Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Raising an Independent Child

As a parent, I have a lot of dreams for my kids. Actually these dreams have more to do with the characteristics that I want my children to have, hopefully in part due to my amazing parenting skills. Being a good eater, having manners, respecting adults, excelling at and liking school... these are all things that I think most parents hope for as they are raising their little tots. It's scary to think that the way that we approach these philosophies even when they are 1-2 years old and can't even really talk yet absolutely do have an effect on how our kiddos will act when they are older. I mean.... most of us parents are taking it day by day and just hoping for the best, and that is ok!

A couple of days ago, a mom on one of my parenting groups posted a question about how to raise an independent child. Because this parenting group is a good one, she got a plethora of responses... and all of it really got me thinking. What I heard was an echoing chorus of the same memories and strategies.... "When I was a kid" stories and other tricks of the trade. I realized that many of the hopes I dream of for my kids' character really encompasses this word... "independent."

Now, I am no parenting genius; I'm stating this upfront. But I have helped raise my stepson since he was 4 (and dealt with all of the challenges that come with co-parenting a child -- a sweet angel -- from a split home), have a 1.5 year old who teaches me things on the regular, and 7 years of working as a pediatric speech therapist under my belt. So, I'd like to think that although I'm not an expert, my opinion can at least be qualified as an educated one.



First thing first --- Raising an independent child starts when the child is a baby. This is a crazy thought because my main goals on a daily basis with my baby have been making sure the baby is fed, clean, and well-rested. Everything else is just icing on the cake. But their little brains are soaking in everything that we do, the way we interact with them and others, the attention we give them, etc. Now, this is my opinion, but if you are defending a particular action or behavior of your child by saying "Well, he's just a baby" then these are the little opportunities that you can look at how you handle, because one day he won't be a baby anymore, but it might have happened so quickly that you are still defending the behaviors as such. "What the hell are you talking about anyway, woman?" you may ask. Let me give you an example. Big props to my sweet husband on this one, because he has the ability to see through "just being a baby" better than me sometimes. My daughter went from eating anything we put in front of her to at about 14 months of age throwing her food on the floor and in general being a little toot at dinner time. Instead of waiting for this horrible phase to run it's course, we set pretty strict standards on this from the get-go. We set rules and expectations on our 14 month old baby. (In case you are wondering what they are, the main ideas are -if you throw food on the floor, you get one strike and then meal time is over, -if you don't like what we are eating, you may drink water or milk but otherwise you will be hungry because we aren't short order cooks, and -it's ok to not eat what is given to you, but it stays on the plate) There were times that I felt like "but she's just a baby," but now nearly 6 months later, I'm happy to say that for the most part, we have a pretty decent little eater on our hands. We still have our days, so know that I have said that, I hope that things don't change. Everyone knock on wood for me, please.

Secondly, look at how you interact with your child. Here are several things that I have read and researched on and implemented on how I interact with my little cherub.

Let your toddler figure things out on their own, and praise them when they achieve it. As a parent, when you see your toddler struggling to fit a puzzle piece in, climb to get on top of a chair, or put a sock on, it seems like years pass as they try to figure it out. There is totally such thing as doing too much for your kid! Letting them do things for themselves, even if they are getting frustrated or can't do it teaches them several skills that I feel like are a rarity these days -- mainly perseverance, i.e. trying to do something that is difficult instead of giving up or just waiting for someone else to do it. Now, we mean well as caregivers to our little cherubs, and helping them is also a form of teaching them how to do it... BUT help only after they have really given it a good shot or are about to give up. So, an example with the puzzle piece: she is trying to put the puzzle piece on, but can't get it on there right, a little banging and moving it around. You can tell she is about to give up, so you can try some vocal encouragement- "you can do it!"- then if frustration is building, you can show her how to do by doing hand-over-hand, but then take the puzzle piece back off, then say "now you do it by yourself! You can do it!" You are still helping them and teaching them, but instead of teaching them that mommy/daddy/whoever is always going to come do things for you (which really means they might stop trying), you are teaching them to persevere and do things on their own.

