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There are some basic tools we use to build independence, but the independence issues differ greatly at each developmental stage. While we can’t address all ages and issues, use these guidelines and suggestions to get ideas for applying the tools to your child’s individual needs or issues.

Openly Model Behavior ✰✰✰✰

 When we model behavior, we simply “practice what we preach” through observable behavior. Openly modeling behavior is particularly useful for internal (logical or emotional) processes that are difficult for children to directly observe. When we openly model behavior, we make these internal processes some-thing the child can hear and see, usually by talking our way through the steps we normally take in our mind. This way, children can learn the steps to take in their own minds when responding to similar situations.

For example, if children often respond to frustrating situations in aggressive ways, we can talk aloud to ourselves when we are frustrated, knowing a “sponge” is soaking up what we say. When another driver cuts us off in traffic and we say nothing, children assume that nothing happened. What actually happened was a very quick, but internal process of experiencing a rush of frustration and aggravation, talking ourselves through our feelings, and deciding not to say or do anything about it. This inside process is what we want to say aloud, not to our children, but to ourselves in front of them, for their benefit. We might say out loud, “Geez! I can’t believe that guy just cut in front of me! That was dangerous! I feel like honking my horn or calling him a name. But that won’t help me or him. I just need to take a deep breath and calm down. Maybe he’s in a rush to get somewhere and isn’t thinking about what he’s doing.” By revealing our internal thoughts, our children have a model to follow the next time they need to talk themselves through a frustrating situation.

Teach Skills ✰✰✰✰

If we do too much for children, they miss opportunities to learn how to do these things for themselves. If we teach them skills instead, they learn independence. It’s like the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for life.”

In the past, children had many opportunities to learn independence and responsibility. Parents and children worked side-by-side, feeding animals and planting crops. Today, children still need to work with their parents, receiving on-the-job training while contributing to the family.

The ideal time to teach skills is when children are young, but it’s never too late. We can teach older children “new tricks,” but it’s harder to break bad habits than to prevent them. We need to be patient and to understand our children’s surprise at their new duties or our sudden unwillingness to do things for them.

When teaching children values, tasks, or behavior, there are ten tips we can follow. We don’t have to use all ten suggestions every time or use them in the order they are listed below. When teaching difficult skills or children are hesitant, we can use more tools. If we take the extra time to work together and teach skills, both parents and children can benefit.

  1.   Plan Ahead. Make a mental note that your child needs to work on a particular skill. Set aside a time when you won’t feel rushed and can spend time teaching your child. Other times you will “teach on the fly,” looking for teachable moments as they arise. 


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  2.   Explain the value the skill has for the child, the family, others, or society.  What is the benefit of learning this skill? Acknowledge that your children might not share your values, such as tidiness.
  3.   Break the task into smaller steps. Do the task one step at a time or concentrate on the different skills you use to do the task. Offer suggestions for safety, quality, and convenience as you explain each step.
  4.   Let children watch. If this is the first time you are teaching your children a skill, show them how to perform the skill, explaining slowly as you do it.
  5.   Let children try. Let children practice the skill while you watch for safety and quality assurance. Don’t hover, pressuring children. Instead, sit back and watch with patience and encouragement. Or you can work on a related task, keeping an eye on them and offering helpful hints as you go along. Your children’s efforts will probably be imperfect. Instead of pointing out inadequacies or rescuing children when they are discouraged, remind them that it takes practice and time to improve.
  6.   Let children do things their way. The result does not have to be perfect; it just needs to meet your bottom line. Children might find a way that’s better for them. Don’t insist on perfection or expect it to look the way it looks when you do it. Just let them try their best and get practice. Avoid the urge to step in, out of impatience, and do it for them or “show them the right way.” Coach and teach instead. In fact, if your children devise a unique way of doing a task, ask them to teach you! This is a real confidence booster and helps them learn teaching skills.

