Note: this is based on my experience with my two kids, currently four and six. It may not generalize as much as I think it does.
People start out dependent on their parents for food, changing, contact, motion, and even sleep timing. Typically they end up as adults, no longer dependent on their parents at all. Part of my approach to parenting has been that I want to let my kids be as independent as possible, as early as possible. Not only does it make their lives better, because they can meet their own needs how they want, but it makes my life easier, because they can handle more on their own. Sometimes this involves a bit more effort up front, but I think it’s substantially less effort in total.
If Lily (6y) comes to me and says “Anna (4y) pushed me,” my first response will probably be “have you talked to Anna?” I’ll still help some, often by listening to them negotiate and clarifying rules (“you can’t push people, even when they happen to be between you and your desired toy”) but over time they’ve gotten much better at this. There’s a whole post worth of thoughts that could go here on what’s worked and what hasn’t, but at this point they can get up an hour before we do and (nearly always) resolve their own conflicts without waking us.
The kids will often ask for help while I’m cooking. If I’m in the middle of something, which I usually am, I’ll say something like “I can help you as soon as I finish mixing this”. During that time they’re often able to solve their own problem. If they do still need help when I’m ready, they get my full attention. This is acting as a cost, paying with their time, which filters their requests so I only get the ones where it’s worth it to them. And then while they’re bored waiting for me they’ll often try a bit harder at doing up the snaps on their shirt or whatever, and often that extra focused effort is what they need to do it on their own.
Similarly, when Anna was learning to ride her trike and she got to a sidewalk bump that was hard to pedal over, she would call for help. I found that if I walked far enough behind her she would keep trying while she waited for me to catch up, and then often didn’t need me by the time I was there.
If I hear crying, I don’t automatically do something about it. As I was writing this post I heard Anna get up. Then I heard some crying. Not “I’ve been badly hurt crying” but some sort of frustration. It didn’t last very long, and I didn’t move, just listening. A few minutes later Anna came down and said good morning. She had a lot she wanted to tell me about the clothes she had picked out. When she was done I asked what they crying had been, and whether she was ok, and she said that Lily hadn’t been willing to come out and play with her even though her bedroom light was on. I clarified (again… this one keeps coming up) that Lily isn’t required to play with her, and that even if someone’s light is on that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to come out of their room and get up. Then we cuddled up and read a book together.
When the kids started being able to climb things, I would spot them. Often they wanted me to lift them or support them in their climbing, and I wouldn’t. They would also want to be lifted down at the end, but the rule would be “if you can climb up, you can climb down.” I was willing to give them advice or guide their foot when they couldn’t see where to place it, but they still needed to do the climbing. At this point I’ll spot them if they ask me to, or maybe say things like “if you’re going to climb that high you need to find an adult to spot you.” With tree climbing I’m willing to be a stepstool if asked, but I won’t lift them.
Recently Lily dropped her fork, and asked me to pick it up. I said that this seemed like the sort of thing she could do? Anna volunteered to pick it up for her, and was very happy to be helpful. This wasn’t what I was going for, but a different nice outcome.
I was out with both kids, and Lily wanted to go home while Anna wanted to keep picking dandelions. We were on our block, around the corner from our house. Lily and I talked about how she could go home: she would walk home (no street crossings needed and she knew where to go) and ring the doorbell. If someone let her in she was set, otherwise she would walk back to where I was. After Lily set off I posted in the house chat that Lily would be ringing the doorbell soon, and once Lily was inside Julia replied to let me know.
We noticed that Anna kept giving or trading things to Lily, and then regretting it. For example, she gave Lily an elephant stuffy she got for her birthday, and then talked for months about how she was sad and wished it were still hers. We talked to Lily about this, and told the kids that any gifts Anna made were provisional, and she had three days to change her mind. We also told them that if they wanted to make permanent trades they needed to bring the proposed trade to a grownup first, who could jog Anna’s memory (“Anna, do you remember how you felt when you...”) and make sure they really wanted to go through with it. I think the first rule never ended up getting used, and the second rule got used maybe once? We’ve since let both rules fade away.
When the kids were little they would sometimes ask for a drink of water in the middle of the night. As soon as they were old enough that we trusted they wouldn’t spill it, we gave them sippy cups of water to keep by their beds. The changed the frequent “I’m thirsty” for the less frequent “my water cup is empty.” And, better, they started checking their cup when going to bed, usually telling us when it was running out. A few weeks ago Anna woke us up, for the first time in a while: her cup was empty. I told her I wouldn’t fill her cup, but described how she could get a drink from the bathroom. She was mad that I wouldn’t do it for her, but after I went back to bed I heard her walk out, get a drink, and go back to bed. She hasn’t woken us since.
About a year ago I brought Lily to an amusement park. Near the end of the day there was a roller coaster she wanted to go on, but it was too scary for me, so I told her I wouldn’t go on it with her. She asked if she could go on it by herself, but you needed to be 48″ to ride alone. She told me she was going to find someone else to ride with her, and I didn’t object. She wandered a bit with me until she identified someone who I think she thought was sufficiently non-threatening (middle-aged woman hanging out with family) and Lily asked me if I would be willing to ask on her behalf. I declined, expecting Lily would be too shy, but Lily went up, explained the situation, and asked if they would go with her. They were a bit confused, confirmed the situation with me, asked me if I was ok with it, and I emphasised that it really was fine if they said no. They decided to do it, and as far as I could tell both had a really good time.
