How do guide our children in overcoming learned helplessness? How do we encourage independence in our kids?
I have a teacher confession: As a fifth and sixth grade teacher, long before I had kids, I would often do my students’ “classroom jobs” for them.
I know that sounds pretty pathetic.
If you are the parent of an elementary or middle school student, you may have heard of job boards. On a bulletin board, all sorts of jobs are listed — from Class Librarian (in charge of putting back classroom library books) to Paper Passer (in charge of passing back papers). There are enough jobs for each kid, and students rotate through them.
In theory, I supported the idea of these jobs: they would help teach kids about responsibility, build a sense of community in the classroom. However, I was also a bit of a control freak about my classroom, and ten year olds are not known for completing all tasks completely and neatly.
So I would just do it myself. If the classroom library got into disarray — if the titles were no longer sorted by genre and then in alphabetical order the way that I wanted — I would fix it. Most of the time when I wanted papers to be put back into folders properly, I would do it myself. I would even stack the chairs myself because I wanted it done a certain way.
I started noticing that other teachers did not do what I was doing: micromanaging the classroom.
My teaching partner, a man in his fifties, left his students in charge of all the errands and tasks in his classroom. The class made a big deal of learning all the jobs in the beginning of the year. Later in the year, sometimes his classroom library was a mess. Or the juice wouldn’t be returned to the kitchen after snack. But he didn’t do their chores for them. Instead, he tried to give consequences for neglecting responsibilities.
So the next year I gave up a little control. And the kids started to take their jobs seriously.
No parent wants to raise helpless kids.
Parents throughout every culture have the primary responsibility for teaching responsibility to their children. Even before I became a mother, I realized that a lot of parents were struggling with how to help their children advocate for themselves or face challenging situations.
During my teaching career, there was the parent who would call and demand a conference about my new seating chart that placed her daughter next to a child with mild autism. She wanted her daughter moved because her daughter found his rocking to be upsetting.
There was the parent who actually drew and gave me her own diagrams of where she wanted her child to sit in homeroom, as well as in every class during the day, from art to computer class.
There was the parent who hid in the bushes (taking notes) during recess because she wanted to keep track of who her son played with at recess.
There was the parent that I found after school going through my classroom waste basket because she was looking for notes that another student may have written about her son so that she could call and confront the other parent.
Nearly every day there were parents who called to give me reasons why their child couldn’t complete their homework and shouldn’t be penalized (up too late at a sports game, visiting relatives, extra homework in another class).
I would never place the blame entirely on parents themselves, especially now that I’m a parent myself and understand the sorts of cultural pressures we face.
For example, schools and other parents make it difficult to allow kids to have the sorts of responsibilities that children do in other cultures.
At my old school in Cambridge, in a lovely, safe and low-traffic neighborhood, even kids in fifth grade had to be walked home by an adult, even if they lived on the same street.
The first time I was told this, during my first days of teaching there, I laughed. Could that possibly be right? Ten or eleven year olds can’t ride home on their bikes when they live a few minutes away? Quite a difference from my own childhood when, even as a first grader, I walked home about a half mile by myself, and no one thought it was remotely strange.
When my son was a toddler, I would find myself in the same bind that I did as a beginning teacher setting up chores for my classroom. For instance, I knew that even as a toddler, my two year old could start helping out a little bit, carrying his own little backpack or putting away a few of his toys.
But it’s just so much easier to do it yourself. So I would feed him his dinner instead of letting him feed himself. I would carry him too often because it takes too long for him to walk down the street himself, as he stopped at every pinecone and every bush and tree. I brushed his teeth, instead of letting him do it, because it’s faster and easier and I was exhausted from feeling like I was doing everything.
Overcoming Learned Helplessness
1. Do not make chores optional.
You are not doing your kids any favors by keeping them from work. Children are naturally and universally eager to help out when they are very young. But this changes as they get older. As Christine Gross-Loh says in her book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us,
“But when we ignore our children’s eagerness to participate when they are younger, they internalize the idea that contributing is unimportant and that they are helpless. They also begin to expect that things will be done for them.”
2. Give your child clear expectations about how they can help out the family.
Teach your kids clearly that they will be expected to take care of their own things. Kids will need a lot of reminders, patience, and guidance when they are little.
