There has been a lot of talk over the last year about “helicopter parents,” parents who hover over their children and swoop in before or at the slightest hint of discomfort, challenge, or threat of failure. Powerful parents know that while they want their children to succeed, there is great value in making mistakes and learning from them.
It’s developmentally appropriate for children to become more and more independent, self reliant and responsible as they age. It can be challenging for parents to know when to step back and let their children try something on their own. After all, from the time their children were babies, parents have spent years meeting many to all of their child’s needs. Striking a balance between allowing your children to do tasks for themselves and helping them when they seem to need or want is a talent of very powerful parents. This balance allows their children to thrive because they feel more confident in themselves while still feeling supported and properly mentored.
How can we instill self reliance and responsibility into our children?
(1) Allow your children to make some decisions: Even young children can make sound decisions if you give them a few select choices. Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt? Would you like a peanut butter sandwich or a cheese sandwich? As children get older, you can allow them to make more important decisions with little to no guidance. They can determine which activities in which they would like to engage, if they need a tutor for math, and which friends they’d like to spend time with each day without needing much, if any, input from parents. While it’s tempting to make these kinds of decisions for your older children, they need to learn from their own mistakes and stand on their own two feet—after all, their decisions are often correct!
(2) Encourage your children to try tasks on their own: While it’s often quicker and more skillfully done when we do it for them, children need to engage in tasks on their own if they’re ever going to learn how to do them well. Laundry, shoe-tying, packing their own bags, making the bed, and are great places to start. Older children can handle more and should! Learning how to cook and becoming solely responsible for their own homework are tasks older children should master. When children express a desire to engage in a task, if it’s safe, be sure to let them participate. Again, while it may not be done as well as if you had done it yourself, praise the effort and the initiative and allow your children to try it again next time. They will surely get better and better with each effort, mistake, and success.
(3) Model responsibility and self reliance: Parents have many responsibilities—let your child see them and hear about them! Say out loud; “This screw seems a little loose, I’ll go get the screwdriver and tighten it” or “I have to plan our weekly menu for dinner; let’s see…Monday night we’ll have…” When children see you making decisions, taking initiative, and displaying self reliant behaviors, they will engage in similar behavior. Note: Be careful, parents! If you and your spouse are used to dividing up the labor, especially if they’re divided down traditional gender lines, your children may assume that “girls can’t do this” or “boys shouldn’t do that.” Show your boys that a girl can change a lightbulb and fix the flusher on the toilet and boys can clean the dishes and do laundry!
(4) Be your child’s coach rather than his sage: When your child asks you questions about how to do something or what to do in a certain situation, sometimes asking questions is more important than providing answers. “What do you think you should do? How would you feel if you chose X? What would happen if you did Y instead?” These questions can unlock the answers in your own child’s brain so the next time he’s in a similar situation he’ll be able to call on his own experience and judgment to make a decision.
(5) Be a good support system: Sometimes this means cheering them on from the sidelines and other times it means encouraging them to try again. Of course, when children truly need your help, they should know that they can count on you. If you teach them to ask for help when they really need it (when something seems unsafe or too challenging), they should know that you will be there to assist them. When children know they can count on you when they’re really in need, they’ll feel more secure about taking healthy risks and making mistakes.
(6) Provide them with responsibilities: Chores are great for teaching children how to be self reliant as well as how to work as a team. Take some time to teach your children how to do each chore properly. You can even work on a checklist together which helps to break down the task into easy, age-appropriate chunks. For example, (1) Take the clothes out of the dryer, (2) Separate the clothes by family member, (3) Match up all the socks…and so on. Providing responsibilities which allow the children to show self reliance and responsibility will indeed build self reliance and responsibility.
(7) Encourage healthy risk-taking: Assure your children that making mistakes is OK. The most important thing is that s/he tries! Most things are not done perfectly the first time—even when you’re an adult. It doesn’t mean “the end of the world” and there is no reason to be embarrassed. It can be tough to watch our children make mistakes. We may want to rush to their aid to shield them from impending failure or disappointment. However, when parents do this, they rob their children of some very powerful tools; perseverance, confidence, and yes, self reliance.
Your words and your encouragement have far-reaching affects. My mother always used to sing to me whenever I fell down; “just pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again!” I still hear it in my head when I’ve made a blunder.
Your children are relying on you to teach them how to approach the world. Sometimes that means watching and learning from you and other times, that means watching and encouraging them to figure it out on their own.
Here’s to your children’s powerful successes!
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