If You Want Independent Kids, Stop Doing These Things For Them

Question: do you think that back in the day when mothers had 10 children, that an average four year old couldn’t get themselves a glass of water?


I don’t think so. Yes, maybe there would have been an older sibling that could get it for them but in a lot of situations the four year old would be the older sibling. Fetching water for the smaller kids, helping them get dressed, carrying their stuff. You know, being helpful and independent. 

I used to work in a Montessori classroom, I saw the three-year-olds pouring drinks, grating cheese, folding towels, chopping bananas and cleaning up their own mess all day long. Then their parents would arrive to pick them up and all of a sudden they would become incapable of walking, carrying their bags and generally functioning.

It used to really annoy me that the parents would let them behave like babies, because I had seen how independent these kids could be. And also because I obviously knew everything about being a parent, having zero children or parenting experience of my own at the time.

So now when I find myself carrying my two-year-old out of preschool, collecting my four-year-old’s crap from ever corner of the centre and basically treating them like babies because I just want to get them in the car before someone has one of those epic post-preschool meltdowns, I always have a chuckle. If only I was as good at parenting now as I used to be pre-kids.

But there are some things that, as long as no one is on the verge of an emotional melt down, I don’t do for my kids. 

1. Get them a glass of water. We have a glass water dispenser (you know, the ones with the little tap) on our kitchen counter and our kids get their own drinks whenever they want. There is always a step stool floating around for the two-year-old and their cups are kept in a low cupboard. The dispenser was $10 and because we have it, no one comes to find me in the shower to tell me they are thirsty anymore. For the first week of having the dispenser the little one would fill up every cup in the cupboard and line them up on the counter but he got over it. His heightened fluid intake for that period actually really helped with the toilet training though, the frequency of toilet visits and wee related rewards drummed the message home super quick. So that’s a win. Also, their volume estimation skills have dramatically improved and there are basically no spills now but if there are…

2. Wipe up their spills. So obviously kids are going to make a mess, that’s life. But if they are responsible for wiping up their own spills it isn’t so much of a big deal. If a child can grab a cloth easily and clean up after herself she is going to learn all sorts of things. Like basic cleaning skills (something that completely escapes a lot of the adult population), cause and effect, responsibility and of course, independence. Yes you made a mess but you cleaned it up: high five! That’s basically how life works, right? Yes you have finished your dinner but the table is messy so you can’t colour in, how could we possible deal with this situation? There you go! Sure, they may make a bit more of a mess in the short term but practice makes perfect so why not start them young. 

3. Put their shoes on for them. Often I would be somewhere with my daughter when she was two and I would say, time to go, put your shoes on. And she would sit on the floor and carefully wrestle her chubby feet in. People would comment, oh isn’t she an independent one with a sympathetic eye roll. The insinuation being that I would obviously prefer to do it myself because clearly it is a real hassle waiting for her to master this pretty basic life skill. Yeah, no – pretty happy that my child is learning how to put her shoes on. Sure it took a while for the first few months but now, at four, my daughter and her footwear exist completely independent of me. They often end up on the wrong feet and sometimes she even wants to wear two different shoes but you know what, I’m completely cool with that.

4. Put away laundry. Yup, I’m serious. Kids can fold and sort and open and close drawers, so long as the drawers function easily and aren’t packed too full. Again, perfection is not something I look for in this area. Clothes that are put away by the person who wore them is really my only objective. And for them? Achievement, independence and a high five for being awesome is reward enough.

My purpose is to encourage independence, not achieve perfection. If you want a spotless kitchen and children who have their shoes on the right feet all the time then by all means, keep doing everything for them. But if raising independent kids is your priority it’s okay to let your standards drop. You see, kids are really super capable if only we let them be.

Are your kids responsible for their own things?

More ways to encourage independence in our kids:

Image: Barbara O’Reilly