There are 3 types of parent to my mind on the issue of child independence and responsibility:
- Parents who want their kid to remain a “baby” for as long as possible
- Parents who aren’t thinking about the issue at all much – life is just too busy
- Parents who want their kid to be able to do things for themselves!
It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a type 3 from the title of this post – and I’m going to set out the case for why you should be too and how you can achieve it with some examples:
Get out and walk!
If your older child still regularly uses a stroller and doesn’t need to for health reasons, PLEASE for the sake of their health and your sanity (yes, I really mean this – read on to find out why) STOP IT!
For the sake of their health should be an obvious one, but here it is in black and white:
“There is emerging evidence that sedentary behaviour in the early years is associated with overweight and obesity, as well as lower cognitive development,” Start Active, Stay Active report (supported by the UK Department of Health)
Chapter 3 of this report is all about the dangers of low activity in young children. Your short term convenience is NOT a good reason to keep your 3+ year old kid strapped in to a stroller (OK – if you have a new baby, you can have a temporary free pass on this one!) Yes, I only have one child so this was a lot easier for me but if your kid was over 3 before your next child was born then you also have no excuse! (and I’m being very conservative by saying age 3 – my son hasn’t been in a stroller since just before his second birthday).
Why for your own sanity? Do any of these sound familiar:
- “Mummy/Daddy… I don’t want to walk” – so you put them in their stroller. 2 minutes later “I want to walk” and repeat ad nauseum.
- You take the stroller to the zoo / downtown / wherever and end up pushing it the whole time, whilst trying to keep a hold of your child’s hand whilst they want to walk (usually through a crowd or across busy streets)
- Your kid stays up later at night than you would like because they’re not physically tired.
- If you have more than one young child, you agonise over whether to take the double or single stroller – and the double one is much more awkward to use. You feel that you always make the wrong choice!
Do yourself a favour: make them walk! No choice is much easier than negotiation every single time you want to go anywhere 🙂
Try starting with short walks without the stroller: to the park, local shops or whatever. Even just not parking right next to the store you want to go to would help. It’s a training exercise. They don’t see the stroller, so there is no chance of them getting in it (or you only take the single stroller for your baby if you have one). Build it up over time. My 4 year old has been on a hiking holiday : he managed 12 miles over 2 days and I’ve never been more proud of him. Kids can do amazing things if you give them the chance.
The early days of allowing your kid to come with you grocery shopping without restraining them in the trolley can feel a bit like the trolley dash on Supermarket Sweep – stressful and rushed! However, using the trolley seat is just another way of keeping your kid sedentary. (Forgotten why this is harmful? Check out chapter 3 of the Start Active, Stay Active report)
The supermarket cart is different to the stroller though: if your kid is anything like mine, they will WANT to be free. If you have an otherwise reluctant walker, harness this enthusiasm if you can. When he was younger, I used the trolley seat as a negative consequence of my son misbehaving:
“Can I trust you to stay with me and be helpful, now that you’re bigger? If not, you’ll need to sit in the shopping cart.”
At the Grocery Store, my son loves to help me fill up bags with fruit and vegetables, help me choose which flavour of yoghurts we’re having this week, carry “heavy” tins for me and help me unload the cart at the checkout. If you have a fussy eater getting them to help you choose what you’re having for dinner may help.
Possible pitfalls and how to avoid them:
- As with my time out strategy, you must only ever give one warning before putting your kid in the shopping cart. Repeated chances help no-one.
- Your kid mustn’t dictate your shopping list! In my case, I buy the best value items. I will give a range of choice from which I am happy for my son to pick. He gets to pick one extra food item at most for times when he has been especially helpful. Often I keep my ear to the ground as to what he might pick before I offer to let him choose something, or I make some suggestions.
- Any reward food item given for especially good behaviour must be consumed as part of a regular meal. Don’t cave in to snacking!
From the age of 2 some children really dislike being restrained in their high chair and this may be a root cause of their misbehaviour at mealtimes – more on poor mealtime behaviour here. You could consider letting them try a chair, but explaining that a grown up chair requires more grown up behaviour from them – a powerful positive reinforcement tool. (For the first year of using a grown up chair, my son sat on a garden chair cushion with a washable cover!). You can always go back to the highchair if your child is not ready, but before doing this consider whether you are doing this for your own convenience or genuinely because your child is not ready to make the change. A kid in a highchair is restrained and on the face of it, easier to manage that a free-range kid. BUT you won’t be able to restrain them forever and I think it’s easier to get a kid to conform BEFORE this has become a battleground.
