Give  a  Quick  Tip

Offering a quick tip or giving children information is a simple tool for building independence. Present suggestions in a tentative way. Don’t tell them what to do, simply offer a suggestion they can take or leave. Children can often figure out the information if we ask it as a question. For example:

     “If you don’t rinse the sink after you spit out your toothpaste, what happens?” (Wait.) “Yeah, the toothpaste dries on the sink and looks yucky.”
     “Do you know how to save your computer game? If you save your game now and then, you don’t have to go back to the beginning each time.”

Instead of telling children what to do, it is often more helpful to give them information they can use later. This should be information they do not already know. Here are a few examples:


“When milk is left out too long, it spoils.”


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    “When food is left out, the dog (or ants/bugs) will get into it.”
    “If you put on your socks first, they’ll stay pulled up when you put on your pants.”   

If you’ve found one way of doing things to work well for you, offer your personal style as one possible way to do things. Again, don’t insist that the child has to do it your way, simply point out that it works for you and the child can try the idea. Here are a few examples:

    “Sometimes I _____. You can do it however you want, but that’s what works best for me.”
    “Would you like to know a secret?” If they say yes, say, “I usually do _____.” If they say no, let them discover their own best way to do something. 
    “Sometimes it helps me if I do.” 


Let  Children  Be  Responsible  for  Their  Own  Mistakes ✰✰✰✰

Many parents try to help their children avoid mistakes by offering advice or rescue them by stepping in. While we might succeed in protecting our children from pain or mistakes, we might also rob them of self-confidence, a positive attitude toward mistakes, and an opportunity to learn important life skills.

Think about experiences when you learned a valuable lesson. Chances are, you learned the lesson firsthand or directly saw the effects of someone’s mistakes. These firsthand experiences always teach lessons that last longer and have a greater impact than secondhand advice. Whenever a potential mistake is not dangerous, we want to guide children, without taking over or rescuing them.

A Personal Story. I am a coach for a worldwide program that teaches children creative problem solving. A team of up to seven children works together to solve problems: one long-term and many on-the-spot problems. The coach’s most important task is to guide the team by asking questions and teaching them skills—we are not allowed to offer any ideas, advice, or help. The children must do everything: decide the plot, write the script, and make the props. If any team receives outside assistance, the judges will disqualify the team. I use all the tools from The Parent’s Toolshop, but not interfering is the most difficult. If the team wants to try an idea that probably won’t work, I can only ask questions to help them realize on their own whether the idea is worth pursuing. Ultimately, the choice is theirs. “Failure” is an important part of the learning process. It helps the children devise a better solution. This process is more time consuming and frustrating than telling them the answer, but the process of allowing children to learn lessons on their own is what’s important. Being a coach for this program also helps me as a parent. When I’m tempted to rescue my children, I am better able to guide them without taking over, too.

Many people (both adults and children) don’t like to be told what to do, they would rather experience it themselves. When I work with groups of teens, they often complain “I wish my parents would let me make my own mistakes. I’m capable of learning from them.” If children make a poor decision that is not life-threatening, let them experience the effects. Later, ask them questions that will help them figure out for themselves what to do differently next time. Ask helpful questions, such as “What happened?”, “What did you learn from that?”, “What did you do that worked?”, and “What could you do differently next time?” Use encouragement to point out when they used good judgment or made a responsible decision, no matter how small. We can also help children learn from other people’s mistakes. Discuss news events and ask them questions. “Why do you think this happened? How could it have been avoided? What would you do?”

A Personal Story. When I was young, I had red curly hair, which was out of style back then. Other children sometimes made fun of my hair and I always wished I had straighter hair (I even tried ironing it). Once, when I was in elementary school, I had saved up enough money to buy roller skates. My mom took me to the mall and we passed the wig department on the way in. I asked if I could try on one wig, just to see what I would look like. I found a strawberry-blonde, straight-haired wig that was less than the price of the skates. I asked my mother if I could buy the wig with my money. She acknowledged my feelings about wanting to have different hair and pointed out the disadvantages of having a wig and no skates. She did not, however, forbid me from buying it. She suggested we look at skates before I made my decision.


