Independence or Irresponsibility?

The school bus drove into the gate as half a dozen mothers waited. A six-year old boy threw his bag to the ground the minute he saw his mother, and ran off with his friends. His mother said, “My kids are so independent, they don’t need me anymore.”

Independence or Irresponsibility? Arundhati Venkatesh

See what’s wrong there?

If the kid were independent, he wouldn’t have flung the bag away but carried it home himself. The kid did need his mother – to carry his bag home.

If the boy were truly independent, his mother needn’t have waited there in the first place. A six-year old is quite capable of making the short walk home from the entrance of a gated community, where there is security, no thoroughfare and minimal traffic.

Very often, we tend to confuse irresponsibility with independence. And worse, treat it as a positive trait thus reinforcing irresponsible behaviour.

A kid who everyone considers independent (because he would run away while his mother had to track him down) regularly misplaced or lost his belongings.

So what then are the real signs of independence?

To me, the prerequisites are that the child must be able to perform tasks (age-appropriate, of course) without constant reminders, supervision, hand-holding or bribing.

A child of four or five is perfectly capable of unpacking his schoolbag, finishing his homework on time, taking care of his belongings, tidying up and helping out at home in little ways.

How does one get there?

As with everything else, there is no magic spell, it takes firmness and consistent effort.

A year after my son’s school started sending homework back on Fridays, I was fed up of the nagging it took, and all for something that actually took less than ten minutes of his time. I declared that I would not remind him again. A couple of times, he did forget to do it on Friday, and ended up doing it in a hurry before a weekend engagement, or woke up to it at the very last minute on a Sunday evening. But by and large, we have managed fine. He quickly realized that if he finished his homework on Friday, we would be free to do other things during the weekend. It was in his best interest to get it over with as soon as possible.

We still had trouble waking him up in the mornings, though. One fine morning, the husband decided enough was enough. He announced he wasn’t going to spend ten minutes waking him up, he would try just once. The sleepy boy woke up in a trice!

In this case, what was preventing us from doing the sensible thing was our guilt. We felt bad having to send a little boy to a school far away, and so early. The correct approach would have been to ensure he got enough sleep by being firm about bedtime.

We also tend to underestimate our kids, believing them to be less capable than they actually are. By doing so, we are in fact doing them a great disservice.

On the other hand, by setting and communicating expectations, following through and letting them face consequences, we are putting them on the path towards self-reliance, building self-esteem and preparing them for life.

After hitting what seemed like a brick wall, I tried an experiment on my five-year old. I struck a “deal” with him – if he completed certain tasks in the three hours after he got home from school, I would spend time doing fun things with him. If he didn’t meet my expectations, I wasn’t obliged to meet his. The first day, he did manage, albeit with some drama. The drama reduced over the next few days. After a week, I set the bar higher – I shouldn’t have to remind him, he would have to do what he was supposed to. I explained the logic to him too – the drama resulted in me wasting time, time that I would otherwise have spent productively with him. I’m quite surprised myself by the success of this little experiment.

Seeming mean in the very short-term has always paid off, with the end result being a confident, responsible and happy child, and a parent who is less hassled too! The mantra – Don’t do for your kids what they can do for themselves.

Arundhati Venkatesh is an engineer by degree, a mother, an observer of life and people, a feminist, a minimalist and a compulsive maker of lists! An IT professional in her previous life, Arundhati now works for an NGO that empowers the differently-abled. Arundhati reviews children’s books at saffrontree.org. You can also find her at www.womensweb.in – an online magazine for the thinking woman. She records her adventures with her son at http://arundhativ.blogspot.com.

  • Hey Arundhati, that is exactly what I feel. I think today’s generation’s moms i.e. us are too protective and sheltering of kids. When I was around six I was sent to buy milk and daily groceries from the nearby shop. I understand that the times are unsafe now but we can still instill independence in kids within our homes. Chores like getting dressed for school, packing school bags, changing clothes once they are back from school, cleaning up their rooms etc. can be easily be done by 3-4 year onwards. Sometimes it is also the fear that my kids won’t need me anymore that keeps us doing their tasks for them and once the kids are used it and all grown up, we crib why can’t they do anything for themselves. 🙂 Lovely post and looking forward to reading your blog regularly too.

    • Thanks for that lovely comment, Swapna. Totally agree, it is our (that is, the parents’) need, NOT the child’s.