A Personal Story. After teaching Amber, who was 7, how to clean the bathrooms, she took pride in doing the task alone. She would shut the bathroom door and instruct everyone to stay out. Once, she accidentally splashed water all over her shirt, which then stuck to her body. She asked me to help her take it off. When it got stuck on her head, we both laughed. She decided to keep her new “hat” on while finishing the job. It really didn’t matter that she was half naked while in the bathroom alone. What mattered was that she kept working. The next time she cleaned, she pulled her shirt onto her head and made her “cleaning hat,” which was part of her cleaning “routine” for several months. Whenever I saw her in her “cleaning hat” and carrying a bottle of bathroom cleaner I knew she was busy working.

  7.   Offer choices. Encourage your children to take ownership of the task. They will be more willing to do something if they feel they are doing it, rather than following someone’s specific directions.
  8.   Work together. As children learn skills, work together as a team. Do one part while your children do another part. Let them bring their work to where you are, if they can. (For example, they can get dressed where you are or make their lunch while you fix breakfast.) This provides more opportunities for descriptive encouragement and offering helpful tips.

Be careful if you have older children teaching younger children as apprentices. Older children are often easily frustrated with younger siblings, have unrealistic expectations, or give younger children an unfair share of the work. If you work with your children it provides many rich memories and opportunities to learn more about their thoughts, motivations, and interests. It also provides more chances to give positive attention and have quality one-on-one time. Only allow older children to teach younger siblings if they will be respectful, encouraging, and patient.


You may be trying to develop behaviors or establish habits, such as better anger control or healthier eating habits. Share your desire to work on these things and the value the new skill will have for you or others. Invite your children to join you in your efforts. “I’m going to work on this . . . do you want to join me so we can support each other?” Don’t tell them to join you, simply invite them and let them choose. If your children choose to join you, make these times together a rewarding experience. Share your frustrations, triumphs, and challenges with each other. Most of all, support and encourage each other.


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  9.   Make it fun. Play music, dance, sing a song, or make a game of it. Do not, however, race or compete, since these pressure children and there is always a loser. (See the section on competition, pages 101–103 in Chapter 4, “Self-Esteem Toolset.”) No one has to win, be the fastest, or do the “best” job. If you can use your children’s interests (e.g., music, sports) to teach the skill, your children will be more interested in learning.
      Another variation is to make the task more child-friendly. When you are doing something dangerous or requiring a high level of skill, find ways children can imitate you in an age-appropriate, safe way. For example, when you are painting, give them a paintbrush and let them paint with water on the sidewalk or with paint on another section of a wall. Give your children toy tools or safe adult ones and let them practice on sample projects. If buying toys is not an option, use your creativity to find other safe ways for your children to help.
  10.   Offer encouragement at every step. Describe your children’s efforts and progress. Avoid words like good or perfect. (Remember what we learned in Chapter 4, “Self-Esteem Toolset”?)
We can apply the “teaching skills” tool to physical tasks, appropriate behavior, or values, since these are all learned skills. Let’s look at one common example of each:



Organizing Belongings

      Plan Ahead. Figure out why children are disorganized. Are they overwhelmed by too many toys? Do they lack convenient places to put things? Are they easily distracted? Is cleaning at the bottom of their priority list? Is organization simply not part of their personality? Once we identify the cause, we can adjust our approach. Plan a special time to declutter, make shelves with boxes, or think about ways your children can build self-reminders into their plans.
      Explain the value of the skill. Acknowledge the difficulty of being organized and that it doesn’t come naturally to most people. Show understanding for their lack of interest. Point out the benefits of being more organized—we find things quicker, the floor is safe to walk on, and toys won’t get broken. If they pick up toys regularly, it doesn’t take as much time to organize and clean, which leaves more time to play.
      Break the task into smaller steps. Make the job easier by classifying objects and discussing options for organizing their belongings. Avoid vague commands like, “Clean up this mess,” which is overwhelming. The child looks at the mess and wonders, “Where do I start?” Instead, focus on one area at a time, “You could start by putting the books in the bookshelf.” This statement gives some direction to get children started. Don’t teach all the steps in one session. This gives children a chance to remember what they have learned before learning something new.
      Let children watch. The first time you sort the toys, do it with them and explain as you go along. For example, say “book” (as you slide the book toward the bookshelf), “pencil” (as you toss it near the desk). Do a couple items from each category and invite them to help.
      Let children try. Help children decide where to put miscellaneous items. If they get distracted and start to play with a toy, ask “Where does that go?” This helps them refocus.
      Let children do it their way. It doesn’t really matter how a child cleans, as long as it is safe, fairly quick, and effective. They can roller skate to the different locations, use a robot-hand toy to lift items, or put a basketball hoop over their clothes hampers to make that task more fun.
      Offer choices. “Do you want to pick up the toys or dirty clothes first?” “You can to start at one end of the room and put away each thing you find or make piles before you put them away. You decide.”
      Work together, gradually doing less each time. Offer to do one group of items while your children choose another. Eventually, you can work on another chore at the same time. It is
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    always preferable to do some kind of work, instead of relaxing with a book, because children feel alone and resentful. Working at the same time, even if not together, promotes teamwork.
      Make it fun and child-friendly. In addition to singing and making games out of a job, look at the room from your children’s perspective. Can they easily reach everything? The more accessible you make their rooms, the less you will have to help in the future.
      Offer encouragement at every step. When your children are busy working or when you check on them, describe the progress they’ve made and how hard they’re working. When children get distracted, keep your comments to one-word reminders or a few words. (See Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset,” for specific suggestions.)


  • Organize toy storage and play areas at least twice a year. Involve children in identifying broken and outgrown toys.
  • Plan a garage sale. Let children keep any money they make from selling their toys. This motivates them to let go of a toy. Remind them that they can buy new toys with the money they earn.
  • Clean out toys before gift-giving holidays. Remind children that they need more room to store their new gifts. Suggest they give their old toys to needy children.

If children don’t want to give up their toys:

  • Have children select certain toys to box and rotate boxes every one to three months.
  • Instead of rotating entire boxes of toys, some parents have a one-in-one-out rule. For every toy children want to take out, they need to trade one in.
  • If children never play with a toy, they may not be as upset about getting rid of it. If they do play with it, let them keep it and get agreements for putting it away. (If this doesn’t work, there are other options, in later chapters, for getting children to clean after themselves.)

If children are attached to their toys, never sneak and throw it out. If children don’t want to give an outgrown toy to a younger sibling or neighbor, make the donation a ceremonial event.

  • Reminisce about the fond memories children have about their toys and how sad it is that they’ve outgrown them.
  • Explain how much another child would appreciate the toy.
  • Offer the choice of giving the toy directly to another child or offer to pass it on for them. Sometimes, putting a toy up for a short time can help make a transition of ownership easier for the child who’s giving.



Assertive Respectful Communication

    Plan Ahead. We notice children need to work on this behavior when they respond to people in passive or disrespectful ways. We usually teach this skill “on the fly,” as situations arise, leaning down to whisper our comments and suggestions, so we don’t embarrass children in front of others.
    Explain the value of the skill. Disrespectful or rude behavior causes problems in relationships and leads to arguments and hurt feelings. If children are shy or afraid to speak for themselves, others may take advantage of them or not realize what they want or need. Assertive communication, as we learn in Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset,” is speaking out for one’s rights, without violating another’s. It resolves problems in healthy, helpful ways that improve relationships.


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    Break the task into smaller steps. There are several steps to assertive communication. For children, we can help them work on several areas: realizing what they want, having the courage to speak out, and wording requests, opinions, or concerns in respectful, clear ways. Teach children the language of assertiveness. We learn this in more depth in the Clear Communication Toolset.
    Let children watch. When you complain about poor service or respond to a rude comment, practice respectful, assertive communication. Afterward, share with children how difficult it was to control your anger, think before speaking, and how you talk yourself through the experience (self-talk to control your anger and speak respectfully). We simply share our experience as we would if we were talking to ourselves or a friend who happened to be with us.
    Let children try. Provide opportunities for children to practice speaking out and making requests in non-threatening situations. Give older children or teens a chance to change their rude or disrespectful comments, instead of reacting to them in equally aggressive or disrespectful ways. Let them know they are certainly allowed to have negative feelings and opinions, but you (and others) are more willing to listen to them if they express those ideas respectfully.
    Let children do it their way. Children don’t have to word things exactly as we do, although they tend to mimic what they hear. As long as children are speaking out for their needs or opinions without offending others, they can develop their own personal style of communication.
    Offer choices. When we brainstorm ideas for responding to conflicts, discuss the options and possible effects of each. You will learn more about this problem-solving process in Chapter 8.
    Work together. As children become more skilled at assertive communication, stand further in the background, giving them space. If children are hesitant to speak to others, offer to go with them, but they must speak for themselves. Assure them that if the cashier asks them a question they aren’t expecting, you will coach them, but will not speak for them.
    Make it fun and child-friendly. Role-play possible scenarios. With young children, play store and practice being polite and responding to small-talk. Play restaurant; when children are the waiters, share a concern about your food in a respectful way and then reverse roles. Play with character figures; when they get into conflicts, model and encourage children to practice respectful responses and alternatives to fighting, which is usually how children make their characters resolve problems.
    Offer encouragement at every step. When children try their new skills, others sometimes respond unhelpfully or unpredictably. At this point, many children (and adults) throw their skills out the window and revert to power and control tactics, like grabbing a toy or shoving a child in anger. Give them credit for their effort and describe any improvement you see. Do some brief problem solving (see Chapter 8 ) to plan possible responses they can use if this happens again. Carefully consider whether you should discipline the aggressive action, if they gave their assertive communication skills a fair try and are still in the process of learning (a PU problem). You will probably be more effective if you use the experience to teach skills, rather than simply punishing them for trying and failing.

A Personal Story. When my children were young, both were hesitant to talk to adults. I remember one summer my son offered another child money, if she would buy candy for him at the pool’s refreshment stand. I immediately nixed that idea! We rehearsed his request, but he still refused to speak, even when I stood by him! It was embarrassing and frustrating, as the line of hungry children grew longer. Since the pool was a small, safe place and I could watch him from afar, I finally told him that if he wanted candy at the pool, he would need to buy it himself. I didn’t rescue him or allow his friends to bail him out. Finally, he did it. Each time after that, he seriously considered how much he wanted something. Over time, he became more skilled and confident about speaking up for himself. By his early teens he was regularly handling tasks like placing orders, calling stores for inquiries, and making purchases on his own.


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(For general information about teaching values see Chapter 10, “Clear Communication Toolset.”)

