With Liberty And Pancakes For All

pancakeWhen my daughters were mere toddlers, they began striving for independence. They wanted to feed themselves, dress themselves, brush their own teeth, explore everything, and test limits.


As they get older, their desire for freedom and autonomy only continues to grow. Many of the struggles I experience as a mother come about when they want to do things themselves or make independent choices, and I’m unwilling to let go of control. I know from talking to many other parents that I’m not alone.


On the other hand, some of my most memorable moments as a parent have occurred when I’ve allowed my girls to assert their independence. For example, one Saturday morning, Marissa and Dalia woke up early and went downstairs by themselves. Before long, I heard dishes clanging, the refrigerator door being opened and closed, and lots of other activity. Neither Gavin nor I budged. We lazed in bed for what seemed like an eternity until Marissa finally came upstairs and said there was a surprise waiting for us. We could only imagine what they had been doing.


When we got downstairs, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Our girls (ages 3 and 7 at the time), had set the table for four, filled the glasses with juice, and folded the napkins. We sat down at the table and gushed over the job they had done. The kitchen walls barely contained the smiles on their faces and their self-satisfaction. After a brief pause, I asked, “So, what’s for breakfast?”


“Well, um…,” Marissa said apprehensively,”…could Daddy make pancakes?”


Why do We Resist Our Kids’ Self-Sufficiency?

The goal of parenting isn’t, as many believe, to raise children. The goal of parenting is to raise self-sufficient adults. And if that’s the primary goal, why do I, and so many other parents, strongly resist giving our kids independence? Here are my thoughts on the matter:


1. We’re afraid.

We don’t want our kids to make mistakes because we can’t bear to watch them struggle and of course, we want to protect them. What if, instead of thinking of mistakes as failures, we thought of them as teachers? We learn by doing and experiencing, not by reading or listening to other people’s stories.


Take parenting, for instance. I studied the stages of development, theories of family dynamics, and read tons of parenting books before I had kids. I worked with children in my job and spent time with them in my own family. I heard stories and advice from friends, relatives, and total strangers about being a parent. But of course, nothing taught me more about parenting than actually doing it, making TONS of mistakes, and learning from them.


In fact, “mistake” is a word we could do without because there really is no such thing. Every experience can be a learning opportunity when we’re open to it. Our kids will only know how to make good choices if we give them choices to make. They’ll only be able to solve problems if we give them problems to solve. And they’ll only behave responsibly if we give them responsibility.


I know it can be challenging, but we need to let them struggle and allow them to feel disappointment, frustration, and all the other “negative” emotions. Just imagine how competent and proud they’ll feel when they eventually master new skills!


In the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish recommend showing respect for a child’s struggle. Rather than jumping in and taking over, you can say something like, “It can be hard to ______ (tie your shoes, crack an egg, etc). Sometimes it helps when _______ (you keep your index finger on the loop, use a flat surface, etc.).”


Perhaps there are even some “mistakes” you’d like your child to experience now, while he’s under your roof, rather than later when he’s older, on his own, and the stakes are higher.


2. We’re impatient.

This might be the most common reason that we keep our children dependent on us. We feel inconvenienced because it takes too much time and patience to show them how to do something or let them do it alone. It’s so much easier and faster just to do things ourselves. Remember, though, it’s our JOB to prepare them for the real world! LEAVE EXTRA TIME for yourself and your child — especially in the mornings — so neither of you feels hurried or stressed.


3. we’re focused on the outcome, rather than the process.

We sometimes think that how well our kids do something is more important than what they learn in the process of doing it. For example, when my girls want to fold the laundry or make their beds, I let them do it even though it’s not “perfect” or the way that I would do it. The important thing is that they want to do these things and they take pride in their accomplishments. If I criticize their efforts, they’ll be less likely to continue trying at all.


4. We’re needy.

I get it — it’s nice to feel needed. When someone depends on us, we feel important and valuable. But do we honestly think that we – our children’s mothers – will be any less special because we let them have some control over their own lives? Yes, childhood goes by quickly and we dread the time when we’re not their main influence anymore. But they’ll always need us. Not to do things for them, but to be there for them.


Letting Go

If you’re reading this and thinking that you’ve ruined your child because you haven’t been giving him opportunities to be more independent, you can relax. It’s never too late to start.


When you decide to give your child more freedom, start slowly and make sure the responsibilities are age appropriate and that your child is capable of handling them. Also, don’t assume that when you tell him to do something (for example “clean up” his room), he understands exactly what you mean. Show him exactly what you expect him to do and make it fun! Take time to explain why it’s important to you that he knows a particular skill.


For kids under 5, you can start with very basic responsibilities, such as:

Marissa cooking with her incredibly patient Auntie!

Marissa cooking with her
incredibly patient Auntie!

  • Brushing teeth
  • Getting dressed
  • Putting on shoes
  • Pouring water
  • Watering plants
  • Washing themselves in the bath
  • Brushing hair
  • Putting dirty clothes in the hamper
  • Folding laundry, putting it away
  • Turning off the TV
  • Bringing dishes to the sink after a meal
  • Feeding pets
  • Putting toys away
  • Getting the mail


As they get older, kids can be responsible for:

  • Helping to cook
  • Sweeping, mopping
  • Making the bed
  • Doing homework
  • Setting the table
  • Taking out the trash
  • Waking up with an alarm clock


And we certainly don’t want our kids going out into the world without being ready for…

  • Doing their own laundry
  • Changing the sheets
  • Preparing meals
  • Going grocery shopping
  • Driving
  • Putting gas in the car
  • Making their own appointments (doctor, haircuts, etc.)
  • Sewing a button and mending minor rips and tears (I still rely on my mother to do this for me)
  • Ironing
  • Raking leaves, shoveling snow, or whatever pertains to your region/climate
  • Managing finances (learning how to use a checking account)


Please leave a comment below and tell me what you’ve been doing for your children that you might consider letting them do themselves. For those of you reading this in the United States, have a Happy Independence Day!


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Showing 5 comments
  • Beth

    With three teens, 19, 17 and 14, reading this made me think back to when they were 9, 7 and 4. Each one approached independence differently, one relishing every bit, another in no rush, content to let me do for him (he didn’t really want his driver’s license either, but we made him get it and now he’s so glad he has it). We’ve been perhaps a bit more willing to allow independence than our kids’ peers’ parents. But we do so after a period of what we like to refer to as “trust but verify.” They needed to check in with us, on arrival and departure somewhere. One forgotten call was enough to keep them home the next time. They learned to check in, we learned to lay back a bit. As our oldest heads off to college in the fall, we are really glad she has developed a great deal of independence and I hope her friends, some of whom have had none, are able to navigate the start of college without having had practice being responsible for themselves. You can’t go from training wheels to none without at least a few falls, better to have those at home, so parents, lift those training wheels! One tip for getting kids to do laundry: I wrote the instructions in sharpy marker on the machines. They’re hidden behind closet doors, so no one else sees the writing, and when the kids need to do a wash, they just follow the numbers, 1. Put in soap, 2. set temperature (hot for whites…), 3. set cycle, 4. pull out knob to start. No more, “I forgot what to do.”

    • Pam Howard

      You always leave such insightful comments that are so helpful to this community. I love how aware you are that each child handled more independence differently and that you sometimes encouraged it, but also set limits so that they could show they were responsible when granted more freedom. Well done! I also LOVE the laundry instructions right on the machines. I have no doubt that your college-bound child will be teaching her peers how to do their laundry in the fall. xoxo

  • karenperrycreates

    I can definitely relate to being impatient. My kids are 3 and 4 so they do the same tasks at different speeds and skill levels. It seems like I never leave enough time to not feel rushed! My 3 year old daughter helps me feed the cat. I don’t let her fill the water dish because I don’t feel like cleaning up spilled water but it’s probably time to let her do it. I’ll just put some towels on the floor. Great post!

    • Pam Howard

      Hi Karen! I know what you mean about cleaning up the messes…I love your idea to put towels on the floor! I’ve done that with play-do, too, but they still somehow managed to get it all over the floor. How are you doing with your no-yelling challenge? Let us know!

      • karenperrycreates

        It’s been hard. When I started the challenge to not yell (or at least yell less) I didn’t realize how it would need to go much deeper into completely changing my attitude and the way I think. I’m learning a lot by being mindful of my tone of voice and choosing the words I use.

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