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After looking at the skates, I still wanted to buy the wig. My mom was very hesitant to say “yes.” We went back to the wig department so I could try the wig on one more time. As I did, my mom talked to the clerk. She was probably making sure I could return the wig if I changed my mind.

I bought the wig and took it home, excited to wear it for the first time. I left immediately, to show my friends down the street. When I was still two houses away, they realized I was wearing a wig and began to laugh and make fun of me. I turned around and went home. My mom asked me helpful questions about the decision I had made. She provided the option of exchanging the wig for the skates, which is what I did. 

My mom could have forbidden me to buy the wig, but I’m glad she didn’t. I had always wondered what I would look like with different hair. I was excited about making an independent decision about spending my money. Had she forbidden me to buy the wig, I probably would have gotten into a power struggle with her. Did I make a poor decision? Yes. Was I embarrassed and disappointed? Yes, but only slightly. Mostly, I learned to appreciate the hair God gave me. I learned a lot from making a decision and experiencing the effect, even though it was negative.


Let  Children  Do  Things  by  Themselves ✰✰✰✰

Parents today are busy and usually in a hurry. It seems easier and faster to do things for children, rather than wait for them to do things. If we do it, we know it is done the right way (our way). This might be a reflection of our need for control or perfection. While it may be quicker now, in the long run it takes longer to do two people’s jobs. Our goal is to teach children life skills and how to use them wisely. We can be supportive and encouraging, giving children chances to practice and improve their skills.

If children take a long time to do tasks on their own, plan ahead by allowing more time. Make things accessible and child-friendly. With young children, for example, put bite-sized chunks of veggies and fruit on a lower refrigerator shelf. Let them make their own snacks, however imperfect. Whatever the age, remember that practice makes better, not perfect.

It’s difficult, as children grow older, to realize they don’t need us as much. We have mixed feelings about giving up the tasks we gladly do for our children out of love. Acts such as feeding and dressing our children aren’t usually difficult to give up. It’s much harder, however, to let children solve their own problems, learn from their mistakes and have different opinions. It’s hard to see them struggle and make mistakes, when we know we could protect them from pain or disappointment. So we give our advice, sure that we have the answer.

Adults (and older children and siblings) often wait until children are older to teach or involve them in more difficult tasks. Unfortunately, when children are older, they often don’t want to help. We’ve

Instead of doing tasks for children . . .                    . . . make tasks easier for children to do themselves.


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missed our chance to teach skills to a younger but more motivated and interested child. Usually, there are small ways young children can help with more difficult tasks.

Sometimes, parents don’t realize their efforts to help children actually encourage their dependency or rescue them from responsibilities. Continual reminders to get up, remember coats and books, and eat their food are all ways we take on children’s responsibilities. When we protect children from the effects of their mistakes, we prevent them from learning on their own. When we offer advice or tell them how to solve problems, we rob them of important opportunities to learn problem-solving skills. These are just a few ways we keep children dependent, so we can feel indispensable and protect them from disappointment. Dependency creates negative feelings and unhealthy beliefs, such as the following:

Common Statements
Resulting Feelings/Thoughts
Alternative Statement
“Let me do it for you”
No control. “My ideas are no good.”
“How do you think you could do this?”
“You Don’t want to . . .”
Confusion. “I don’t know what’s best for me. Others need to tell me what I want.”
“Would you like to . . . ?”
“Don’t play with those friends (pick those clothes, etc.).”
Uncertain. “They don’t trust my judgment, so I shouldn’t.”
“How do you feel when . . . ?” “What do you think?”
“It’s time to do_______.”
“I don’t have to be responsible for remembering. They’ll remind me.”
“When do you plan to do_______?”


