulthood.

Children need to learn how to do self-help tasks such as getting dressed, going potty, washing hands, brushing teeth, and feeding themselves on their own in order to become self-sufficient and independent adults. But they also need safe surroundings to explore and discover their environments.

As a parent for nineteen years and a childcare provider for eleven, I’ve interacted with children of different ages with varied family situations. I’ve seen parents who do everything for their children to parents who encourage their children to do tasks on their own. Sometimes parents are so concerned for their children’s health and safety that they limit their opportunities for exploration. Parents, early childhood educators, and teachers need to encourage their children’s self-help skills, provide safe environments for growth and discovery, and be available for necessary guidance and support.

Infants strive for independence by learning to hold up their heads, rolling over, and taking those first steps. They need safe spaces to move and explore for positive development. As they develop into toddlers and the words “I do it” became more frequent, their need for independence may be mistaken for misbehavior or the “terrible twos.” Sometimes it’s frustrating for parents when a child wants to do things on his own, especially if they’re in a time crunch, but allowing your child to become self-sufficient will have a positive impact on his future as he grows toward adulthood.

Adults want to be independent and respected for the choices we make. Children are the same way, but on a smaller scale. When you try to help your toddler and he pushes you away and uses comments like “I do it” or “no”, he isn’t necessarily being difficult on purpose. He is simply trying to learn a new task on his own in order to become more independent. Sometimes it’s much easier to do tasks ourselves like dressing your child or putting his toys away for him. Maybe the clock is ticking and you need to get out the door so you don’t get caught behind the school buses. Maybe when your child tries to help, he makes a bigger mess, which frustrates you.

Show patience and realize your child is still learning. Your reaction will guide his future actions. As a parent, your job is to allow your child to experience that learning opportunity, but provide support as needed. Allow him to put on his shoes, zip up his coat, or open the door. Allow him to make small choices, such as deciding between two sets of clothes, choice of two different breakfast cereals, or two different fun activities. Limit the choices, but give him the option to decide for himself.

Of course, with every “I do it” child, there will be one that suffers from the “I can’t” syndrome. These children lack the motivation to try new tasks. Perhaps they have learned by saying they can’t do something, their parents will step in and do it for them.

The next time your child tells you he can’t do something, assess the situation and consider your child’s stage of development to see if the task is too difficult or if your child is unsure about his own abilities. If you display understanding, he may be more eager to try again. If you criticize, then your child may be less enthusiastic about trying new tasks for fear of getting into trouble. When you provide positive encouragement to try a new task and stay next to him as he tries, he may be more apt to attempt the task as long as he knows he’s not alone. With continued positive guidance and support, your child’s desire to do things for himself will improve. Plus, you will be bolstering his self-esteem when he realizes he can do things for himself. When you encourage your child to help with tasks around the house, you are promoting his understanding about expectations and resisting bad behaviors.

Wanting to be independent with an “I do it” attitude isn’t limited to toddlers and preschoolers. Elementary

school children, tweens, and teens face the same issues. As your child develops into an adolescent, he will be faced with making choices that will guide future choices—family and friend relationships, educational decisions, career choices. He still wants to be respected for his choices, but sometimes lacks the maturity and life experience to make solid decisions that will benefit him in the long run. Like toddler, they still need a parent’s guiding hand.

No matter how old, when your child comes to you with a situation that demands a choice, listen openly and allow him to share the problem without criticism. Provide him with the positives and negatives of each side, and then ask what he should do. Allow your child to make decisions, but protect him from harmful situations. As a parent with your child’s health and safety in mind, you shouldn’t allow them to choose a path that could put them in danger or down a path of destructive behavior. Be available for your teen to discuss choices with you, but allow him opportunities for mature thinking. Not only will you strengthen those bonds, but also you’re enabling your child to make healthy choices for the future. Independent doing encourages independent thinking.

Lisa Jordan is a family childcare provider and writer in Warren County. She is pursuing her degree in Early Childhood Education through Clarion University and will graduate in May.

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