No matter how old your child is – anywhere from two to twenty-two – if you are doing for him what he could do for himself you are enabling a dependent state of mind. The child who feels dependent seems anxious and whiney. He is demanding. He acts lazy and thoughtless. Being dependent is not a happy condition for him- or for you. Luckily, with a few simple steps, you can change your dependent child into someone who feels capable and strong. Here’s how.
Two people have to change – your child and you. Depending on the age of your child and how long this has been going on, your job of replacing old habits with new ones might be simple or more challenging. But this change happens just one day at a time, even one event at a time.
The key is to start being less available and less accommodating while at the same time being your very nicest self. It’s also important to be consistent. You can certainly step in when there’s a real emergency but the more consistent you can be with a new approach the easier it will be for your child and for you to make a new habit. Here are some strategies to try.
For your child
Meet requests for help with a question
Instead of just responding with the requested help, ask a question that encourages the child to perform on her own. For example, if your four-year-old wants help to put on her coat, say, “Here’s your coat! Which arm goes into which sleeve, do you think?” If your child insists that you drive him a short distance to play at a friend’s house, and you think he could walk instead, ask “I wonder how many steps it is to Brian’s house?” or “I wonder how quickly you could walk there…” and suggest he walk and then report back.
Be pleasant and supportive
It’s tempting to try to hurry things along by telling your child he’s a big boy now or that he’s acting like a baby. This isn’t very encouraging to any kid and it’s also not fair. Remember you’ve created this little dependent person. Calling him names now or acting mean is blaming him for your own misguided actions. Instead, be as pleasant and supportive as you can be. Sympathize when he tells you it’s too hard or he doesn’t know how. Let him know you have confidence in his abilities.
Act as a support
If you’ve been doing a lot for your child you might discover that she truly doesn’t know how to do some of the things you think she should know. But instead of stepping in again to do it for her, take the time to show her how to do the task herself. If the task is complicated, you might scaffold it by doing the hardest parts and letting her do the easier ones. So if your thirteen-year-old asks you do iron her shirt, say, “Let’s do it together.”
Trust your child’s instincts. If your child thinks he can, he probably can. Let him try. This is often the hardest part – knowing when to step back and watch. You could do whatever it is so much more quickly and easily and maybe more successfully. But your child will probably do well enough and will learn and grow by trying. Recently my son offered to help his three-year-old snap some Lego together. She said, “No. I want to do it myself.” Dad wisely backed off and, yes, she did it!
You are the second half of the equation. Changing your child’s habit of relying on you is just part of the work. If you hover because you have time to hover, get busier. While your world might indeed revolve around your children, make sure that you don’t seem to them to be living in their shadow. Don’t always be at their beck and call.
If you do things for your child because it’s quicker and simpler, slow down. Factor in the time it takes your preschooler to get her shoes on all by herself. She will get faster with practice. Yes, you’re busy and, yes, children are slower than you would be at just about everything. But taking the time to help them learn to be more self-reliant is part of your job as a parent. Slow down enough to do just that.
If you hover because you’re anxious for a perfect outcome, work on taking the long view. Just as children are not very fast, they also are not so perfect. Naturally, they make mistakes. But imperfectly done-all-by-myself is almost always more satisfying to a child than perfectly done-by-Mom-while-I-just-watched, especially if you haven’t made perfection the standard in your household. Let your children grow into their abilities by letting them try. Abandon “perfect.”
Helping children become more confident and competent is joyous work. It’s far more fun than doing everything for them every moment of the day. If you’ve been enabling dependency, now is the time to kick back a bit and have a good time together.