3. Be age-appropriate in your expectations, and allow older kids to take care of younger ones.
Other cultures understand that shared caregiving is an important way of teaching self-reliance and nurturing.
In other cultures, from Europe to Central America, they expect more from their children physically, Gross-Loh points out, but do not overestimate what they are capable of intellectually. (Apparently — gulp! — in other cultures, kids don’t experience the dreaded “Terrible Twos,” which we know all too well in my household.) They are treated with kindness and patience, with the understanding that they will understand rules and mature as they get older.
Meet your kid at his own developmental level and make sure to realize that not all kids are the same and have their own unique abilities and challenges.
4. Let your kid get around by herself as much as possible.
Not only is fresh air, activity, and exercise good for children, but children learn confidence when they are allowed to go from place to place on their own. Honestly, some of the most magical moments of my elementary school years were those 15 to 20 minutes when I walked home with my little brother. We could choose to cut through the woods, running home through the trees. We could choose to take the road. We could chase each other and play tag all the way home. Most of the walk home was up a steep mountain, and we could run up the mountain without even needing to catch our breaths.
Across the world, children walking home from school is a normal sight to see on a weekday afternoon. In Japan, for example, very young children are taught in school about how to be safe during their walks to school. In all cultures, it is expected that kids need practice and guidance to help them be more independent.
5. Offer empathy.
Let your child know that new tasks and responsibilities are hard, and show that you understand how they might be feeling. Explain why this new independence is important. Something as simple as, “I know it feels frustrating when you worked hard on your homework but forgot it at home. I can’t always be there to help you out in situations like that, and I know that feels hard.”
What are ways that you teach your children to be responsible, helpful, and independent? How do we as parents participate in a culture of overcoming learned helplessness?
Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha says
I am sooooo with you about doing the jobs yourself, fellow control freak! This is why I never have a student aide at school…. I want things done exactly and perfectly MY WAY! 🙂
I agree with you about giving our kids more responsibility. Like walking to school – we live close enough that my daughter could, but I worry about her doing it, and no one else does….
After reading this chapter, I am planning on being more deliberate about giving kids chores and responsibilities around the home, rather than just requesting help at random times.
I really enjoyed reading these last few chapters!
This chapter really inspired me too, maybe more so than any other section of the book. It really has made me think about how my son’s character forms so early, and my decisions as a parent — how to teach him about responsibility, manners, kindness — are so important!
mary kathryn says
It’s a long-range process, especially with our own kids. My s-i-l had her kids doing all manner of household chores when they were VERY young. They broke many things! Another s-i-l wouldn’t let her boys do any laundry EVER (even when they’re 20!), any cooking, any cleaning up. Both positions can be unreasonable, but the child who can care for himself when he’s a man has been given a gift by his parents. Over the growing-up years, the work will be done poorly, indifferently, sloppily, but that’s part of the training. With children, the goal is not ALWAYS a clean house; the goal is a learning child.
In the classroom: I taught high school, and the classroom was mine. These kinds of things shift and change as kids age. The kind of ownership and responsibility I wanted for my 17 year olds to learn pertained to their academic work, not the condition of my white board or my trash can. By the time they’re 17, you assume they know how to keep themselves and their surroundings tidy. High school teachers owe elementary teachers a huge debt of gratitude for instilling those very qualities you describe! But as your stories demonstrate — Oh!!! The parents!!!
Yes, I loved that part of the chapter. What a great quote: “The goal is not a clean house; the goal is a learning child.” And, oh, yes, the parents! But it’s hard to “blame” them too much. We live in a society that’s filled with so much anxiety and uncertainty for parents. Now that I am a parent, which I wasn’t when I was a teacher, I am much more sympathetic.
Momma, PhD says
I think I’m doing the same for my kids as my parents did for me. I encourage my 3yo daughter to take care of herself- when she loses something, I say, “It’s not my toy, I’m not responsible for it. You are.” When she whines and complains that she needs help on the potty I close the door and ignore her and eventually she does it herself, hand washing included. When she wants something from an adult (a balloon animal at the fair, placing an order for food at a restaurant) I have her do it herself- sometimes I have to step in and translate, but by and large she can communicate herself. If she’s reluctant I say “If you want a balloon animal, you will have to go ask for it. I’m not going to do it.” If she wants it badly enough, she will do it herself, otherwise, she’ll go without. I want her to be able to speak up for herself with adults.
As for chores, she clears her place after dinner, she puts her dirty clothes in the hamper. She helps me with laundry (hanging stuff up, which I have to redo so it will actually dry, putting things in the washer/dryer). She helps with cleaning up toys when asked.
Setting the table and clearing the table I remind her, “Mommy made the dinner, Daddy does the dishes after dinner, you have to help out by setting/clearing the table.” When she’s particularly reluctant, I remind her of the story of The Little Red Hen and threaten to not share the dinner I make with her if she doesn’t help!
I totally agree with this, and yet I find that I am often gently accused of being “too hard” on my 6 year old because we don’t pay her an allowance for the minimal daily chores she has (putting the cloth napkins in the laundry after dinner, filling the toilet paper holders 1x a week, cleaning her room 1x a week, and a few other small things). There are jobs that she can earn money for if she chooses, but there is a baseline of household responsibilities that she has that are unpaid, just like us adults. I also recently started letting her cook her own scrambled egg (supervised of course!) because using the stove is a big responsibility, having her choose the produce at the market, and placing her own orders at the post office/frozen yogurt stand/pizza place. If we ever want her to be self-sufficient and independent, we need to teach her these things along the way. I see so many smart, older teenagers/college aged kids who get into elite colleges yet can’t even do a load of laundry by themselves. To me, that’s ridiculous–what is going to serve that kid longer? Attending Psych 101 or knowing when to choose the gentle cycle? She’s pretty good about fulfilling her responsibilities and we see that it gives her confidence. Even when she balks, I just stand firm and tell myself it’s all for her own good down the road (and ours if we ever want her to move out before she’s 30!) 🙂 Great post – thank you!
Wow! That’s so admirable! I too know kids who can’t do laundry or do basic household tasks. I’m so impressed!
I know that my kids are slightly helpless because I’m such a freaking control freak. Also I have no patience. I’m working on a essay about it for later in Sept for Brain, Child. We are ALL on the same page!
Nina, I can’t wait! I’m looking forward to how you approach this…
I love this. It also depresses me, honestly, reading those parent stories. I know they are so true, and so all around me … makes me feel a little nauseous. But I am grateful to hear Christine’s points (again – I loved her book!) and to be reminded that independence and self-reliance, both values I care deeply about, are important to foster from day one. xox
Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. says
I love how you focused your post on simple ways parents can actually encourage their children’s autonomy and responsibility. Sigh. You are so smart- way to organize your post so succinctly! 🙂
Carisa Miller: Do You Read Me? says
This is a great way to transition from the hoverparenting topic. We can use many of the same techniques which allow our children to explore their own social and physical abilities to teach responsibility and manners. You illustrated this wonderfully with your itemized list. I glommed onto the quote you used about taking advantage of a child’s early interest to participate in helping at home. Who cares if you have to refold the laundry? By given them an early start, chances are they’ll be good at in no time and become truly helpful contributors to the family and eventually society.
So true! The organization of this book is so perfect. Every chapter and each section leads perfectly into the next. We loved writing about these topics, and I think each of us has learned a lot!
Michelle @ Our Three Peas says
Great post, I totally agree! I try not to baby my kids, except of course when they were babies! 😉 It’s so important to teach kids responsibility and how to take ownership. Thank you so much for linking with us for wine’d down Wednesday!
I have found my 17 month old loves to help mom do her chores. I give her tasks, and she is so very happy to complete them. Her favorite is to pick up the dryer balls when we do laundry together. She will chase a ball all the way down the hall and bring it back to the dryer.
She also likes to sweep with her little broom, and she even mimics how I fold diapers.
Kids want to do what grown ups do. If we made it seem less like work, and more like fun, they will follow along!
One of my son’s favorite toys is a child-sized Dyson vacuum. When I’m vacuuming (which, admittedly, is not often) he likes to pull his own little vacuum out and “help Mommy.” We make it seem like a game!
Much like yourself I find it very hard to surrender control for the same reason, knowing that things will get done so much quicker if I do them myself. Being a tired parent wears your patience thin and quick solutions become your modus vivendi. I absolutely agree with the points that Loh Gross is making and will say that I have recently started voicing my expectations of my four-year-old more clearly.