Appreciating  Diversity

    Plan Ahead. There are countless opportunities everyday to teach children an appreciation for diversity. We see people in our community, on television, or in public who are “different”— people with physical or mental challenges and from different races, cultures, and religions. Children naturally ask questions, but sometimes at awkward times or in loud embarrassing ways, like “Why is that kid in a chair with wheels?” Tell children they can ask you any question or make any comment, but they need to whisper it in your ear or wait until you are alone. Let them know you understand their curiosity and explain that some comments hurt other people’s feelings.
    Explain the value of the skill. It is natural for people to compare others to themselves; we see ourselves as the norm and anyone different seems “abnormal,” until we understand, respect, and appreciate these differences. Intolerance for people’s differences is the root of many world conflicts. In our own lives, we can benefit from learning how to get along with others who are different. We acknowledge the differences, instead of denying they are there. If we get to know people as individuals, appreciating their unique talents, skills, or qualities, we avoid prejudging people and break common stereotypes.
    Break the task into smaller steps. The different steps in appreciating diversity are understanding the causes of the differences, knowing how to accept differences and use them to enhance relationships, and tactful ways to treat others who are different—with the same dignity and respect we need to give everyone.
    Let children watch. Openly model respect for diversity. If you are surprised, offended, or uncomfortable with someone because of their differences, model respectful behavior toward them. If children ask questions, discuss your feelings. Reveal to them your first impressions and thoughts, which might be negative, how you came to understand more about the person or their differences, and how (or why) you responded respectfully. Thoughts are not observable, unless we share them. Sharing our thoughts helps children know how to respond when they have similar thoughts.
    Let children try. Fine-tune children’s skills as situations arise. For example, if children see another child in a wheelchair and whisper to you, “Why is that kid in a wheelchair?” offer a factual explanation, not a label. Say, “His legs probably don’t work well and it’s hard for him to walk.” Don’t say, “He’s handicapped”—physical and mental disabilities are challenges, negative attitudes make them handicaps. Encourage children to smile at the child in a friendly way and say “Hello,” if that is how they would respond to any other child. Encourage children to go beyond distant politeness, befriending other children, regardless of their differences. They should not, however, go out of their way to baby a child with a mental or physical challenge, which is demeaning and implies the child is incapable.
    Let children do it their way. As children establish friends of different religions, races, backgrounds, and physical abilities, they will find ways to compensate for any difficulties those differences raise and build a closer relationship. Encourage their efforts and describe how valuable the other child’s relationship is to your children.
    Offer choices. When differences pose difficulties (they want to play a computer game with a partially blind child, play on a playground with a physically challenged child, or can’t understand someone who speaks with an accent), explore options for working or playing together. Allow partially blind children to put their nose on the screen, adjust playground equipment to make it more accessible or encourage children to ask the challenged child’s parent for suggestions. Teach children how to ask others for clarification tactfully and respectfully.


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    Work together. Look for or create opportunities to learn and practice acceptance skills. Volunteer together at a mental or physical rehabilitation clinic, attend services of another religion, and visit playgrounds where there are children of diverse backgrounds.
Diversity in life is the norm. It would be abnormal if everyone were the same.
    Make it child-friendly. There are more creative and effective ways to teach values than lecturing: read or tell stories that illustrate the value and ask your child thought-provoking questions. “How did (character’s name) feel when . . .? Why did (character’s name) do . . .?” Role-play situations, “What would you do if someone . . .?” Play games that develop values such as honesty, good sportsmanship, teamwork, and respect for other people’s feelings. With diversity, describe differences to young children in simple, factual, accepting ways. 
    Offer encouragement at every step. When children make efforts to be respectful, accepting, and helpful to others (whether or not they are “different”), describe how good that can make the other person feel. If they don’t talk down to a physically/mentally challenged person or treat them differently, point out how much that person probably appreciates their friendliness. When they control their stares and nonverbal reactions, notice their efforts and the positive effect. Encourage mostly during the early years or stages of the learning process, to reinforce children’s efforts. Once these attitudes and behaviors are their natural way of perceiving others, don’t point out others’ differences or children’s reactions, since that would only draw more attention to the differences.

A Personal Story. When Amber was 4, she asked why her friend’s skin tanned so darkly and hers stayed so light (she’s a redhead). I explained that everyone’s skin has a different amount of pigment, a chemical that makes skin lighter or darker. I gave her several examples. Referring to our neighbor who has albinism, I explained, “Byron has no pigment, so his skin and hair are very white. You have more pigment, but not much. Emmy has olive-colored skin, so she has more pigment than you, and Barry (an African-American child in her class) has even more pigment.” Amber wondered why people aren’t all the same. I offered both a scientific and spiritual explanation. (Sunnier climates develop more pigment, so our ancestry determines our skin color, and God created us each to be special and unique.) I explained that even though people might look or act different, we are all very similar on the inside—we are all children of God and are deserving of love and respect. We all have feelings that can be hurt, want to feel accepted by others, and want to have friends.

Byron, our neighbor, has severe vision problems, so Amber has learned how to modify their play to fit their mutual needs. She points out hazards he might not see. She knows he needs to hold objects closer to his eyes to see them and gives him the extra time he needs to adjust to new situations. He shares his braille books with her and has her close her eyes to test how “sharp her fingers are.” Amber doesn’t over-protect him; she respects and understands he needs to do things in a way that is best for him.