When Lily was ~1.5, she was just learning to walk and was standing at the top of a short flight of stairs. I was below her, in a place where I could catch her if she fell, but as she continued looking around and seeming stable I started playing my mandolin which I was wearing on a strap. I wasn’t expecting she would fall, but she did, and while I dropped the mandolin and went to catch her I didn’t get her fully and she bonked her chin. She lost two teeth, and I’m sure it hurt a lot. This is probably the event I most regret in parenting so far, and pushed me in the more cautious direction.
As soon as our kids could walk we started teaching them how to stay out of the street. This was some work, but when we fully trusted that they would stop at the corner they gained the freedom to run ahead on their own. When they were little I couldn’t let them get too far ahead, though, or other adults who didn’t know that these particular kids knew to stay out of the street would get worried and try to protect them.
Our house has big heavy doors, which means the kids can’t get out by themselves. I made a kid door out to the back yard, and put kid-height railings on the steps. Now if they want to go outside on their own they can.
One time we couldn’t find Lily. We looked all over the house, and she was just not there. When I saw the kid door was unlocked, that told me she’d gone out, but then she wasn’t in the back yard. Apparently she’d left? This was very unlike her, and we were worried, though I knew she wouldn’t have gone far since she wouldn’t cross any streets. I started to run around the block, and just as I’d gone around the first corner I saw Lily happily running from the other direction. She’d decided she’d like to run around the block on her own as an adventure. I talked with her about how it wasn’t ok to go off on her own like that yet, and next time she should check in with a grownup first. When we put in the kid door I should have been clearer with them about how they needed to stay in our yard.
Lily asked me if she could cut her own hair, and I explained that kids who cut their own hair generally end up with hair they’re unhappy with. She asked if I would cut it; I declined. She asked our housemate Ruthie if she would cut it, Ruthie checked with me (“it’s Lily’s hair, so it’s fine with me”) and Ruthie gave her a nice cut that Lily was very happy with. Julia was out at the time, and when she came home she was upset that I had let Lily cut her hair on a whim. Asking her now she wrote, “I’m less in favor of giving the kids free rein here because I think it’s important to make sure any long-lasting choices are made in an informed way, and I don’t think anyone made sure Lily understood that for the next several months she wouldn’t be able to do some of the hairstyles she sometimes requested. I also likely would have required a waiting period of a week or two to see if she still wanted it. As someone who hated spending third grade growing out my bangs, the possible downside of haircut decisions is more salient to me than it is to Jeff.” Afterwards, we talked for a while trying to find other places where we might have similar disagreements about what to let the kids do (tattos? piercings? cutting up their clothes?) This is a good illustration of how it’s important to be on the same page as your partner about what you’re ok with letting the kids do.
Anna and I were out with her trike, and she asked me to carry it home for her. We weren’t very far from the house, and I declined. She said she was just going to leave it there. I told her that if she left the trike it would be available for anyone to take. And that I would probably take it, but it would then be my trike. She decided to ride her trike home.
When we started wearing covid masks, the kids didn’t want them. I explained that the recommendations had changed, we were trying to help build a norm of mask-wearing, masks keep people from spreading their germs, and even our family could have the coronavirus without realizing yet. This was enough for Lily, who’s pretty pro-social, but Anna didn’t like having something on her face. I told her that if she wasn’t willing to wear a mask she’d have to stay on our property, which meant inside or in the back yard. She initially (firmly!) said she was fine with that, but when she realized this meant she wouldn’t be able to ride her trike around the block she changed her mind and asked me to help her put her mask on.
A few weeks later, when wearing masks was routine, Anna was still asking us to put her’s on each time. I thought she could probably start doing it for herself, when she next asked if I’d put it on her I said “can you do it?” She said no. I said that I thought she was big enough to do it herself, and that I was still willing to do it I needed her to try doing it herself first. With a bit of coaching (one ear, then the other) she got it on without any other help from me. She was so proud! Since then she’s managed it herself every time.
This morning I was out with the kids and I noticed that Anna’s mask was around her neck. “Anna, your mask?” “Papa, I’m doing the honeysuckle, and my mask gets in the way.” “Ok, as long as you put it right back on when you’re done.”
I rarely tell the kids “no”. Instead, if it’s something that I don’t think is a good idea or won’t work, I explain why. “The last time you climbed a tree not wearing pants you scraped your legs a lot, and were pretty sad about it.” “If you want to use a sharp needle you’ll need to find an adult who’s willing to supervise so you don’t stab yourself.” “If you sign up to cook dinner you need to make sure you prepare enough food for everyone, with food everyone can eat.” “If you want make that much of a mess you’ll need to find a grownup who’ll commit to cleaning up if you don’t.”
There are still some hard constraints. They have to go through their bedtime routine and go to bed. They have to sit at the table for their meals (though we don’t make them eat, just spend at least 10min in front of their food). We try to make these really predictable, and we’ll use counting and timeouts if they’re not following them. Any consequence we’re imposing should happen as quickly as possible, because that lets you use much weaker consequences for the same amount of behavior change.
Some common threads:
I’m willing to invest large amounts of time in teaching and advice, but won’t do things for them unless I’m pretty sure they can’t do it themselves.
I’m happy to talk in detail about why we do things the way we do, and am open to being convinced in cases where they think the rules should be different.
I want them to be practicing making decisions and living with the consequences, but not beyond what’s currently safe for them or beyond what they can productively learn from. When I think they’re making a bad decision I’ll try to bring up information I think they’re overlooking, but I’ll only very rarely take the choice away from them.
I let them solve their own problems, and let them practice figuring out when to bring in help.
I have three main motivations here. The first is teaching: eventually they’ll need to make good decisions on their own, and the sooner they start the more practice they’ll be able to get. The second is a kind of long-term laziness: once they can do things for themselves it’s less work for me. And the third is respect: they’re people and as much as possible they should get to choose how their lives go.