  • Excellent points, Arundathi! I have struggled with this too – but have learned to let go. You are absolutely right about underestimating children. In fact, a particular incident made me wake up – and I’ve been wide awake ever since. Great post! Thanks – and nice to meet you 🙂

    • Vidya, nice to meet you too! Hopped over to your blog and loved it

  • I think the more you fuss over children, the more you destroy their independence. Much as we value our children’s independence, we have to first learn to be independent of micromanaging them, and we will be surprised by the results. My son who is three often tells me that i forgot to add a napkin in his bag or that the water bottle was not closed properly or that there was a spoon missing today. If we are okay with being imperfect, we might actually raise more independent children.

    • Yes! We have such instances too, with the kid reminding or correcting us and it only makes me happy! Like the point you’ve made – “If we are okay with being imperfect, we might actually raise more independent children.” Thanks for sharing, Lalita.

  • Beautiful post. And I totally think these days moms are trying to form a protective layer around their kids… which is pretty unfair for the kid. I believe its never to early to start making your kids do what they are capable of. We should involve them in age-appropriate chores, which would help them become independent.

    • True Falak, since our focus is primarily the kids it is easy to spoil them. The previous generation had tighter budgets, more work to be done and plenty to worry about, relatively. Kids grew independent by default then. I think it is good we have the time and resources now, but we can put it to better use instead of pampering our kids

  • HI Arundathi,I feel so happy that mother’s today are making best efforts to make their children independent from the age of 3-4 years. It is a healthy trend. In our times children were not allowed to step out of the house alone. Very good post.

    • Usha, thank you! I would go to school by myself, play with friends every evening (from the time I could walk)… there were no playdates or gated community playareas back then. When I was around ten, I remember going to buy milk on the days I didn’t have school. And we used to play cricket, lagori or kings on the street – the worst that happened was a broken window.

  • Very good points… by inculcating habit of independence one is actually preparing them for the world. What is the point of doing things for kids that they are perfectly capable of doing? I think you nail it when you say age appropriate, though which can vary for child to child, but still drives home the point.

    Thanks.

    • Absolutely, desi Traveler. I’d rather play a game of Scrabble, Jenga or football with my kid than spend the time doing his chores. He prefers it too!

  • Superb mantra!! Mostly, I think mothers (maybe fathers too, but I know of none) WANT to be indispensible – and that explains picking up after the kids, when the kids very well can. Fantastic post!

    • You nailed it. If we choose dependence over empowerment, it is to satisfy our own need to be valued.

  • Jyothi

    Doing chores and cleaning up after themselves is a habit that needs to be inculcated in all children, very true. Independence, I think, has more to do with giving them freedom to make their own choices. And yes , to learn to live with the consequences of those choices. Good points.

    • Yes Jyothi, totally agree. For them to be able to take life-changing decisions on education, career or relationships, we need to empower them by giving them choices+information, and letting them take decisions early on. Putting them in charge provides some practice – there are situations that arise, which they handle or face consequences

  • Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment.

    Vidya, nice to meet you too! Hopped over to your blog and loved it 🙂

    Thanks for that lovely comment, Swapna. Totally agree, it is our (that is, the parents’) need, NOT the child’s.

    Lalita – Yes! We have such instances too, with the kid reminding or correcting us 🙂 and it only makes me happy! Like the point you’ve made – “If we are okay with being imperfect, we might actually raise more independent children.” Thanks for sharing, Lalita.

    Falak – True, since our focus is primarily the kids it is easy to spoil them. The previous generation had tighter budgets, more work to be done and plenty to worry about, relatively. Kids grew independent by default then. I think it is good we have the time and resources now, but we can put it to better use instead of pampering our kids

    Usha – thank you! I would go to school by myself, play with friends every evening (from the time I could walk)… there were no playdates or gated community playareas back then. When I was around ten, I remember going to buy milk on the days I didn’t have school. And we used to play cricket, lagori or kings on the street – the worst that happened was a broken window.

    Absolutely, desi Traveler. I’d rather play a game of Scrabble, Jenga or football with my kid instead of spending the time doing his chores. He prefers it too!

    Meena – You nailed it. If we choose dependence over empowerment, it is to satisfy our own need to be valued.

  • Yes Jyothi, totally agree. For them to be able to take life-changing decisions on education, careers or relationships, we need to empower them by giving them choices+information, and letting them take decisions early on. Putting them in charge provides some practice – there are situations that arise, which they handle or face consequences

  • Absolutely agree! Since we live in the States, our mornings sometimes are devoted to housework and the kids are expected to do their share. When it is laundry time, I insist that they fold their clothes and put them away. You’re right about not needing to nag; after all, it is what they are supposed to do, so why not give them the responsibility?!