Telling an older child who has really grasped good table manners and eating techniques that they are now ready for adult cutlery, plates and glassware is very powerful positive reinforcement. Plus you won’t need to take special things with you to restaurants anymore once they’ve mastered it. I now travel around like a non-parent again. No diaper bag, snacks, plastic eating things or anything and it’s fabulous – plus I appreciate this now!
Their own space
I am a tidy person. At my son’s bedtime, I like to all of his toys to be out of my sight so that my husband and I can enjoy a child-free evening. I am in control of all other areas of the house, but his own bedroom is my son’s domain. Why? Because sometimes he will have an imaginative game on the go that he doesn’t want interrupted – if it’s contained in his room, he can leave it exactly where it is without fear that it will get knocked over, vacuumed or tidied away. He has really taken ownership of his room seriously and much to my surprise, he likes it tidy! (He didn’t at first, but soon found that there wasn’t space for his new inventions if the floor was cluttered). I offer to help him tidy thoroughly every so often and insist on cleaning it sometimes, but I do this in consultation with him mostly. I do not touch his things or throw anything away when he’s not looking, tempting though that is. My son loves the feeling of clean bedsheets, so all I have to do to initiate a cleaning session is promise that we’ll change his bed linens as part of the job. Take pleasure in the simple things 🙂
What ARE you wearing?
As a toddler, my son could choose between say two different pairs of socks, trousers or t-shirts. Then I encouraged him to put them on for himself. I had to ensure that his trousers and t-shirts were presented to him the correct way around so that he didn’t get them on backwards, and I think he was 3 before he fully mastered socks. At age 4, he gets himself dressed without any help or input from me, before I’ve even got out of bed 🙂 All of his clothes are within his reach in a chest of drawers and I fold them using the KonMari technique so that he can see which item of clothing he wants without pulling them all out! It means that we don’t have a fight over his outfit (unless he’s wearing something seasonally inappropriate) and it speeds up our morning routine. I can’t take any credit for him deciding to dress himself, but I made this a possibility for him by making his things accessible.
Depending on your kid’s age, keeping things out of reach can be extremely sensible – and there are some things that you might always want to keep out of reach and/or sight. My son found a box of tampons recently and wanted to know what they were for…
Anyway, if you have an older kid like my son – they know where stuff is and they’re smart enough to find a way of getting it if your back is turned long enough. If it’s something that actually you wouldn’t mind them having, like their glass of milk from the fridge or the cutlery so they can help you set the table for example, consider finding a way of putting these items within reach. Not only will it allow your kid to be more independent, but also they will feel trusted AND are less likely to have a nasty accident from balancing on a stool on top of a stack of books on top of a chair!
I dislike snacking, but occasionally if my son has been on a long walk, is having a growth spurt or I’m planning a later than usual dinner I will make an exception and he can have some fruit. The fruit bowl is within his reach, so he can choose what he would like for himself. If you’re finding snacking a difficult habit to crack, this may at least offer a healthy alternative to going cold turkey.
As a Geography Teacher in the UK, I used to deliver a series of lessons about the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. There, trafficked children aged 4 and above are given machetes and made to climb tall cacao trees to harvest the beans. Now, I am in no way advocating this as a parenting strategy! But it did make me wonder that if a 4 year old can do that, what could my own 4 year old son be safely trusted with. He absolutely loves using “adult” tools and it’s more positive reinforcement for his trustworthy behaviour. Here are just a few examples of “dangerous” things that he can use:
- Sharp kitchen knife: I taught him safe techniques to save him cutting off his fingers and I cut rounded things in half first to make them more stable for him.
- Garden secateurs: he does a lot of dead heading for me!
- Open fireplace: He is allowed to add small pieces of wood under supervision
- Small hacksaw for chopping up kindling
- Tin opener
- He also loved climbing ahead on parts of our hiking holiday to show us, his old Mum and Dad the “best” way to climb!!
Let them figure it out
This is one of my favourites, so much so that there’s a whole post dedicated to it.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I think you get the idea without me taking up any more of your precious time! If you have your own good ideas though, I’d love to hear them – just write them in the comments section. I am a thief of smart ideas!
A Woman Less Ordinary lives, parents, purchases and thinks differently. With 10 years of teaching experience, she has many effective techniques for managing kids’ behaviour (and a lot to say about finance if you’re interested) BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANY OF IT!