My mother loves to tell a story about how I would make my own sandwiches when I was three years old. Three! I used to think it was a sad story, a commentary on her non-parenting skills, but now that I'm a mum myself, I can see the silver lining: She inadvertently made me a super independent individual.
I don't want to repeat much of her parenting style, but I am trying to foster resilience and independence in my own daughter, while still making her feel secure and loved. Here's what I've learned:
Start From the Beginning
It's true that a baby is dependent on you for everything — food, sleep, comfort, love, survival — but take notice from the start about what they need before rushing in. In Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, author Tracy Hogg writes that parents should "learn to hold back a bit and read their little ones". Once they know what the problem is, then they can calm them. All mums and dads, she says, can help their babies "become independent little beings".
Respect Your Child
Sure, he's a lump of yumminess who eats, sleeps, cries and poops, but he's also a sentient human and you should treat him that way, telling him what's going on instead of talking over him or about him in third-person. "People tend to speak over babies' heads, sometimes acting if they're not even there," Hogg writes.
Shortly after our daughter was born, my husband would try to make extended eye contact with her and would intone, "Hi, this is your father speaking." He did it so much and so seriously that his sister and I started joking that it was like he was Darth Vader. "Luke, this is your father speaking."
Hogg suggests drawing a circle of respect around even the newest born baby, addressing him by name, telling him what you're about to do, even asking permission before touching him.
Take a Step Back
My best friend's father used to tell her he loved her a million times a day. "You can't spoil children by telling them you love them, but you can spoil them by doing things for them they can do themselves," he'd say. A reticent and patient man who was effusive when it came to his children, he was good at stepping back and letting them try things themselves, from the small stuff, such as tying their shoes, to the bigger things, such as learning to drive. (I am so not there yet.)
Don't Interrupt Their Flow
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the "ecstatic state of deep concentration that occurs when we are truly and deeply engaged by a task". In other words, it is when you're in the zone: Reading a book, solving an equation, or even concentrating on getting cereal to your mouth, if you're nine months old. You'll see children everywhere in the zone and adults interrupting them with nonsense questions: "Are you building a LEGO?" "Are you having fun?" Parents may be motivated by the desire to interact with their children, or even build their vocabulary. They might also just be anxious with silence. But this interrupts a child's concentration and focus.
Rachelle Doorley, the founder of TinkerLab, adds that flow can't happen if the task is too easy. "If the child (or adult) isn't challenged to test their new skills, they become bored," she writes. "You've witnessed this transition away from flow if you've ever tried setting up a 'favourite' activity, only to find your child is no longer interested in it." Give kids access to a variety of open-ended materials, and see what happens. There's an added bonus to this: As early childhood educator Magda Gerber once wrote, "If a child has ample opportunity to play independently, without interruption, he is likely to be much more willing to cooperate with the demands of his parent."
My four-year-old daughter has a beautiful wooden dollhouse that she got for Christmas last year. She plays with the dolls and furniture inside, but what has been most fascinating are the home upgrades she's added using... trash. A junk-mail catalogue clipping has become the TV. Some old bottle caps are now a backyard obstacle course. A sponge is the jumping castle. A handful of shredded tissues is part of a car wash. She runs around, opening junk drawers (yes, we have plural) and exclaiming, 'Oh! This can be the swimming pool! This can be a seesaw! This can be the elevator!'
Remember It's The Process, Not the Outcome
Of course you want your child to eat breakfast, lunch, dinner — anything! But we often get so focused on the moment we don't always remember the big picture. Eating, like everything from learning to read to getting dressed and toilet training, is not just about the one moment. That's why I liked Baby-Led Weaning, a method in which you let children feed themselves so they can learn good eating habits. Sure, I could have fed her better myself — getting more food in her with less mess (you try getting avocado off a wall!); read books to her faster than she could peruse them (upside down, she does it); and carried her down the stairs, but what would she have learned from any of it?
Give It Some Time
God, my toddler can take an hour to get home — and her daycare is only a block away! But she likes to stop and pet the dogs, climb the stairs, and pick the flowers. It's like wandering around with someone on LSD. But if you're going to let kids do things themselves, you have to build some extra time in the schedule, whether that means time to get dressed in the morning, brush her own teeth, or pour the cereal in (or near) the bowl. (I admit that some days I throw on my daughter's clothes and put her in the stroller because I don't have that time, but I try when I can.)
Don't Be So Careful
When I hear my daughter walking and saying to herself, "Be careful," I know I need to lay off on the warnings a bit. Of course, I want her to be careful — I don't want her to get hurt — but do I really want to interject that mantra into her psyche? Even though I cringe when she hangs from that metal bar above the slide before she descends (why always the twisty one?), I'd rather her be feisty and adventurous with the occasional bruise than hanging back in fear.
Always Be There on the Sidelines
Babies, toddlers and kids have different periods of attachment, different personalities and different abilities. While there are many times to hang back, there are also times to step in — with a helping hand, a word of comfort or a hug. The challenge of parenting is figuring out when.