August 10, 2021
Helping Children Become Independent – No 1 Early Childhood
In a recent talk to the SOTE Parent Program combined meeting, teacher Mrs Renee Locke shares her experience both as a mother and a teacher on what gets in the way for parents in helping their young ones become more independent and how to avoid these pitfalls…
Good evening everyone and welcome. Thanks for taking time out of your week to listen to me speak. I think I know most of you already, but if by chance, we haven’t met, my name is Renee Locke. Currently, I’m a school parent and librarian at SOTE, filling in teaching classes when needed. I have been teaching since 2008, and have taught from Prep to Grade 6. By no means am I any expert on our topic of Helping Children Become Independent, but those of you who know me, know I love a chat, so let’s hope that can translate well to my talk this evening. Even if I am a little nervous. What I have prepared to discuss tonight does come from my teaching experience, but also most recently my parenting experience. I have two little girls, Evie who is 5 and has started Prep this year and Zara who has recently turned three.
First of all, I wanted to start with why we want our children to become independent. We know that when children gain independence that they are more confident, resilient and willing to take healthy risks. We can feel assured that they are on the path to looking after themselves in life. Perhaps we can feel that we are sending good citizens out into the world, or at least good flatmates. And also that, hopefully, our duties will become less demanding in caring for these wonderful little people as we grow older together.
I think we all want this for our children, but yet sometimes it can be a challenge to parent in our day-to-day lives with this in mind. so perhaps tonight instead of telling you how to raise independent children, I’ll discuss my reflections on ‘what stops us as parents facilitating this?’
What Stops Us?
So in the last little while I’ve been thinking and asking others, what stops us as parents in doing what we so very much want to do? In helping our children become independent.
We want our child to put on their own shoes. We really do, but sometimes when we have to get out the door in the morning, it can just be easier to do it ourselves. We know that if they make their own breakfast, or do their own hair, pack their own bag, any of those things that they are learning life skills, but yet that clock keeps ticking.
At the start of this year, I found our mornings to feel quite stressful as I now had to get two little people (my 5 year old new Preppie, and my then 2 year old) out of the house quite early, and have myself ready for work. I knew time was sensitive. I’m not going to lie and I have my husband here to confirm that, it’s not been a pretty picture at times, and I’m always welcome to ideas to improve, we’re only beginners to the school routine but these are some things that have worked for us.
- Pick Your Priority
As the parent, I need to pick my priority and go from there. Sometimes, I’m just aiming for ‘done’. Just for us all to be in clean clothes, food in our tummies, bags packed, teeth clean, hair brushed. And as simple as that sounds, sometimes that takes us a very long time! But what I really want is for us to be connected and not feeling a panicked start to the day because their mother has turned ‘shouty’. So I aim for connection over perfection. I’d much rather muck up one of those things, or help my children do some tasks that they already know how to do for the sake of us getting out the door in a (mostly calm) manner. So yes, some mornings my children can dress, feed and clean themselves, but other mornings I will hold their pants while they step into them and whiz them up a smoothie to drink in the car.
- Take Out the Emotion
Taking the emotion out of tasks helps us, so instead of repeating myself for essential tasks, we have a little checklist printed that shows the steps for the day, for example, eat breakfast, get dressed, put shoes on etc) which saves my repeating and helps the girls take some ownership (and frees their memory) for the day ahead.
- Be Ready
I try to get myself as organised as possible the night before, ensuring I have uniforms, bags, all the little things ready so I’m not searching for any ‘missing pieces’.
- Ask for Help
I have realised that sometimes I needed to give up some of my own independence, and depending on different stages of our girls, ask for some help. Which I bring up to remind us all that there is no end point to being independent, as humans we are designed to be co-dependent. So, whilst some days, my children can do what they need to all by themselves, and so can I, other times, I need to ask my partner, parents, other families etc if there’s ways I can be supported.
- ‘Buffer’ Time
In terms of time, I like to add buffer time or ‘white space’ to my day (where possible) to factor in all those little opportunities for independence, so I don’t feel so rushed, or like I’m constantly rushing my children. I like to add extra for the trip to town so that if one of my kids wants a turn at opening the gates, I can have them practice this, rather than me feeling like I’m going to explode by how long it’s taking. Or know that a trip to the shops has that extra time for them to help me pick the food, pack it into the bags, into the car, have some choice in all those everyday experiences of life.