    • Roshni, when we got back to India, we found some differences – once when my toddler was carrying a light bag after grocery shopping, a passer-by joked about “child labour”. It was said in jest, and he was too young to understand, but that is the general attitude and it doesn’t help. He *wanted* to carry a bag too, it made him feel important and he felt he was contributing. At five, he really does contribute… when the help was off, he insisted on sweeping the house. I let him, on the condition he wouldn’t get in the way when I did it later. Imagine my surprise when it was my turn and I found no dust except under the beds! I’m not sure who was more proud, me or him 🙂

  • Megha

    Wonderfully written Arundhati. When we look back at our childhood we see. How independent we were at their age. I keep telling Laya’s this. People misinterpret the time and love spent doted upon their kids and over indulge them, sometimes out of guilt . This is the age when they need to learn the difference between the two. Keep writing and inspiring us.

  • Mahalakshmi aka Sowmya

    Great article Arundhati. ‘Don’t do for your kids what they can do for themselves’ you summarized everything in a sentence. Kids do their chores in an organized manner if you set the goals ahead of time. Having said that I still pick up my six year old from the bus stop, just to ensure that he doesn’t come in the elevator all by himself . The so called luxury of being in a multi-storey apartment and a gated community!!

    • I know what you mean, Sowmya. P used to walk up four floors, but now with extended timings he is groggy/tired, so he waits at the entrance to the building, and I look out from the balcony at the time the bus usually arrives. This way he still walks by himself from the gate, I only pick him up from the ground floor.

  • Megha

    Wonderfully written Arundhati. Kids need to know the difference between the two. How independent we were at their age. Guilt most times get to the parents and they tend to over indulge. Keep writing such inspiring words. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Thanks Megha! The times I feel I am acting out of guilt, I stop and ask myself “Am I doing what’s best for him?”
      I never liked it when I was told as a kid how how we had it easier than the previous generation. So I try not to go into “In our days…” or make comparisons with his peers. Focussing on his abilities and the benefits of doing things himself (“I know you can do it if you try. If you do this now, soon you will be able to…”) is more positive and works better, I find 🙂

  • Vijayaraghavan Rajan

    Nice to see the well written article. Must be very useful to mothers similarly placed.
    R.Vijayaraghavan.

    • Thank you. Yes. Parenting it is purely experiential learning, there is no degree. With so many of us shouldering the responsibility by ourselves now, sharing experiences helps. I used to relate so much to articles I’ve read when my son was younger, it helped to know I wasn’t alone.

      p.s. – So nice to see you writing and blogging. I will be happy if I am half as active when I reach that age 🙂

  • Rashmi

    Good one Arundhati. Keep blogging! We as mother’s can share our experiences and lessons.

    Kids in current era are way smarter than we realize. I agree that as parents or mother’s we are very protective of our kids. In the pretext of protecting them, I feel we are making then weaker and dependent. Kids especially, infants or toddlers are very quick learners. We need to demonstrate discipline, mannerisms, courteousness, etc.. when they are very young, I would say around 9-10 months age. I know this might seem little too much, but it does work. Just to share one example from my life, I have an 18 months old daughter and she understands what ‘Clean Up’ means. Early in time, I would say when she was 9 months or when she started playing with toys, I made sure that at the end of the playtime, I would say ‘clean up’ and put all her toys into the toy box. She would watch me do it. And slowly I started engaging her in the task. Now that she understands, when she is done playing with one toy, I just say cleanup and she promptly puts the toy in the toy box. And also I have seen that, sometimes even without being told, when she is done playing with one, she puts it back to its place before picking the next. Seeing that really brings smile on my face. But sometimes its scary realizing that my baby is growing up and become an independent individual herself.

    Its best to understand the kids abilities and try to instill good habits and manners rather than otherwise.

    • Rashmi, we experienced exactly what you have described! Even as a baby, my son followed certain systems that we’d introduced (not emptying the toy chest but taking one out at a time, putting things back where they belong etc.). As a toddler he was very particular. When he started playschool, we got the feedback that he was a tad too neat and fastidious! As he spent more and more time with friends, he got used to messy ways. He is still methodical and not untidy, thankfully.

  • Viniba

    Wonderful Arundhati. Very wise words. Am so glad you got into writing – you do it really well 🙂 Will call you sometime.

    • Hey, thanks Viniba! Would love to keep in touch 🙂