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.”
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.