- Pause Button
Pressing the pause button on my reactions can also help me see what my children are capable of doing, rather than jumping in and doing it for them.
We know that we should let our children help cook dinner. Think of all the fine motor skills they are learning, their confidence blossoming, literacy and maths skills galore! So what stops us? If it’s not the time factor involved, we might have other concerns. Perhaps we’ve only just mopped our floors and don’t particularly feel like grated carrot and flour to be spread all over. Or we just want to get this next thing done without any interruptions.
I guess while we allow our own children to become independent it increases our workload. Yet in parenting we are in it for the long game, and knowing that cleaning tonight’s mess means that this time next year, we’ll have children that can cook their own food and perhaps serve us up a meal or two when we’re oldies.
- Sense of Order
Another factor in the waste/chaos/mess category is our own need for sense of order, and how we like for things to be. Mums will often mention that they appreciate their children tidying up, but yet knows that it’s not really how she wants it to be. In small parents group, Mum of 4, Karen mentioned how she presents as pleased to her children when they have washed up after dinner, but might need to do an extra wash at another time when they’re not looking.
- Independence within Boundaries
Parenting is messy and it’s a gradual release of control in so many areas. Something I’ve personally found helpful is to encourage independence within my boundaries. The kids need to be happy, yet so do I. My home is very lived in and I can surrender a lot of cleanliness for the love of wanting my children to be creative and learn independence. But I also know when my eye starts to twitch and I can’t handle any more chaos. So if neat hairstyles are your thing, maybe it will be a struggle for you to accept your child attempting their own ponytail before school and you might want to try to suggest you do their hair for school and they have a go one of the weekend days.
An example of me encouraging autonomy, yet having boundaries is for Zara, my three year old when she is picking her clothes for the day. I try to place a structure around this for my own sanity so for example, I have a boundary that her clothing does have to be weather appropriate and functional. ‘So Zarzi, you can pop a singlet over your long sleeve shirt, wear pants and a tutu if that’s your thing, gumboots again-sure why not?’ I remember at one stage when Evie was about 3, her finding a love of swimming togs in the middle of winter, so we’d let her wear them, but she put tights and a long sleeve shirt underneath. It was a win, win all round, warm yet apparently fashionable. This can be hard for our egos at time, we might feel like we should have done more to have our children ‘put together’ but I do know it brings me the greatest joy to see little ones who have dressed themselves, shoes on the wrong feet, a riot of colours and accessories, just feeling fantastic about their own choice.
The setting of boundaries of independence could also be applied for the time when children want to pack their own lunches, perhaps some structure in their own freedom, in terms of a template, whereby you might suggest a fruit, a vegetable, something from the freezer, and something from the snack box – or really whatever structure suits your family best.
- Sense of Entitlement
There’re also those times where you all of a sudden realise maybe your child is acting a little entitled. I know that I was having a time like that just a few months back, where I felt like Nick and I were becoming waiters in a dodgy restaurant with very dissatisfied customers. Many demands for snacks were asked for, yet quite uncomplimentary feedback was being received when we handed them over. So now I have a bottom drawer in our kitchen that hosts all sorts of dried fruit, nuts, nori sheets and anything that the girls can help themselves to as well as a fruit box on our kitchen floor so that they can help themselves. This is not instagram worthy, but they are able to get their own snacks, and I am not asked every 5 minutes for the next round of food. Sometimes when these feelings come up in parenting, such as feeling a little resentful, we know it might be time to step up our children’s independence levels.
This follows a lot of early childhood philosophy of helping children help themselves so it can often be useful to imagine things from your child’s perspective in their own living space. Can they reach what they need, are hooks at a height for them, is their clothing accessible to them? Do they have to ask for their toys or art supplies to be brought out or are the within reach? Where do you store their cups, plates, cutlery? Can they reach their own bath towel? Simple little adjustments within your home can help your child become independent in their own everyday lives.
- Routines can Help
Independence can also work really well in the routines of your life. For example at school, we see the children take turns setting the tables for lunch. At home, it might be part of your routine for everyone to help bring the clothes off the clothesline, or to put their underwear and socks away, for lunchboxes to be taken out of schoolbags and put on the bench, to fill their water bottles each morning. Whatever routines you find suit your home and family, but consistency in routine can also help children find confidence in their own daily tasks.
We are worried about what might happen. Oh dear, the fear game can hinder so much of our lives. We might have a safety concern, for example if a child is wanting to ride their bike around the block by themselves.
