Self-sufficiency is directly related to self-esteem. The more a child can do for himself, the more capable he feels. A child who feels capable has a sense of control over his life. He feels competent because he recognizes his strengths. This, in turn, adds to his sense of self-worth.
When we honor a tween’s ability to make decisions, solve problems and complete tasks, we show him that we trust him and have confidencein him. This makes it easier for a child to trust his own abilities. But when we do too many things for a child who is capable of working toward independence, we stunt his social-emotional growth.
Parents become accustomed to doing everything for their children when they are babies. Often, they forget to hand off self-care tasks as the child develops. Following are some examples of common pitfalls that persist well beyond the age of competency, listed as what NOT to do.
1. Don’t be a child’s human alarm clock
This occurred to me one day when a co-worker excused herself from a conversation because she had to call her twenty year old son to wake him for a dentist appointment. I imagine she also reminded him to brush his teeth.
Alarm clocks are simple machines that even young children can learn to operate. And if they don’t remember to set it, what better way to learn responsibility than to wake late, miss the school bus, and be forced to walk to school?
2. Don’t answer questions for a child
Answering questions for a child is a habit that develops early on when baby-admirers ask ‘How old are you, cutie?’ To which, of course, the parent must respond. The problem is that some parents forget to stop the practice. Recently I asked an eleven year old if she was hungry. Her mother jumped in to say, ‘No, she ate before we left the house.’
If we steal a child’s voice, she’ll have a difficult time learning to use it when needed. Essentially, we are teaching a child that she can’t be trusted to say what she feels.
3. Don’t keep all the chores for yourself
Given the right tools, instruction, and freedom, even the smallest of children can handle daily tasks like making lunch. When my youngest was born and demanded a great deal of attention, her siblings (ages four and six) whined for their lunch. I told them that they had two choices: wait quietly or make it themselves. Excited by the prospect of having control over their hunger, they jumped at the chance, and have been making their own lunches ever since. They aren’t as
excited about laundry and bed-making, but they do see the ridiculousness in assuming that I should do it for them.
4. Don’t give advice or solve problems
This is a hard one for parents. We often make the mistake in assuming that we have all the answers and that children need to be told what they should do. Certainly we’d like to spare our children from avoidable hurt. But solving problems for them only delays their maturity and results in the young adult who repeatedly depends on others to bail him out of a pickle.
This is not to say that children shouldn’t be guided. A parent can ask questions such as, ‘What do you plan to do to make this right? What will that choice mean? Tell me the options you considered.’
I like the idea that a parent’s job is to put herself out of a job. The goal is to teach children how to be self-sufficient contributers to society. The great big world is shocking to a child who has not learned to care for himself early on. We can hardly fault a 20-something who is irresponsible if we have failed to provide opportunities in the formative years for him to practice. I invite you to make a list of all the things you do for your child and start handing them over. Someday, your child will thank you for making his transition from the nest just a little bit easier.
Part I: A Vicious Cycle
Once upon a time there was a sensitive boy. He cried at the drop of a hat. This annoyed the boy’s father who tried to toughen him up. “Don’t be a sissy!” Dad said, which made the boy want to cry even more. But he knew it wasn’t safe. Instead, the boy choked back his feelings and hid them deep down in his belly where only he could feel the crying.
The crying worried mother, too. “You’re too sensitive.” She said. “You’ll get bullied.” The boy believed her. With practice, the boy became better at hiding his feelings. But he didn’t stop feeling them. Mother noticed that sometimes the boy’s face would turn red. His lip would
curl and tremble and his body would tense. But he never cried again.
Over time, the boy would learn all sorts of tricks to hide his feelings. He hid them so well, that even he couldn’t find them after a while. One day, when the boy became a man, his wife would complain that he was devoid of emotion and unable to truly connect. This confused the boy.
When the boy had a son of his own, he began to feel something stirring inside himself – something peculiar but familiar. One day, the son got his feelings hurt and began to cry. The boy, now a dad, wanted to cry too. It hurt him to see his son hurting. He remembered feeling that way
when he was young. But crying was wrong – dangerous even. So the dad did what he thought was right and told the son to stop crying. And the son did.
Part II – “My Son Is Too Sensitive” – Is It True?
There is a story we tell ourselves about who we are and how it is. We are too this. Too that. Not enough of anything. Every story is a variation of this shouldn’t be happening. Who would we be without that story?
I worry about my son because he’s too sensitive. I want him to stop crying when his feelings are hurt. And especially in public. If he was tougher I wouldn’t worry about him being bullied. I don’t want to see him hurting. I don’t want him to get hurt because of the crying.
