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The Problem-Solving Parent: ''I Can Do it Myself'' How Parents Teach Independence
By Eleanor Reynolds Children and Families Expert

At the end of the day, many of the three-year-olds in my class face a daily challenge: putting on their shoes. Throughout the day, the children take off their shoes for naptime, to play dress-up, or to simply enjoy their bare feet. As I watch them put on their shoes, I learn a great deal about each child and his parents. Although the children are approximately the same age, there is a big difference in the way individual children handle difficult tasks. Some children are focused and determined to finish the job, and some are easily distracted and spend a long time dawdling. Still others are easily frustrated and break down in tears.            

Children differ in temperament, maturity, and coordination, but parents can help all children become more independent. The key to independence is attitude, and children learn attitude from their parents. You are your child’s role model, and he knows if you have self-confidence and a positive outlook on life. Take time to observe yourself and your behavior. Do you perform your work with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose, enjoying the process as much as the achievement? Do you take pride in accomplishing menial jobs? Do you demonstrate to your child that life is filled with simple moments of joy? Or do you spend a lot of time sighing, complaining, and resisting those small tasks that fill our lives? The example you set will influence your child’s attitude.

Modeling a positive attitude does not mean hiding your true feelings or keeping a perpetual grin on your face. Being a role model, however, does involve teaching your child that the world is inherently good, and that we can work to change what is not good. It is also important that when you make a mistake, when a task proves to be frustrating, or you feel discouraged, you describe those feelings. Talk with your children about what you can do, and show him how you solve problems. Children need to know how to learn from mistakes, cope with failure, and resolve disagreements with friends.          

What does all of this have to do with teaching independence? Everything! The child who sees the world as a positive place where she can achieve her goals will keep trying to do the job at hand and will not readily give up. Putting on shoes (and socks) requires an enormous amount of dexterity and for some children, a great deal of effort. The reward for this hard work is built in. There is a sense of pride and accomplishment when the shoes are on the feet. Similar rewards come with learning to button, opening and closing a zipper, using the potty, putting away toys, working a puzzle, and riding a trike. Children delight in being independent, and you can encourage this independence with the following strategies:

1. Know your child’s abilities. Be sure that whatever you ask your child to do is attainable at his present level of skill. A new task should present a reasonable challenge, not hopeless frustration. 

2. Use encouragement. Sit next to your child and give verbal cues. For example, when putting on their shoes, some children “forget” to use their hands or fail to even look at their shoes. A verbal reminder to “use your eyes to see what to do next,” or “try pushing with your hand (or foot)” is better than doing it for your child.

3. Get physical. Bend down to your child’s eye level and make eye contact. This helps him focus. Place your hand on top of his to get the motion started for picking up and putting away.

4. Provide assistance. Let your child know that you’re willing to help but not to do the task for her. Helping should be contingent on your child making an effort. For example, “If you pick up the red blocks, I’ll pick up the blue ones,” or “One of us can pick up the square blocks and one of us can pick up the rectangles.” 

5. Give information instead of orders. For example, “I see that your truck is on the floor,” instead of “Go pick up your truck,” or “Your jacket goes on the hook,” instead of “Hang up your jacket.”

6. Offer choices, especially if your child is very strong willed. For example, “You can get dressed before or after you eat breakfast,” or “You can eat with a spoon or your fingers.” Only give choices when you can accept either choice.

7. Allow your child to experience the consequences of her actions. Consequences should not be threats or punishment in disguise, but the natural result of behavior.  For example, a small toy left on the floor might disappear into the vacuum cleaner, or refusing to put on your shoes might mean missing some outdoor playtime. 


Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers. For more information, visit her website at www.problemsolver.org. Reynolds is also the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach.