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There is a lot of parenting variation betweeg letting kids run wild and hovering over them in a constant sate of anxiety. Outspoken opponent of overprotective parenting and author of the book and blog Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy, was publicly shamed for letting her seven-year-old ride the subway alone. We’re not all ready to put our kids on a subway, but we can let go of the little things with lower stakes. Since my children were very young I have tried to them as much responsibility and freedom as possible while keeping them safe and healthy. I’ve made plenty of mistakes but they have grown into competent, well-mannered teenagers anyway. They know how to prepare a meal, clean a house, and resolve a conflict.
Trusting your maternal instincts and teaching your children independence and responsibility takes time and practice. Try with these things even very young children can do all by themselves.
Grab an apple
When my children were little we had a rule: You eat what from the fruit bowl before you hit the cupboard. They had to eat the apples before applesauce and oranges before the cute cup of mandarins. Stocking up on healthy treats and allowing children to choose from among them make them feel empowered and sets up good habits. My kids have internalized this simple rule to make healthy choices, most of the time. In the grand nutritional scheme, what a five-year-old eats before dinner is not that important. In a day filled with decisions and deadlines, let this one go.
Talk to strangers
In Protecting the Gift Gavin DeBecker counsels parents against instilling the fear of strangers. He says we should instead teach them trust their own instincts when encountering new people. Turns out the human brain is wired to detect weirdoes and children know who is creepy because their intuition has not yet been dulled by arbitrary rules like “don’t talk to strangers.” Observe how kids interact with strangers and help them cultivate their own good judgment. Train them to honor their gut feelings so that they avoid danger when you’re not around.
Go outside alone
When the children in our neighborhood were two and three, all the moms sat outside on the driveway—watching and teaching all of the kid to play nice, stay out of the street, and not ride the dog. Our children were babies then. By Kindergarten, we let them play in the yard without hovering. (That’s what windows are for.) If children complain of boredom, offer them something more fun to do, like brush their teeth or feed the dog.
Create awful outfits
This could get ugly. What are children thinking? Looking at all those patterns and mismatched colors may give you a headache, but suck it up. It’s natural for us parents to worry about being judged by what ours kids wear. It’s true, we will be judged, but so what? Letting kids choose their own clothes is an important step toward independence. If fashion is important to you then teach your child what not to wear with positive reinforcement. Kids will inevitably pick some losers, but when they look good (if only to themselves) they feel good. So go ahead, send your kid off in stripes, plaids, polka dots, and a smile.
Play Chutes & Ladders
You may relish a fierce game of Hi-Ho Cheerio or Sorry, but if moving those pieces around the board makes you want to stab your eyes out with a pair of dull dice, skip it. Kids know when you’re faking and that does make for quality time. Spend your energy wrangling playmates with like interests. Spend your one-on-one time together introducing your child to things you enjoy rather than suffering through something you deplore. In our house we like dancing with the stereo turned up or reading the silly poems of Shel Silverstein.
Read a bedtime story
Nothing takes the place of reading aloud to your kids. It is one of the best things you can do for their growing brains, and it’s awesome to watch the emotions play across their faces and snuggle-tuck them in with a story. But one is enough. Try a routine that includes Mom or Dad reading something before of after the kids read independently. It’s okay if children only turn pages and make things up. They are still using their imaginations and learning to self-soothe. Also, cut yourself some slack if you skip a day. You can make it up tomorrow.
Use the microwave
Gourmet creations are just a few buttons away when you placing a microwave on a low shelf or table within kids’ reach. Crackers with melted cheese, popcorn, and prepared soups and pastas are all easy for young kids to make for themselves. The success of this strategy depends on your tolerance for messes. You’ll also have to teach them that silverware doesn’t go in the microwave. I learned that lesson the hard way!
Get a drink of water
A low drawer filled with plastic cups can be a mother’s best friend. The contents can be a building toy, a musical instrument, and a way for kids to satisfy their own never-ending requests for a drink of water. Stepstools put most faucets within reach. If that’s not feasible, fill a beverage dispenser with water (and maybe a fun floating toy) on a low shelf. Just make sure it is stable and truly reachable to avoid accidents.
Pump their legs on the swing
You don’t have to be a slave to your children at the playground, no matter who is watching. The playground is designed for kids play independently so let them. This is where they learn to cooperate with other children. It’s also where you get a break, to rest, read, or build your own community with the other mothers. Your renewed energy is more valuable to your kids than non-stop attention. Also, if you need to answer an email or a phone call, do it. And don’t apologize. We won’t judge.
Clean a bathroom
Child labor? Indeed! A little non-toxic cleanser, a cute pair of gloves, and a brush, go a long way to building independence and responsibility. Housework is not punishment. It’s a critical part of being on the team called family. When you introduce children to the reality of chores at a young enough they will learn to take great pride in a job well done. Of course, in order to sell this one, Mom and Dad have to model the positive attitude first.
Wipe a nose
At some point your child needs to learn how to manage his own basic needs. Start with the little things like brushing teeth and wiping noses. It’s not that you don’t want to help, but the more things a child learns to do on his own, the more time and energy you have for the things he cannot. It’s an ever-evolving process, this trading of responsibility. When children are very young babying them is often easier and more efficient, but the investment in building self-sufficient skills pays off quickly. You can still kiss all the boo-boos while teaching kids how to put on their own Band-Aids.
It may come as a surprise that some children will be assigned homework as early as Kindergarten. The good news is that the assignments are designed to meet the developmental needs of young children. That means the kids can do it all by themselves. If they color the trees orange or get half the answers wrong, that’s okay. One hundred percent correct is not the standard. Set the expectation from the earliest homework assignments that it is to be done by the child, and you are always available to answer questions.
Fight it out
“Mom! She’s breathing on me!” At twenty-two months apart, my son and daughter have always played well together. And they fight, a lot. As a mother I often want to intervene (and often do) but I also believe that if we all learned to resolve our sibling arguments at home, we’d be more successful with all our other relationships. So I try to make them negotiate their own peace treaties whenever possible. As parents we can keep kids safe without intervening in all their disputes. Most arguments are recurring so help kids learn a few tools and phrases they can use over and over to settle their differences. That’s win-win-win.
Lela Davidson is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA, and Who Peed on My Yoga Mat? Her thoughts on marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 have appeared in hundreds of magazines, websites, and anthologies.