“Bend the tree while it’s still young because when it is old it will break.”
Ever heard that little Jamaican proverb? As much as it may be sound advice for those with green fingers, it is definitely a proverb you may want to consider if you are currently raising little fingers. Our ultimate goal as parents is to raise our children in such a way that they can go out into the big bad world and fend for themselves and then repeat the process by having, and successfully raising, munchkins of their own.
I am sure, in your pre-parent years, you shook your head at a few instances where a friend’s child was being quite clingy and whiny. Was that “my kid will never be like that” I heard you mumble…? Well, how did that work out for you; now that you have given birth to a two-legged piece of Velcro that keeps on attaching itself to your hip?
Don’t fret, that tree is still young and with the right skills, you can bend it in the right direction. There is a catch though, and it is going to be harder for you than it is for your child…you need to let go. Figuratively and literally. You can’t expect your little one to have the skill sets they need to navigate this complicated world if you keep them hidden behind your leg or strapped up in their stroller.
Let’s start with the littlies. Little ones need to feel safe. This feeling is derived from your hugs and cuddles as well as how responsive you are to their ques. This lays the groundwork for trust. Which in turn builds towards independence later on. Try chatting to your baby about what you are doing while changing their nappy. None of that ‘coochy coo’ nonsense. Save that for the puppy. Talk to them as if they understand. Tell them that you are changing their nappy because they are wet/soiled and you don’t want them to be uncomfortable. As they mature, they will feel like they are an active contributor and they will start to take an interest in their own hygiene and care.
Some parents, very patient parents mind you, have even gone as far as teaching their little one’s baby sign language! Linda Acredolo, the co-author of the ground-breaking book Baby Signs, says, “Encouraging babies and toddlers to use signs gives them a feeling of confidence and competence, the basis of independence. By providing a way for children to let you know what they need, they feel able to do other things. They can be agents in the world.” Babies around the age of 8-10 months (some even younger) are already using sign language when they wave goodbye or blow kisses!
One very important way to let your child develop in independence is to allow them to feed themselves. Yes, it is messy. But what did you expect? How else will they find out how deliciously mushy mash potatoes are if they can’t squish it between their chubby fingers and shove what’s left in their mouths? And peas!! They can roll around! (If mommy doesn’t overcook them) They may roll onto the floor and the mash may land down there too but this way you finally find hidden talent in your coochy-coo puppy (it can vacuum and mop all at once). On top of that, your child learns about physics and how to aim for their mouths. You can add a spoon to the equation and a new learning curve begins. How about you each have a spoon? Mommy pops a mouthful in baby’s mouth then baby gives it a try. Don’t let the thought of mess deprive your child of this food-experimenting adventure.
As your child matures, the need to encourage emotional independence grows. You can start this process by making sure that they have a stable routine. When they know what to expect, they feel in control and less prone to emotional outbursts. Simple little actions like reading a book to a toddler every night before bedtime will signal to them what is coming next. Sleep. So they will unknowingly start to relax and prepare themselves for this next step. That’s a step in the right direction towards self-soothing.
Lower your child’s bookshelf, make the nappies accessible, show them how to fetch the items you may need in their everyday care. Let them use their brain and their body to help you take care of themselves. “Kids who navigate their environment independently are developing problem-solving skills, which instils a sense of confidence,” says Amy Borak.
I know it’s hard and very time consuming to let your little one get their shoes on by themselves but how will they ever taste success if they don’t get opportunities to experience it! Imagine that look of accomplishment when mom or dad gives them a high five or extra tight hug because they finally got it right. ‘Finally’ being the operative word in that sentence. Unless you have birthed a genius, it’s going to take a few tries before they grasp certain concepts. Your hands will itch to help, you may roll your eyes and sigh in impatience when they do it wrong for what feels like the millionth time (frustrations are always exaggerated when you are in a hurry). Just remember those little neurons are firing and making new pathways every time they learn something new; how things work and how they don’t work.
Now I am not saying you should be like; “We are not stepping a foot out of this house till your shoes are on your feet young lady!”
Big eyes staring back at you slightly confused… I mean, let’s encourage independence. You are allowed to help them out a little by making sure you put the right shoe by the right foot. Loosen the Velcro straps a bit so they don’t struggle to get their foot in. Make the impossible seem more attainable for them. If you need to wake up 20 minutes earlier for your child to develop a sense of wanting to be independent and get themselves ready, then sacrifice that 20 minutes of beauty sleep. Trust me, the wrinkles and grey hair you will get from a needy child who wants you to do everything for them is a much less appealing thought.
You do get little ones who seem ready to move out of the house by the time they are crawling. These little souls need to be reined in enough so that they don’t hurt themselves, but they must be allowed the freedom to explore and learn from their independent nature.