Read up on developmental milestones, see where your kid fits in, and expose them to what skills are next. As a speech therapist, I am continually seeing parents who absolutely mean well who inadvertently shelter their kids from developing certain skills. I am guilty of this myself and am constantly self-checking my thoughts on what I think my kid can and can't do. Point and example, THE STAIRS. So, I'm pretty OCD and have these horrible visions of my kid flying down the stairs and seriously hurting themselves. My solution? Stairs are off limits. Completely. In fact, stairs stress me out so bad that when we move into our next house, one of my top must-haves is a single story home. However, if you totally shelter a kid from stairs, how will they ever learn how to climb them? It is a question that I hear physical therapists ask parents every time we do an evaluation and at least half the time, the response is "I won't let my kid on the stairs, so I don't know if he can climb the stairs or not." Another example of a "what's next" skill is letting your kid drink from an open cup or use utensils. Since so many toddler foods can be given as a finger food or in a pouch, and we all hate cleaning milk or juice off of carpet, sometimes it takes a while for our parent brains to even go there... or we think "but think of the mess he will make"... yes, it will be a hellacious mess, but they have to learn somehow. (Side note: suggestions for ways to work on these skills outside of eating are: doing sips of clean water from open cup during bath time and letting cherub play with toddler utensils with play dough or in play kitchen)

Sit back and let them play by themselves. A lot of kids go through the incessantly needy phase, where they are constantly pulling at you and needing your attention. I'm not advocating stiff arming them and putting them in a play pen and telling them to "play!!!!" But what I am suggesting is don't over do it with becoming your child's play buddy. Encourage activities that you are supervise or that can be done individually, like water table play, Little People, puzzles, etc. Read a book to them once and then encourage them to look through it again by themselves. You don't want to become an integral part of their play routine, unless you want to be expected to do the things that you want them to do for the next 10 years. Now, as someone who writes on parenting and does use Pinterest as an avenue to spread the word, I'm hesitant to knock it too much, but Pinterest Parenting is a real thing. This expectation we set on ourselves to be the most creative, involved, amazing parent EVER. There are all of these crafts, games, and activities on there that are awesome and fun, but the expectation that you are to do even one of these activities a day is not only overwhelming but it's unobtainable (unless you are superwoman - props to you). AND it's setting your kid up to think that every second of every day needs to be filled with some amazing activity. First, we are going to make snow ice cream, then we are going to make glue clouds and after all of that is done, we are going to make a handprint Valentine for daddy.... (and later that night mommy is going to hide in the bathroom with a bottle of wine because she is stressed out and exhausted from doing this type of stuff day in and day out). Do you think that our parents did any of these things with us? In most situations, the answer would be "hell to the no." So don't get bogged down with the expectation to be a Pinterest Parent.

Don't let technology babysit your kid. Ok, I am NOT saying that if you let your cherub watch 30-60 minutes of cartoons while you prep for a meal or something makes you a bad parent. Who am I to call anyone a bad parent? So I am definitely not saying that at all. But what I am saying is that whilst sitting in front of the TV or a tablet does get them out of your hair and does get them doing something "by themselves" it isn't necessarily showing them skills to increase independence. Really I do think that overall it is reaffirming this concept of "gotta be entertained 24/7" mentality that older kids have these days. It's ok for them to be bored. If your kid is puzzled-out and really doesn't want to play independently anymore, and you've tried suggesting to your toddler to go play with the magna-tiles or to go find the (incredibly annoying) voice changing microphone, incorporate them into whatever it is you are trying to do, which leads me to...

Let them help (really help) with the grown-up things you are doing. We have all seen the chore charts for kids based on different ages, and even I have been like, umm, my 18 month old does not fold laundry. But they can certainly help you. Find a way for them to help with whatever tasks you are doing in the house. That way, when you tell your little cherub "one day mommy is going to not have to put up the dishes because that will be YOUR job," you won't be lying because they will actually know how to do it and more importantly, you will trust them to do it. Some examples here: I got this little broom from Amazon for under $10 and when I sweep, so does my daughter. When I am taking out the clean dishes, I take out all the breakables first (and the knives), and I let my daughter hand me the rest of it (and while doing that I tell her what stuff is). When we do laundry, I let her put the clothes in the washer or dryer and press the buttons. So on and so forth.

Doing things this way might not be the easiest way (at first), and it definitely isn't the quickest. But I do feel like if you put the time in when they are young (12-36 months old), you are helping them develop skills that will have them be more independent as an older child.

The way that I have viewed parenting my kids so far is this: it's going to be a really challenging time, no matter what their age and how many of them (children) there are. But I'm hoping that if I really train them well when they are young even if it feels like too much or that they are too young, it will serve them well as they grow up.

What do you feel like are the most characteristics you want to see in your children as they grow up? How do you change your parenting to reflect those hopes and dreams? I'd love to hear your opinion! 

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