 Notice the Difficulty1

When we tell children something is “easy” to do, it can discourage them. If they succeed, they feel they haven’t accomplished much, because the task was easy. If they can’t do it, they feel like a failure for not being able to do something simple. If, on the other hand, we say, “That can be difficult,” children feel good about accomplishing something difficult. If they can’t do it, they at least know that the task was tough, not that they’re inadequate. If we feel phony saying “that can be hard,” look at the task from an inexperienced child’s point of view. The first few times we do anything new, it usually is hard. Also, avoid saying, “That must be hard for you.” Children might think, “It’s only hard for me.

There are times when it is okay to do something for children that they can do for themselves. We need to use discretion to decide when our children are tired or in need of extra attention. Just try to maintain a balance. Nudge, but don’t push. Guide, but don’t rescue. Coach, but don’t control.


 Ask  Their  Opinions ✰✰✰✰

Involve children in solving problems by asking questions like “What do you think we could do?” Allow them to make decisions about things that directly affect them, such as selecting their own library books or deciding how to spend their allowances.

When people speak about your children like they aren’t there, show respect for your children by involving them in the conversation. If the cashier asks, “What grade is he in?” let your child answer the question. Encourage children to describe their symptoms to the doctor, explain to the dentist how they brush their teeth, order their own food in restaurants, or buy their own candy.

As children mature, they naturally develop individual opinions. These opinions are obviously less experienced views than adults have, but no less valid or important. Our job as parents is not to create carbon copies of ourselves, with identical beliefs and preferences. It is much healthier to encourage


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and respect our children’s opinions and preferences, even if we don’t agree with them. If we don’t force our values and opinions on children, but simply share our opinions, children are more likely to consider them. Don’t assume that the opinion or value children or teens have today is what they will always believe. Trust the growth and maturation process. Get to know your children as unique human beings, with individual opinions. We can learn much from their perceptions and grow more ourselves.


Wait  Before  Answering  Questions

Children are famous for asking questions: “When will the pool be open?” “Why do I have to study? I got all my work done at school.” We often think we need to immediately respond with an answer.

A Graduate’s Story. My friend, Diane, was watching TV with her two girls, 9 and 7. They saw a commercial about a feminine pad with “wings.” The nine-year-old asked, “What’s that about?” Diane had been waiting for a “teachable moment” to have this talk and explained the menstrual cycle to her daughters. When she finished, the daughter said, “So do the pads really fly?”

Usually, when children ask a question, they’ve already thought about the answer. Find out what your children are thinking, first. “Why is the pool still closed during the winter?” “Why do you think your teacher asks you to study at home?” When we take the time to listen to children’s ideas, they often reveal the real reason they asked the question.

A Graduate’s Story. My son came home from school one day and asked, as he had before, “Why is Daddy only home on the weekends?” I was tempted to give him the answers I always gave, “Daddy has to travel all week for his job” and “So we have enough money to live in this house and so I can stay home with you.” This time, I used my new skills and asked him, “Why do you think Daddy is gone all week?” He said, “Well, Joey’s parents are divorced and he only sees his dad on weekends. Are you and Daddy getting a divorce?” I was floored! I never would have guessed that my son had doubts about our marriage! I quickly reassured him that all was fine and that Daddy wished he could be home more, to spend more time with all of us. I was so grateful I learned this skill. Otherwise, my son could have gone on misinterpreting our family situation for something it wasn’t.

Usually, the process of finding an answer to a child’s question is as valuable as the answer itself. Don’t feel you or your children need an immediate answer. If you do answer your children’s question, be brief, use words your children understand, and answer only what they asked.

A Graduate’s Story. When I was pregnant with my second child, my son Denny, who was four at the time, was very curious about the reproductive process. I answered his questions honestly and factually. He’d think about the answers, sometimes for days, and then ask another question, often out of the blue. We’d gotten to the part about the male’s sperm fertilizing the female’s egg. (I hoped I wouldn’t have to explain any further!) One day, as we were driving in the car, he asked, “How does the sperm get from the man to the woman?” I explained in general terms and he thought about the answer. “So did Daddy . . .?” Now, I was getting nervous and uncomfortable. I matter-of-factly said, “Yes,” and added my values of sex within the context of love and marriage. He excitedly asked, “Can I watch the next time you do it?” . . . I tried to not laugh or react in shock and quickly, calmly said, “No, it’s a very private moment between husband and wife.” That was it! He knew all the facts and never asked any other questions.