Being the very broad and involved subject that this is, I had a chat with a very wise bunch of ladies. I chose this group of ladies because they spend their days dedicating themselves, physically and mentally, to the well-being of the children in their care. You could probably ask them almost any child-related question and they would be able to give a doctorate/degree kind of answer. The staff at Little Farmyard Pre-primary are basically a group of encyclopaedias on 2 legs with regards to what’s what about children and their educational care. And this ain’t just book smarts people, this wealth of knowledge is from years of experience. I asked these ladies to give me a few pointers on how a parent can encourage a child’s independence. The catch was that I wanted gems on how to encourage independence in a way that will make the child’s day easier for the child, not the adult. These are in random order and not categorized by age.
- Let your child learn to dress themselves.
Teach them how to put on a pair of undies and then let them try. There will be a few uncomfortable moments where you need to de-wedge the wedgie or put the ‘jewels’ back where they belong and they may even land up with the leg hole of their shorts around their waist. At least they tried! Gently show them that it will be a lot more comfortable if they put their shoes on the right feet or their neck through the neck hole, not the armhole and let them have another go at it again.
- Give them choices.
Keep these choices limited though. Want to give them a snack? Limit it to one category e.g. fruit. Let them choose which fruit. Or give them a choice of 3 tops and 3 skirts and let them mix and match. Who cares if it doesn’t match! No one makes green stripes and magenta spots look as good as a mismatched 3-year-old. No one will judge you!
- Give them chores.
Age appropriate of course. Let them feel like they have an important role in the running of the household and they are a valued member of the family. With that feeling of importance will come a feeling of willingness to do more. They will start looking for jobs to help and that will instil a little bit of independent thinking. Until they are teenagers. Then the willingness stops and sometimes the thinking too…
- Encourage them to eat on their own
Such an important step in independence and one that can be encouraged from an early age.
- Show them how to wipe after going to the toilet.
Someone should definitely be there to lend a helping hand but as your child matures, so does their sense of privacy. You don’t want your little one to not want a teacher or caregiver to wipe them but they are unable to help themselves.
- Let them learn to deal with conflict
As you will soon find out, or have already, as children grow older they start to bicker. With siblings and friends. As much as it pulls on those mommy heart strings and as much as you want to go into a full-on momma-bear mode, don’t. Your child needs to learn how to resolve the conflict. They need to know that what was said to them on the playground today hurts, but doesn’t define who they are. You can remind them that you or their teacher will be there to listen and sort out anything that should not be happening, but ultimately they need to say sorry or forgive when apologised to. Its hard mommy, but they have to learn to fight these battles on their own.
- Encourage the use of the potty/toilet
Potty training is no joke. It has rattled the strongest of parents and turned them into pleading, bribing, negotiating adults. And when the pleading doesn’t work and the poo happens behind the curtain, it turns them into gagging, slightly green adults. It is so much easier just to leave the nappy on. Who has seen a 10-year-old in nappies anyway? That’s the ostrich approach. And it is opening your child up to feeling inadequate and possibly frustrated because they are ready for the potty training journey but you are not.
- Encourage exploration.
This should be done from an early age. The minute they start crawling let them explore. On their hands and knees, not from your hip. The view they have from the floor starts to look quite daunting if they have learnt to prefer the view from moms’ arms. There is a wealth of knowledge and huge amounts of independence to gain when they are adventuring on all fours while mommy keeps an eye on them to make sure they stay safe.
- Let them self soothe
The smell of your child, especially when they are freshly bathed and ready for bed is one of those smells you will never forget. But as tempting as it is to rock your child to sleep, it’s not worth the consequences. For your child as well as yourself. You want your little one to fall asleep at night feeling content and calm, not in your arms, waking up every time you move in fear that you are going to put them down. They need to find comfort in their own company, thoughts and sense of self.
Last but by far one of the most important hints is:
- Teach them to face new situations with confidence.
Starting school for the first time, or a Monday morning after a long weekend, going to a new friend’s house, meeting an unfamiliar face… all these situations hold the possibility of a mini, or major, meltdown for your child. How you build up to the situation or react when the poo hits the fan is how the situation will pan out. Radiate calmness and confidence. Show your child that they have nothing to be worried about and that mommy knows that they will be fine and mommy believes in them. Encourage them to physically walk into the situation, encourage them to treat new encounters like an adventure. Congratulate them on their strength in handling difficult or uncomfortable situations. That first day of school may seem scary, for you and your child, but don’t let your child catch even a smidgen of your uncertainty. Confidently hand them over to their teacher, shower them with love and tell them you will see them later. Then leave and go cry in the car. This will probably be the absolute opposite of what your maternal instincts are telling you to do but you don’t want to leave your child with a picture of mommy crying. Goodness knows what type of conclusions their little mind will jump too!
This world can be harsh and unpredictable at the best of times. Robert A. Heinlein once said, “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives too easy”. Guide your child through the trials they may encounter, not around them.
Okay, I think you are ready. Take a deep breath, look at your child, deep into their beautiful eyes, and show them that you have the faith in them that they need to believe in themselves and they must know without a doubt that they can do this! Exhale, and now let them go try…