In some situations, I think if we the parent has a genuine fear, for example, what if our child gets hurt – we have to weigh up the risks for our child, and ourselves. Chances are they will be okay, they could have an accident, but this is not likely. Then, if needed, put some things in place if you need to calm your mind. For example, could they do the first lap with another person just to check their skill level? This is the time to call in the community. If you do have some fears, perhaps before letting your child go freely around their block, chat to some neighbours along the way that could keep an eye out, give them your number, do what you need to do to calm yourself down and let your child have a go at doing the thing they need to do! And of course, keep in mind your child’s joy when they master this!
Let’s bring back the tribe, ask other family members, parents, neighbours etc for help in those things we find hard. And try to let go of our egos a little. This also might mean that your child can show independence differently for different people. My children tend to have a certain level of independence with me, can apparently show a greater level with their Dad, and their independence can go out the window all together at times when they’re with their grandparents.
4) Developmental stages/Confusion
There are no set answers in parenting as to a time that our children will master certain skills so here we really have to do the dance of following our child’s lead, whilst keeping their best interest at heart. I listened to a podcast where an author of a book called ‘The Resilience Donut’ spoke about her son as a young teen being really into banging on things, tapping on the table, drumming whatever he could find. She and her husband, decided to let him immerse himself in this world of drumming. They supplied him with the opportunities to have lessons, and encouraged this whole-heartedly. Whilst it may have seemed that at this time, he spent far less time on his study, he found mastery in learning to play the drums and could then take this with him when he began senior study, knowing that when he put his mind to it, he could master challenges.
So at times, we can see that, for example, a child needs to gain independence in a certain area, yet we have to follow their interest into what they want to gain independence in. So we could be thinking logically, unpacking their lunchbox, where they are thinking….cartwheels. But by giving them the freedom to master the cartwheels (or drawing, archery, insert passion here) we are giving them the confidence boost to apply this to more practical areas of their life.
In saying this, I am also one to call a spade a spade and when working in a family unit, it sometimes is needed to be said that ‘it’s time son, you need to help dry the dishes’ and have that an expectation. But you are not me, and you need to decide how you will implement things in your own home.
We’re always doing a little balancing act in the independence game too, and at small parents group, Mum of 2, Carol mentioned how when her son starts to drag his feet a bit in the mornings, she steps back his level of independence for a while, and may lay his clothes out for him again or prepare his breakfast even though he’d previously been doing this himself. She has found in doing this, it props him back up again (filling his cup) and then he increases again soon after.. I remember when I started teaching at SOTE I hearing that some of the mothers of Year 12 students would make their children their lunches, even though they knew they could, as a gesture of care and love to support them whilst they were studying so hard. I think we can relate to this as adults too. Just because I can make my own cup of tea, doesn’t mean I don’t like if someone else makes one for me. In fact, it probably tastes better!
When researching the area of independence, this seemed to be a common theme, where independence does not go in a straight line and Mum of 2, Kathy reflected on this in small parent groups as well. Her two sons are quite different in how they display their independence. Children may master something, but then a few days later, revert back to how things were, only to how independence again in a little bit of time. This can be a bit of a juggle and struggle when trying to hold expectations in parenting. The developmental line is not straight and children come with their own unique personalities and ways of interacting in this world.
For example, when children gain independence in reading, it doesn’t mean that they always want to read by themselves, we can still enjoy reading with and to our children. I think of all the primary grades that come to the library, the class that enjoys listening to stories the most at times are the Grade 6 students, even though they’re the oldest and most independent readers in our primary.
My last point which is not necessarily a barrier, but something I keep in mind is that teaching our children independence does not only come in their physical actions, it can be in their thoughts. Every family chooses their own particular values, but something my husband and I feel quite strongly about in our own family values is having our children grow to be adults who have independent thoughts, not needing to follow our thoughts or those of others. This can also be a stretch to the ego of a parent. I am, however very willing to put my ego to the side and have my children question what I say and what those around them say. And whilst they are very young and we ultimately decide what’s best for them now, we do encourage them to ask questions, to disagree respectfully and to share their thoughts and have autonomy over their daily lives.
So in summary, helping young children become independent is time consuming, messy, confusing and scary but we all know it’s well worth it. So let’s work together as a school community, all put our hands up to help one another out and forget about managing children. And instead let’s raise these great children all together. Please also send your tips my way and I’ll add them to my repertoire in my parenting journey. Thank you.