I Can Do It

Children are happier, and often more confident, when they can do things for themselves
By Lisa Lazarus

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When I was 10, my family went to live in Hawaii for six months. More than anything else, I clearly remember walking to school by myself every morning. In South Africa, I was shuttled to and from school in lift clubs, but somehow I managed to convince my mother that in Hawaii all the local children walked to school. It helped that the school wasn’t far away; just over the road and then across two fields.
Many years later my mother told me that she would watch my progress from the balcony of our flat. First there was the heart-stopping moment when I was totally out of her sight and then, reassuringly, she would see me crossing the fields, my red dress growing smaller as the distance between us increased. Those moments of freedom and heady independence, of home behind and the world in front, are still with me today.
Clearly, my mother had to put aside her own anxiety for me to experience greater independence. This is not always easy to do, particularly for those parents who, in the words of Dr Robyn Silverman, a leading American child and adolescent development specialist, “hover over their children and swoop in before or at the slightest hint of discomfort, challenge or threat of failure”. Silverman puts forward the premise that it is “developmentally appropriate for children to become more and more independent, self-reliant and responsible as they age”.
In training
Deanne Plunkett, a Joburg-based life coach, states three advantages of greater self-reliance. “A self-reliant child is an empowered child,” she says. Such a child is responsible both for her own actions and the consequences of those actions, and it is through these consequences – even if they are sometimes negative – that a child learns how to navigate through the world. Secondly, self-reliance teaches self-confidence: the more frequently your child makes their own decisions and determines their own course of action, the easier such behaviour becomes in the future. Lastly, as a parent, you are indicating by your actions that you trust your child by allowing him to perform tasks on his own. A child who feels trusted will be more open with a parent, which is especially important during the teenage years.
Associate Professor Rona Newmark, who works at Stellenbosch University and as an educational psychologist in private practice, adds that, “Children often have a natural desire to be self-reliant. If this is fostered from a young age, it emerges in a healthy manner.”
Even though a growing sense of self-reliance often emerges naturally, some children might be reluctant to try something new, according to Tamarin Epstein, an educational psychologist from a family therapy centre in Joburg. There are reasons for this. “Children might not trust their own ability,” says Epstein, “or they could believe that mastering the tasks will result in less parental attention. Some children’s temperaments are not as adaptable, or they have emotional difficulties, which makes them feel insecure and needy.”
Epstein suggests that you try and encourage your child to do something independently, even if you initially have to help. Use praise for any success, and don’t be afraid to offer a small reward or positive reinforcement.
Although positive reinforcement is ideal, Margie Stead* uses a system of taking away rewards to encourage this kind of behaviour. She is mother to two children, a 13-year-old girl with ADHD and an eight-year-old boy who has autism. “Because I don’t have a nanny, Samantha has to go home after school by herself. She fixes her own lunch and then does her homework. We speak a couple of times during the afternoon, but Sam understands that if her homework is not completed, she will lose some of her perks, like pocket money. She needs to learn that for every action there is a reaction.”
Grin and bear it
Epstein explains that some parents are afraid to see their child struggle. By jumping in and always performing a particular task for your child, you might be reinforcing dependency. Also, parents need to learn to accept messiness, especially at first, which is not always easy.
Joburg-based mom Frances Correia, who has three children, aged five, three and 20 months, says: “I don’t think that I’d thought consciously about putting anything in place to make them more self-reliant. However, I realise that there are many things they do for themselves naturally, and often this is facilitated by how I arrange our lives and our home. For example, all my children know how to find food in the house. We have a low vegetable rack that always has fruit in it and they understand that they are free to eat anything from there at any time.”
Of her parenting approach, Frances says: “It helps that I don’t mind walking into a mess or finding apples with two bites put back into the fruit rack. I think children are curious and want to do things for themselves; it’s just a matter of making sure they can access what they need in order to explore the world relatively safely.”
Show them how
Newmark points out that the parent’s own degree of self-reliance and independence is critically important when it comes to teaching these competencies. “One must ensure,” she says, “that one’s individual issues of dependency or co-dependency are not projected onto the child.” Plunkett adds that certain parental management styles can inhibit a child’s ability to develop self-reliance, so watch out if you are:
  • The parent who wants something done in a specific way, which could be as simple as packing toys away, helping prepare a meal, or having a bath. The child cannot do it properly, so the parent prefers to take over and do the task.
  • The parent who doesn’t have the patience to wait for the child to complete the task herself.
  • The parent who adopts the mistaken belief that everything should be done for the child. Perhaps the parent “had it tough growing up”, and had to do a lot for herself, and so she doesn’t want her child to have to go through a similar difficult time.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality
What should my child be able to do?
Educational psychologist Tamarin Epstein cautions that the tasks and ages below are a general guideline only. Also, adequate parental training, guidance and encouragement must be provided for children to achieve these skills. Remember that children born prematurely may take a little longer than their peers to achieve milestones.
A three year old can
  • stay dry all day (wearing nappies only at night).
A four year old can
  • stay dry at night as well;
  • dress and feed himself; and
  • wash his own hands.
A five year old can
  • wipe his own bottom;
  • wash his face, brush his teeth and hair;
  • use a telephone and cellphone (can answer and talk on the phone, and dial an emergency number);
  • apply sunscreen to his face and body; and
  • say his own name, surname, address and say and remember an emergency telephone number.
A six year old can
  • wash his own body and hair in the bath or shower.
An eight year old can
  • make his own lunch (if sharp knives, food processors and/or ovens are not required).
A nine year old can
  • pack and unpack a school bag.
A 10 year old can
  • organise his own playdates (as long as he understands that arrangements must be agreed upon by both sets of parents, in advance); and;
  • do homework independently and only ask for guidance and support when needed.
Techniques that can help children become more self-reliant, as advised by Dr Robyn Silverman
1. Make their own decisions
Silverman says that even a young child is capable of making an age-appropriate decision, such as what colour shirt to wear. Older children should obviously be allowed to make more important decisions, such as which activities they want to do. “While it’s tempting to make these kinds of decisions for your older children, they need to learn from their own mistakes and stand on their own two feet – after all, their decisions are often correct,” says Silverman.
2. Do tasks on their own
Silverman explains that if a child expresses a keenness to try a task herself, and if it’s safe to do so, then you should allow it. Expect it not to be done as well as you would have done it, but still praise the attempt and allow your child to try again next time.
3. Show self-reliance in action
Children model their behaviour on what the adults around them do, so let them see and hear you carrying out tasks. Whether you’re planning supper or changing a light bulb, tell your child what you’re doing.
4. Be your child’s coach
If your child asks you how to do something, it might be more useful to ask a question in return than to provide an answer. For example: “How would you do it? What would happen if you did X instead?”
5. Offer a good support system
Try to draw a distinction between when children really need your help, and when they want to be encouraged from the sidelines. “When children know they can count on you when they’re really in need, they’ll feel more secure about taking healthy risks and making mistakes.”
6. Parcel out responsibilities
Give your child age-appropriate chores and, if necessary, break the task down into easier chunks.
7. Promote healthy risk-taking
Try and make your child understand that it’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s not the “end of the world” if things don’t work out as planned. As parents, it’s difficult to watch our children fail, and our immediate response is to rush in and help, so that we shield them from frustration, disappointment or failure. However, children, like adults, need to try and persevere in the face of difficulty.
At the heart of Silverman’s approach is the idea that “young people are assets to be developed rather than deficits to be managed”. Rather than trying to “fix” children and adolescents, she would like to see strategies for motivating children to find their strengths, because this is how children will ultimately reach their potential.

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