Belief: My son will get hurt if he cries
Turn the thought around (to statements that are as true or truer): ‘My son will get hurt if he cries’
I realize I have two sons in my mind – the son I have and the son I think I want him to be. The real one and the one I imagine to be better and safer. I try to change him because there’s fear inside that I don’t know what to do with. When I question my thoughts and meet my fear, I see that in my desire to protect him, I am actually hurting him. Where is the love in that?
I don’t have to change what I believe. But I can, and should, question it. Because if I don’t challenge my thoughts, they plague me. So I ask myself again, who would I be, who would he be, without these thoughts? Can I find one stress-free
reason to keep my thoughts? In the questioning, I begin to see that none of my thoughts are true. On the other side of the questions is freedom – for both of us.
It turns out, the world is perfect. It’s what I see about the world that needs work.
Our new family guidelines were typed up on pretty paper and framed. We decided to place them in the main bathroom to be sure every family member would see them daily.
Years later, the Code of Conduct remains posted in the same spot. It tends to get overlooked, so occasionally we take it off the wall and refer to it more deliberately. We all need a spit-shine in the behavior department once in a while.
Because the children had a part in developing our family rules (though they now deny it) and perhaps
because it was made ‘official’ by framing it, the Code of Conduct is an irrefutable standard. Of course the rules have been broken, but there is never a question of what is expected and acceptable. As my young son pointed out one day, ‘I don’t do that. I’m a Dunham. It’s a rule.’
If I showed you who I want to be – showed you the stuff that makes my heart sing – you might laugh, and I would be regretful for exposing myself. So I choose not to show you. I keep my dreams, beautiful dreams, in a cocoon where they are safe. I would rather hide them and protect them than risk losing them to ridicule.
I don’t dare to show you who I am inside because it’s the only part of me that I believe is beautiful. And I don’t want you to tell me otherwise. I’m afraid that if you see the real me, you won’t see the perfection and then I’ll have a decision to make – to believe your opinion or my own. And, well, I
haven’t always been convinced that my opinion of myself is accurate. Because it’s hard to tell who’s right.
The me inside, way down deep, hasn’t been found out, not completely. But sometimes it leaks out. It can’t help itself. It sees its reflection in a word, a thought, a loving expression, and it can’t contain all its beauty. So it speaks or writes or sings or dances. It wants nothing more than to share its magical vision.
Sometimes, when the beauty escapes, people say ‘ah’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘you are so wonderful.’ But the beauty is shy. It scares easily. It hasn’t learned to trust the world. If the world sees how great it is, the world will demand more, on a schedule, and will expect its money’s worth. The heart will learn to expect too. And demand from itself. And the heart will have to deliver even when it wants to rest in the quiet of its cocoon where it can hear the truth and replenish.
The heart can’t see clearly when people crowd around telling it this and that. So it stumbles, and worries that people will be disappointed . Maybe they’ll say, ‘You’re not so beautiful after all.’ And the heart’s fear will have been confirmed.
It’s safer then, to stay hidden inside.
It’s school picture time again which, in my house, caused drama and anxiety the likes of which I’ve never seen. It seemed a simple enough request of a nine year old that she wear something other than a t-shirt. But according to her, it was equivalent to killing her.
And so it goes, the tween years. A sudden awakening of self-consciousness elicits a great number of behavior changes. For my little Peach it has centered around a right to express herself through clothing that is so far off her previous spectrum that even her teen siblings took notice. They tried, as teens will, to humiliate their sister into conforming. They even appealed to me: ”Please,” they begged, “Don’t let her go out in that outfit!” But the more they fussed, the deeper Peach dug in her heels.
I advise my teens to back off. Their path is futile and will most likely have the opposite effect from the one intended. But more importantly, tweens need space to experiment with different versions of themselves. They are like newcomers to their own lives, having just awakened from a blissfully ignorant slumber. With new eyes, they see choices everywhere. With confusion and eagerness they muddle their way through, writing a brand new chapter of life.
Peach is my third tween. In addition to discovering herself and making her mark in the world, she has the added complication of distinguishing herself from her older siblings. She wants to be different enough to be noticed, but not so different that she will be criticized. Tough road, that.
I suspect we’ll look back at the fourth grade photos with nostalgia. ‘Remember when…?’ we’ll say. Chances are, Peach will look and dress and think completely differently than she does now. She may even be embarrassed by this phase of her life, accusing me for ‘letting her go out like that.’ But hopefully, she’ll also remember that I gave her a chance to be free. A chance to know herself, be herself, and love herself, no matter what.