When my children were young, I saw Jessica Simpson on an episode of Oprah. The singer said that she was very ill-equipped to take care of herself. She didn’t know how to cook or grocery shop, and she could barely manage to clean up after herself. Simpson’s mom was in the audience, so Oprah turned to her and asked how this had happened. Her mother responded with something like, “Jessica was always so busy with singing (first locally, then professionally), that I just did everything for her. She didn’t have time to make her bed.”
For some reason, this conversation seared itself into my memory. I did not want to raise children who could not take care of themselves. I was determined to raise my children to be independent, mature, and—hopefully—clean and neat. The problem is that children start out needing us, their moms, to do everything for them. We get in the habit of feeding them, clothing them, and keeping all of their possessions and needs in order. And sometimes we don’t think about when we should stop doing these things for them.
One day I was hanging up my daughter’s shirts, and it suddenly dawned on me: she was capable of doing this task. I needed to teach her how and require her to do it. Sometimes I undermine my child’s autonomy without realizing it. By doing things for her that she can do for herself, I take away her responsibility. I deprive her of the opportunity to form good habits and experience the pleasure that comes from accomplishing a “grown-up” task.
Additionally, when I do too much for my child, not only does she rely unnecessarily on me, but I give her the impression that she can’t do things on her own. I want to send the opposite message!
Now that my children are older (ages 17 down to 8), they don’t constantly need me, and I have more time than I used to. I could, in theory, make all of their beds each morning, clean the house, and do the dishes every night. But I don’t. I require them to do these tasks—and others—because that is how they learn to keep a house tidy. Through household chores, they learn to act as responsible members of the family.
Over the years, as I’ve pondered how to prepare my teenagers for adulthood, I’ve pinpointed three other specific ways to teach children self-governing habits:
- Have children make their own lunches. In our family we hand over this task somewhere around late elementary school. By packing their own lunches, they learn how much food they need, how to prepare different foods, and the consequences of not making a lunch. It’s not the same as learning to cook, but, if my kids develop this skill, they will have at least some means of feeding themselves.
- Have children use an alarm to wake up in the morning. My selfish desire for a little more sleep led me to purchase an alarm clock for my oldest daughter sometime when she was in elementary school. I didn’t realize at the time the wonderful skill I was teaching her: how to get up on her own and start getting ready. Now that some of my kids are in middle school and high school, they wake up earlier than I do and, therefore, have to get up by themselves, using their alarms. At this stage they are learning not only how to wake up to an alarm but also how to get themselves ready by a certain time. I don’t have to nag them or remind them of the time. I get up in time to make them breakfast (sometimes) and say goodbye.
- Have children monitor their own schoolwork and grades. Around the time my children are in middle school, I stop checking up on their homework and checking their grades online. Of course, if they need help I am happy to give it to them. If I have a reason for concern, I can go to the online gradebook (most districts have them now) and see what is going on. But, in general, my teenagers take charge over their own grades. They need to be responsible for keeping up with homework, turning it in, and studying for tests. Sometimes they have to learn how to do this through occasional (hopefully small) failures. When I step back and turn the responsibility over to them, they learn how to manage it.
As a mother I want to always be there for my children and provide for their every need. But at some point—and I’m getting closer than ever to that point—they need to learn to govern themselves. I don’t want to do too much for them and, consequently, promote immaturity and dependence.
If I allow my children to make small mistakes now they can hopefully learn vital lessons for the future. I want to give my teenagers a voice of encouragement that, yes, they can do things on their own! This means I have to step back and actually let them try.
QUESTION: What life skills did you learn early in your childhood, and how has having those skills helped you as an adult? What life skills would you like your own children to start learning?
CHALLENGE: Choose a new chore or task that your child is mature enough to handle alone, then teach your child how to do it. Once your child has mastered the task, require your child to make accomplishing that task a habit. Resist the urge to take over. Follow up to talk about his or her progress when necessary.
Edited by Katie Carter and Megan Roxas.
Image from Krista Weisz; graphics by Julie Finlayson.