Show  Children  How  to  Use  Outside  Resources

We can develop our children’s independence by showing children the other resources available to them. You can get a book on insects to find out what kind of bug your child found. Encourage your daughter to have a beauty make-over, to learn appropriate ways to apply makeup. Have a teacher recommend a tutor to help with problem subjects. If children are concerned about being overweight, buy books or encourage them to attend a special class to learn how to lose weight in healthy ways. Aside from children learning to be resourceful and relieving parents from being know-it-alls, advice from outside sources usually carries more weight than lectures from Mom or Dad.


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Respect  Their  Privacy

  Privacy is a two-way street; parents expect privacy and need to extend the same courtesy to their children. Older children, especially teens, have a strong need for privacy. Teens live in two rather unrelated worlds—the world of friends and the world of home. They try to maintain boundaries between these worlds by not talking about parents to their peers and not talking about peers to their parents. Teens often view their parents’ questions about their friends as an intrusion into their private world and may lie to maintain their privacy. (See Chapter 12, “PO Toolset,” for more information on lying.)
  Set priorities about what qualifies as a “need to know” issue and what children can keep private. Make these “need to know” issues clear to children, along with the reasons for this need. We can reassure them that they still have areas of privacy they do not have to share. For instance, their telephone conversations and letters are their private concerns as long as there has been no sign that the child has been harassing people. A “need to know” list might include2:
  • Friends’ behavior
  • Whereabouts in free time
  • Snacking behavior
  • TV, Internet, computer, and electronic game usage
  • Behavior at school
  • Homework accomplished

For older children, we might add:

  • Sexual behavior of/with peers
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • People/behavior at parties
  • Transportation arrangements
  • Behavior driving/riding in cars
    Let children take charge of their own bodies, such as their hair styles or clothes. Young children frequently choose clothes that don’t match or style their hair in imperfect ways. We can offer our opinions, but let children make the final decision. For a special occasion, such as a wedding or picture day, get agreements in advance to let you style their hair or pick the outfit that day. Remind them that they can usually decide these for themselves. (If you still get flack, follow up with the suggestions from the Cooperation Toolset.) Avoid fussing with your child’s hair, shirt tails, or posture. It’s embarrassing and implies that they didn’t do a good enough job and you are following behind correcting them.
    Respect children’s physical and emotional space, and their property rights. This can prevent many sibling/peer conflicts. (The Sibling/Peer section of Chapter 8, “Problem-Solving Toolset,” details specific ways to mediate such disputes.)

Let  Them  Dream3

Children often have dreams or expectations that seem unrealistic to adults. When children share these dreams or hopes, don’t rush to pop their bubbles. Ask questions that help them explore the pleasure of the fantasy, and only if necessary, the truth of reality. If children say they want to be a sports superstar, ask, “What would you like the most about being a star?” Or “What would it take to do that?” Avoid discouraging comments, such as “Everyone wants to be a star, but only a few will make it. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” While this statement might be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean the goal is impossible. Most professional athletes had to work extra hard to achieve their dreams—and their dreams were what motivated them to stick with it.

A Personal Story. When Amber was 4, she would say “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.” When I asked her why, she said, “so I can help my friends when they’re sick. “When Amber needed a blood test for kindergarten, I explained what would happen and that it would hurt a little bit. I didn’t add that I used to pass out at the sight of blood. To my amazement, she watched the nurse take her blood and didn’t flinch or cry! I started to think “Maybe she would be a good doctor or nurse.”


