When children are able to do things independently, they grow in confidence and decision-making abilities. When we share this with parents in our workshops, they often say, “I want my child to do things for herself, but she keeps saying, ‘You do it for me. You feed me. You put on my shoes. You give me a bath.’ Why does this happen?” This is because as parents we may have missed the bus in giving our children the independence they wanted, at the time they wanted it.
Take for example, eating. Babies indicate that they want to feed themselves from the time they are just eight to nine months old. They grab the spoon from you and want to put the food in their own mouth. Instead of encouraging this, we try to distract them and insist on feeding them. Later the child gets used to being fed and when he is four or five years old we say to him, ‘You are such a big boy and you cannot eat by yourself?’ We did not allow the child to learn to be independent when his brain and body wanted it. This is not just true of small children but those of all ages.
For example, children of 10 to 12 years may beg you to allow them to cycle to school, but we feel they are too young and we drop them. Later, they get used to this and don’t even want to try going to school by themselves.
So how do we encourage a child who is not willing to be independent in some areas? Observe if the child is developmentally ready for what you are expecting of him: For example, expecting a child of two years to be independent and not cry when separated from you is not realistic for that age. Keep your expectations in line with what is appropriate for that age group, while remembering that each child is different. It’s harmful to shame a child by saying, ‘All your friends can do this, why can’t you?’.
Examine the child’s back story: Is there a deeper reason for the child refusing to be independent? A child who refuses to fall asleep on her own may have some fears or maybe she feels that only at bedtime you are giving her your attention, so she wants you to put her to bed.
Show faith in the child and use encouragement: Use words like ‘I am sure you are capable of eating by yourself. I am going to sit here and eat with you too. I am going to show you how to have a bath and then you will be able to do it on your own’. With older children we can support them to be independent in packing their bags, taking responsibility for their homework by saying, ‘I think now you are old enough to manage this by yourself. I am here to help you, but I want you to take the responsibility’.
As they say, no man is an island. Finally, we are all interdependent on each other and there are times when we all want support. We do not want to give our children the message that it’s not okay to seek help, but we also want them to experience the sense of self-worth that comes from being able to do things for themselves and being responsible, independent persons.
The author is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organisation which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families