How to teach kids self-reliance has been on my mind lately. It’s something my husband, my family members and one or two close friends would say I’m not very good at doing. Much as I joke about being mom to the world’s laziest kid, they would be quick to point out that I enable Tim’s tendencies by doing things for him rather than telling him to do things for himself. Maybe it’s because I want the propensity for him to help himself to evolve naturally; it’s not something I want to have to force. But he is who is, and as various people in my life have subtly (or, in my husband’s case, not subtly at all) tried to convey to me, his tendencies do not seem likely to change until I stop enabling.
Tim is the kid who will ask me to put ice in his drink, hand him a fork, fetch the butter out of the fridge. When it’s homework time, he’ll ask me to get his backpack for him. When he needs a shower, he wants me to put out a towel. He’ll never do anything for himself that he thinks there’s a chance I’ll do. One day he actually handed Holly a used Kleenex to throw out for him rather than crossing the room to the wastebasket. Normally the doting younger sister, she responded by exploding, “Gee, Tim!” with uncharacteristic exasperation.
So when the seltzer maker arrived, it presented a perfect opportunity to change Tim’s habits a little. Tim loves seltzer; it is just about all he drinks. He learned to use my parents’ seltzer maker and then they gave us our own, so from the moment it arrived we declared that seltzer making was Tim’s job. By deliberate choice, I haven’t even learned to use the seltzer maker. Sometimes when Tim drinks the last of the seltzer he goes days on end without bothering to make more, and sometimes he doesn’t hydrate as much as he should during those days. But I refuse to cave on it. The seltzer maker is his domain; when he wants seltzer badly enough, he makes more. It’s a small victory.
One day when Tim was in preschool, I stopped off at a yard sale. The merchandise comprised mostly sports equipment; I had been hoping to find some baby toys for Holly. Although I was the only customer, the woman running the yard sale called her son over, who was about ten. “Ian, go see if we have any baby toys in the garage,” she said. In retrospect, it seems trivial enough, but that made an impression on me. She wasn’t giving him a regular chore to do like making a bed or taking out the trash; she was just delegating a simple task to him that she could have just as easily done herself, but demonstrating to him that there was no reason he couldn’t be called into service. Similarly, I remember a teacher at Tim’s daycare when he was a baby who used to often ask preschoolers to fetch specific toys for the babies, and I could see it was not because the babies actually needed those specific toys but just to show the bigger kids the ways they could help out.
Tim is 11 now, and like most boys his age, there are certain chores he’s expected to do around the house. He does those chores, but ensuring that he makes his bed and puts away his clean laundry is of less concern to me than just seeing him be resourceful enough to take care of himself. The seltzer maker is a small start. Sometimes now I ask him to help Holly with something when I could just as easily do it myself, just for the sake of promoting the behavior I want to see.
Over the summer Rick taught him to operate the riding mower himself, and again, it was progress. Most kids love using riding mowers, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice on his part, but it means he’s now responsible for mowing the side lawn. Again, a start.
Partly it’s a matter of training myself to expect more. It’s really no trouble to hand Tim a fork rather than telling him to get it himself. But then I remind myself that this is part of a continuum. He needs to develop self-reliance, even if it’s not instinctive to him, even if he’d much rather be served. So I frequently remind myself, “Let him do it for himself. Ask him to help you with this. Show him that he can take care of it on his own.” Even if he has to force these behaviors and will forever be someone who would rather be served than help himself, I’ll know I tried to do the right thing.