Sometimes it is said that children are “independent” when what is really meant is that they are difficult — they have trouble submitting their wills to authority and they are slaves to their own passions.
That’s not what I mean.
I’m thinking more along the lines of what is ultimately required in becoming an adult. If we think of adulthood as a state of independence in the sense of not needing someone else to take care of us, we can view childhood and the process of growing up as a journey taking us from point A (absolute dependence) to point B (independence — the ability to take care of and have responsibility for ourselves).
Last weekend, I came down with a little bug. I had far less energy to contribute to the running of the household. Shockingly, there were still things that needed to be done. For example, people expected to eat meals with regularity. I don’t know about you, but we do not have the budget to eat out every time Mom is under the weather.
On Saturday around lunchtime, I was assembling something that had arrived in the mail, and I couldn’t be in two places at once. Q-Age-9 offered to make tuna salad for lunch. Not a big deal, right? Open some cans of tuna, add some mayo and salt — and at our house we add diced apples. She served it on some mixed greens with tomatoes from a friend’s garden. Lunch problem solved. By dinner time, I was incredibly fatigued after trying to work through my cold, so I threw together some pasta with sauce (gasp!) from a jar. O-Age-7 volunteered to make a salad to go with it. This is one reason I love my Salad Shooter — even little guys can make an impressive salad.
See how helpful this is? Because the children have been trained in making some simple, basic meals or side dishes, meal time didn’t have to be stressful or overwhelming.
Two years ago, I wrote an extensive series on helping children become more independent. That post has a lot of details and suggestions on how to do this, including a lot of nitty gritty on independence specifically related to the process of homeschooling. If you want those kinds of details, make sure you read that series. Today, I just want to focus on some basic principles concerning independence generally.
Principle 1: If you want them to be able to do it when you need them to do it, you need to teach them to do it before you need them to do it.
The middle of a crisis isn’t the time to start training kids to Do The Things. Normal, average days are. This is called “being prepared” and it’s generally good practice. Let’s say this past school year was really super hard. Okay, then, what are some practical things that you can train your children to do this summer that will help next year go more smoothly?
I remember the year I realized that our school day would go better if I trained one of the girls to wipe down the dining table after breakfast. It’s a small thing, but having a child do that freed me up to help my toddler get dressed before lessons started.
It felt revolutionary at the time.
One awesome thing to do in the summer months is to teach children to cook. They need to know how to do this before they leave home, so why not start with some basic things now? Mystie has a whole curriculum that is perfect, and a child who cooks his way through it will be well equipped to help himself and others when it comes to food.
Think about your worst days. What is the hardest thing about them? What falls apart? Is there something you can train a child to do to help mitigate the problems?
Principle 2: Don’t view training as a waste of time.
“It’s so much easier to do it myself than to train my preschooler to help.”
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, I would have almost enough to buy myself a drink at Starbucks. (Obviously, Starbucks is overpriced, because that is actually a lot of pennies.)
So here’s the thing: it’s true that it takes more time for a 2-year-old to help fill up the laundry basket than for me to do it alone. It’s true that it’s easier to clean the bathroom myself than to spend the time teaching someone else how to do it.
But it’s also true that it’s easier to read aloud to my child than it is to teach him how to read, and yet it’s pretty inhumane not to try and teach him how, isn’t it?
Training children now is like saving up for a rainy day — someday the rain will come, and you’ll need to cash in that emergency fund. And just like all those people who bought iPads and ate out too much instead of saving, those of us who don’t train our kids find that the rainy days are really overwhelming.
Principle 3: Incompetence is unfair to children.
“Oh, but I feel so bad asking my kids to do things. I just want them to have fun and enjoy life.”
Okay, I haven’t heard this one as much, but I have heard it, so I thought I’d address it. You know what? Cleaning a bathroom might be annoying to a child who wants to go play, but it’s not crushing. You know what is crushing? Feeling completely helpless when things are falling apart in your family because you don’t know how to do anything.
I have seen so many times where children were beaming with pride that they could help out in some situation where people might not have expected it. Kids love the feeling that they really helped.
Have you ever felt that antsy, climbing the walls feeling? You knew something was wrong in the life of someone you loved, but you were too far away to help? Our kids can feel this way a lot, if we’re not careful. When Mom is chronically ill, children can end up feeling this way all. the. time. It’s stressful, and it’s unfair to children who are old enough to do a few things to help.
I’m not talking about expecting children to be adults, but we don’t want to err on the opposite extreme and create a situation in which children feel helpless and therefore unsafe. It is easier for a child to make dinner and feel the pride of helping out than it is for that child to fret and worry about everything that Mom can’t take care of.
Principle 4: Don’t be afraid to pay them for their work.
We don’t pay for normal, everyday stuff. We also don’t pay for helping out when Mom is sick. Life consists of normal everyday stuff and of helping out when someone in the family is sick. We don’t pay for life. (I’m not saying it’s bad if you do; we just don’t.) But I do pay when I consider a child doing my job. This is totally subjective, but if I feel guilty asking someone to do it, my rule of thumb is to pay for it.
Usually, this is a one-time thing. I was planning to do something, but I ran out of energy. I pay someone else to do it. The end.
Last year, I actually hired a child on a more permanent basis. I realized that I needed to give over the job of cleaning the showers. I was always sick the day after cleaning the showers — and sometimes as many as three days after. Because of that, I would put off cleaning them — I was trying to find times where I could sacrifice a number of days afterwards, and it was hard to find that many clear days in my schedule. At the same time, I had a child complaining that she “didn’t have enough money.” (She was trying to buy some plants for her garden.) It seemed providential. I figured we could work out a deal, and we did. She now cleans the showers, and I pay her to do it.
Principle 5: Beware not pulling your own weight.
Since everything above is about how great it is to teach children to be more independent, I thought I’d give a caveat.
Most of you are not lazy. We’re going to talk about laziness and sloth in the future, but let me repeat that most of you are not lazy. I know this, because you worry about being lazy. You tell me you feel like you’re not doing enough. You’re obsessed with the unchecked boxes on your to do lists.
The truly lazy people I know are never worried about that; they are always worried that people aren’t helping them out enough. They are obsessed with their own need for help, placing expectations on everyone else for help, and taking no responsibility for their own situations.
Those of you who have been emailing me throughout this series don’t fit this description at all!
But with this said, I have encountered a few moms who essentially gave over the entire running of their households to their children. Sometimes, this was even a necessity when it first began.
I find that if I don’t do enough work, I am extremely dissatisfied. Freeloaders usually are, you know. So make sure you’re doing enough work.
I can’t tell you where the line is in your own life, but I do think it’s worth the caution. Independence is beautifully freeing for children. But they still need to feel like they have a mother — a real mother. One who makes the soup and washes the clothes and generally keeps them feeling safe and loved. Don’t pass off too much.
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