I hope you are all having a lovely summer!
The long summer break is a great time for our children to have loads of well deserved fun play time, and possibly to learn some new skills. While discussing setting some goals for the summer with my daughter Honor, I thought of this wonderful talk by Elaine Halligan that was hosted at her school, where Elaine talked about the importance of promoting independence in our children amongst other enlightening topics.
Honor has been playing with her Japanese and American friends this summer, and I've noticed varied parenting approaches taken in different cultures, which also made me think of my own childhood in Japan. While doing some research, I've come across these informative videos on youtube - they portray snippets of the lives of Japanese school kids so accurately (and it hasn't changed at all since I was a child there!). My non-Japanese friends have found them fascinating as it seems so different from the daily routines that our kids go through. I remember Honor being absolutely mesmerised when we saw a little girl around 6 years old doing some grocery shopping on her own in Tokyo.I've contacted Elaine to ask her to dig deeper into this topic of independence, and Elaine kindly took her time to share her expert views.
Elaine is is a parenting specialist and London director of The Parent Practice. Elaine helps parents raise competent and confident children, through parenting classes, private coaching & keynote-speaking in schools.
Q1. What are your thoughts having seen this video of Japanese children? Do you think some of the elements could be incorporated into children's lives in other countries?
Elaine: Interestingly 87% of children who lived within a mile of their school in the US got there themselves 30 years ago, whereas now that figure is just 13%. ( Source: US Centre for Disease Control). Clearly there are cultural and safety differences between Japan and the UK, but as soon as children are responsible enough and the journey is safe enough (and this is often hard to determine), we all need to consider letting children go to school by themselves. Undoubtedly we need to keep kids safe, but also to prepare for separation and get them thinking for themselves and acting for themselves. We do our kids no favours if we wrap them in cotton wool and do not allow them the freedom to learn new skills and develop their own resources.
Q2. Why do you think it is important for children to be independent?
Elaine: A child who is self-reliant can tackle new challenges, has strategies for coping with life and is more confident. Feeling capable is the antidote to anxiety. When parents expect their children to do things for themselves, they send messages that they have faith in their children’s capabilities. We need to start when our children are young, developing in them habits that they will carry forward into adulthood. Establishing independence is giving the gift of competence to our children. By empowering them with real life skills, it boosts their self-esteem.
Q3. Could you share some specific tips on how to encourage children to be more independent, at different stages in their lives, and in what areas?
- The first step in getting our children into independent habits is to show them HOW to do something, so that they know what to do and how to do it e.g. folding their clothes that can be worn again the next day. That isn’t enough in itself to get them into a regular habit without us reminding them to do it. We need to train them. All training takes time, energy and consistency and all too often we show a child a skill and then just HOPE they will adopt it. We need to follow through on the training.
- Train in small steps or munchable chunks. Break a task down into small achievable steps e.g. making a bed involve straightening the duvet, placing pillow on top and putting PJ’s under pillow. Start with the easiest element so the child can feel competent and build on that.
- Prepare the physical environment so they can be successful e.g. something simple like putting a laundry basket in your child’s room for them to put their dirty clothes in and having enough hangers and wardrobe space to hang things up rather than have a ‘floordrobe’.
- Involve the children - have a chat with your child and brainstorm with them what needs to be done. Get them talking as much as possible as we want to know what they already know and what they don’t know. They need to feel part of the process if they’re going to be willing to do what’s required.
- Allow enough time - always set aside more time than you think for training and the best time to train is often not in the morning as you are racing out of the door, but over an evening or weekend when you are not rushing.
- Stay positive and connected - always descriptively praise you child for not giving up, not complaining and being willing to learn and willing to do something that requires effort. Empathise if they don’t want to do what you’re asking. “You wish mummy would do this for you, don’t you? Yeah, you’d rather play with your trains than make your bed. You love your trains. When you were younger I did many things for you but I’ve seen how capable you are. You can put clothes on by yourself, you can sort out light and dark coloured washing, you can put Lego in the box…there are so many things you can do by yourself.”
Examples include straightening the duvet and pillow on the bed, opening bedroom curtains, picking up clothes from the floor, putting away toys, helping prepare family meals, getting clothes ready the next day and packing their school bag. The earlier you start teaching and training, the easier family life will be. Include some chores that are not just about the child’s own things but are their contribution to family life, such as setting the table. This gives them a real sense of responsibility and belonging.
Q4. Where shall we draw the line between encouraging independence in our children and giving them too many responsibilities/disciplines? When do you think it is important for the parents to be flexible and also to be somewhat assertive?
I think most parents struggle to let go, rather than giving too many responsibilities, and inadvertently end up doing too much for their children as it’s quicker, neater and easier for an adult to do a task than to train the child to do it themselves. As always it is a balance between not giving them too much to do and yet on the other hand not underestimating what they can do or be taught to do. The key is to not do anything for your children, that they could be learning to do for themselves, and that includes their thinking. Parents should be wary of giving a child too much responsibility if they think that child is turning into a people-pleaser at the risk of not caring for their own needs. This can sometimes happen when parents get divorced.
Q5. What are examples of age appropriate things we can encourage our children to do on their own?
There are numerous examples and much depends on age and stage of development and how much teaching and training has been done by the parents. I know many teens who are unable still to tidy their rooms or change a fuse and that’s because they either have not been taught and trained, or it’s not been important enough for the parents. What you permit you promote!
- wake themselves up on time
- get dressed
- make bed
- brush their teeth
- tidy their bedroom
- wash face and hands
- flush the loo
- lift and put back loo seat (boys)
- wash hair
- comb hair
- choose and lay out clothes for the next day
- change their sheets
- put their clothes in the hamper
- take clothes to the washing machine
- sort the clothes
- wash the clothes
- sort and fold newly washed clothes
- mend clothes
- iron clothes
- choose and buy own clothes
- tie shoe laces
- prepare breakfast
- make their packed lunch
- lay table
- clear table
- load dishwasher/do the washing up
- clean windows
- go to the shops
- make appointments
- do homework without supervision
- mend bicycle puncture
- wire electric plug
- change a fuse
- use a saw/hammer
- cook a meal
- make tea
- make pocket money last a week
Q6. In Japan, many children co-sleep with parents until much later than in the west, sometimes into their teenage years. People believe that this could create a nice bond with the children. What are your views on this?
Co-sleeping is an accepted practice with young babies for those parents following an attachment parenting methodology, and that early physical bond can help to develop secure well-adjusted independent children. Infants and young children get their reassurance and feeling that they are loved and valuable primarily through touch. It’s often not done in the west because of concerns about SIDs but there are practices that can be adopted to minimise any risks. How long parents continue a practice of co-sleeping is very individual but should take into account the fact that a parent’s role includes ensuring that children can self-soothe and get into good sleep habits as well as preserving intimacy between the couple at the foundation of the family and ensuring that the adults are also getting a good night’s rest. Whether cuddling or co-sleeping, the most important thing to consider is whose needs are being met. If the child is sleeping with Mum or Dad because one of the parents is sad and lonely, then that’s not a healthy or positive thing for a child of any age.
I am sure you all find the tips from Elaine so helpful!
Thank you so much Elaine, for sharing your views.
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