Fostering Independence in Children

I answered a question once on a forum where someone asked about fostering independence in their small child. I told some variation of the following story (probably with less colorful descriptions):

When my oldest son was about 17 months old, he decided to start putting his dishes in the sink after he finished eating, just like his mom did. "Mom" -- that would be me.

Well, my father essentially did nothing he deemed "women's work" and my husband was also terrible about not picking up after himself. So, since my small child was male and lots of males in the immediate family behaved an awful lot like cavemen, I in no way wished to discourage this behavior. I was concerned that any discouragement would cause him to conclude that males don't put dishes away.

The problem was that he was really short and couldn't see into the sink at all, so he was chunking his dishes into the sink above his head, much like it was a basketball hoop and the dishes were the ball. They would clatter noisily, and I was afraid it was going to eventually involve broken glass, a clogged sink and a bleeding child.

My solution was to lock up all breakables. This left only a few plastic cups, plates and bowls. Since we were a family of three and I was a full time homemaker, I just needed to wash dishes frequently for this to work.

I was clear he would soon grow taller and then putting his dishes in the sink would naturally get easier, with zero effort on my part. But I felt that giving him the wrong message at this impressionable age would be terribly hard to undo.

The person who had asked the question said in response "That's a Great Idea! I shall start insisting my child put their dishes in the sink too!"

I face-palmed. They had completely missed the entire point.

Most small children are pretty independent-minded already. You don't need to force them to think for themselves. You just need to make an effort to not break them of it. Small children coming up with ideas of their own often do things that are terribly inconvenient and problematic for the adults around them. Frequently, the adults solve this by forbidding the child from doing these things.

The problem is this denies them the chance to exercise their brain. It also teaches them that initiative is a bad thing, and they should only do as they are told. The result is that many children arrive at the age of 18 having had precious little opportunity to practice decision-making or exercising their own initiative.

I had my eye on the long game. This small child's body was changing rapidly. One of the metrics that was changing most rapidly was his height.

But even after his body changed and he grew taller, he would have the same mind and he would remember what he had been taught when he was smaller. It is similar to the principle that you shouldn't let a puppy jump on the couch if you don't want the dog jumping on the couch after they are full grown. It may be cute when they are a small puppy, but a large dog that weighs 100+ pounds jumping up on your lap can actually hurt you. It isn't simply that it stops being cute. It becomes downright dangerous.

Forcing kids to engage in "responsible adult behaviors" like putting away their dishes, but doing it by making them your little push-button automaton is totally the wrong answer. Get out of their way. Let them explore and play, decide and do as they see fit.

I am quite fond of the quote "That government is best which governs least." I think it applies equally to parenting. I mostly interceded enough to stop them from hurting themselves and others. If no one was being harmed by it, I did all I could to let them do the things they chose to do of their own accord.

This is one of those things that most parents seem to routinely mishandle. Short-term thinking where you stop a small child from hurting themselves or others in a way that teaches them a habit you will regret later seems to come back to bite many parents once that child is a teen or young adult.

And I think it is entirely avoidable. If you keep in mind that you are raising future adults, it usually is not that hard to come up with a solution that safeguards them in the here and now without creating headaches years down the road that are typically far harder to solve.


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