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Several months later, my 17-year-old dog had to be put to sleep. We had already discussed death with the children when another pet died. Despite my squeamishness about such procedures, I decided to be present when Punk in was put to sleep. Amber asked if she could go with me. I was very hesitant. I explained the procedure in detail and what “putting to sleep” really meant, but Amber still wanted to go. At the vet’s, I offered her the option of leaving if she felt uncomfortable. She helped me hold and caress Punkin as she left us. I cried the whole way home, but Amber was much more matter-of-fact about the experience. She viewed it like a veterinarian.

Later that year, Amber said her desire to be a people doctor had changed into a desire to be a veterinarian. When our other dog had dozens of tumors removed, I could hardly stand to look at her stitches without getting squeamish. When Taffy chewed out one of the stitches on her paw, Amber helped my husband wrap it and he gave her a close inspection of the wound, explaining the different skin layers.

The next day, Amber wanted to come with me to the vet’s office. I was feeling light-headed just thinking about the sight of watching the vet put in new stitches. When we spoke to the vet, he explained the options, with all the skin-layer alternatives. I felt seriously faint. I told him to do what-ever was best for Taffy and that I’d wait in the lobby. Amber said, “Mom! Someone has to be here for Taffy! I want to stay and hold her.” I knew she would be well-behaved and helpful, and the vet said her presence was no problem. I reminded her that she could come to the lobby if she changed her mind. I sat down and hung my head between my knees, while my six-year-old watched with fascination as Taffy got her stitches. I felt like a such a wimp. Later, Amber performed pretend surgery on her stuffed animals, with rubber gloves, soapy water, and a pretend needle and thread.

I am now convinced Amber really would make a fine vet or doctor. She taught me a big lesson about allowing a child to dream and not underestimating a child’s abilities. Any dream is possible, if someone is willing to believe enough in the dream to do what it takes to make it happen.


Nudge,  but  Don’t  Push


Nudging  is a firm and gentle encouragement to take the next step.
Pushing is an unrealistic pressured expectation to reach the final goal all at once.

Some children are naturally more independent, always wanting to do things by themselves. Others are more dependent, frequently asking for help and hesitant to try new tasks. As parents, we need to respect our children’s temperaments and respond accordingly. When children are naturally daring, we can teach skills for taking safe risks and supervise them until they have mastered the skills. When children are hesitant and truly scared of new experiences, we can nudge and encourage them to take the next step. We can read their reactions and be ready to back off a bit or slowly ease them into a new situation.

At times, children want to do something very much, but aren’t emotionally or physically ready. They want to go swimming, but are still afraid of the water or want to ride a two-wheeler, but still aren’t coordinated enough to remove the training wheels. Instead of forcing, urging, or pressuring children, we can express our confidence in their growing abilities and reassure them that some day they will do these things. At these times, offer quick tips and lots of encouragement. Here are three behaviors parents often push their children too quickly to do and how they can nudge instead:

     Toilet training: “You wanted to play longer so you didn’t get to the potty on time. I’m sure you’ll stop sooner next time so your pants stay clean and dry.”
    Getting ready on time: “You had your lunch and backpack ready, but couldn’t find your shoes. Where could you put them so you can find them quickly next time?”
    Getting a job: “You’d really like to be able to buy       . Where could you earn the money?”


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Let  Go  and  Trust

Every stage of life presents separation issues. First children are weaned, then potty trained, they start school, begin to date, drive a car, move out, maybe get married, and before we know it we could be grandparents! Some stages of separation are easier for us to deal with. Each of these stages of separation, however, prepares both our children and us with the inner strength and confidence necessary for our children to become responsible, independent adults. As hard as it may be, we must work though our conflicting feelings, so we can do what is best for our children—to let go, lovingly and with support.

The key ingredient for building independence is to let go—let go of our need to control, desire to be needed, and temptation to rescue. Our children will always need us, but the ways they need us change over the years. Letting go does not mean parents cut the reins and allow total freedom. As you are letting go, teach them the skills they need to be responsible, independent adults. By replacing unhelpful habits with helpful responses, we maintain a healthy balance between freedom and limits.