Great Post. There are great things on your list. Especially give kids tasks to do, making them feel responsible. My just now two year old loves to help. His proudest moment is when he helps me unload the dishwasher. He is proud and it helps teach him. Thank you for linking up with Wine’d Down Wednesday. Hope to see another great post from you next week.
I have a two year old, and I’ve yet to cede control over unloading the dishwasher. I’m not sure he’s ready for that yet, but your two year old inspires me!
Lisa @ The Golden Spoons says
Oh I struggle with this!! I have tried so many different methods to get my girls to do chores. Even though they should, they just don’t seem to “get it” – a clean house is not important to them and they aren’t bothered by the mess. Asking them to clean leads to whining & complaining. It is just so much easier for me to do it myself. I know that is not teaching them responsibility and that I should work harder to get them to do their fair share. It is surely a struggle and I haven’t yet found the right balance!
Kristi Campbell says
Okay I’m scrolling down to say this now as I know I’ll forget to say this by the end of the actual point of your post, but I was just chastised by my son’s teacher on Thursday. We picked him up early to go to a wedding out of state. I said “clean up your lunch” and then he ran around all excited I was there. His teacher pointed out to me that I told him to clean up his lunch and then did it myself. Huh. Ok sorry moving on to read the rest…
Um sorry scrolling down again because the parent who wanted her kid placed away from the boy with mild rocking? Should be punched.
I used to walk home from school. In 7th grade, I was threatened with gang rape and luckily, it never happened. But it wasn’t the deal it would be today. Honestly, I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.
Wow, gang rape? Um… that’s awful, Kristi. That’s sort of the ultimate parental nightmare. And I think I would get annoyed if my son’s teacher pointed that out my inability to “follow through” to me. I’m sure you knew that you weren’t being consistent but it was a special day and your son was excited. That’s a little annoying of her, I think.
Deb @ Urban Moo Cow says
Deb @ Urban Moo Cow says
Woah: “There was the parent who hid in the bushes (taking notes) during recess because she wanted to keep track of who her son played with at recess.” That is creepy.
I agree that it’s really hard to force a toddler to do all these things. I’m so out of time as it is — and he’s not even 2! Imagine how much less time I will have when he’s older. I have to be better about it, too….
Bonnie a.k.a. LadyBlogger says
Great post! I’m also a former teacher turned mom…the boys are 14 and 17 now, but I continue to be amazed by what parents do for their kiddos. The kids suffer, become helpless adults, and then the parents complain how helpless they are…I know how hard ti can be when it’s your own child, but parents need to try to keep the long-term goal in mind.
Amy - Funny is Family says
Thank you for addressing this topic!
My four and six-year-old both help around the house, sometimes reluctantly. My daughter picks up the million shoes that find their way all over the floor, and her older brother vacuums. They both put their clean clothes away, help empty the dishwasher, feed the dog, and clear their dishes. My boy makes his lunch every day, and he did that as a kindergartner, too. My preschooler helps make her lunch on school days. They can both make simple breakfasts, and my boy was granted access to the toaster oven last month, after a probationary period where we carefully observed him putting bread in and taking toast out.
I see the difference in my kids’ self-sufficiency compared to some of their peers, and am happy to trade imperfect silverware drawers and closets for independent children. My job is to present my children to adult society with knowledge, skills, and abilities, not to cook and clean for them as long as they live here.
I think every parent who spends much time with their kids quickly realizes that it’s easier (in the short run) to simply do tasks his or her self.
My professional life has been university advising, so I’m blessed with the experience of knowing a multitude of young adults who were starting to leave home.
There are times when I pause in my work, assess the difficulty of the task, and reassign duties to my children.
My second-grader makes his lunch before school and has since first grade. To enable this, I had to move most of the lunch fixings to lower shelves and a crate on the floor of the pantry. It’s a huge relief for me not to scramble to assemble lunch while getting everyone ready for school.
He’s proud of his efforts (and gets complimented on them by friends and family), and he can even get snacks or a quick breakfast for himself and his younger sisters.
We’re a team in the morning- each with our own jobs to do, and I like that a lot.
Recently, I was about to send his school a check prepaying for a year’s worth of weekly treats, and I realized that maybe wasn’t in his best interest long-term.
Ultimately, we want these little people to be able to take care of themselves and others. It’s a lot harder to get a crash course in responsibility at 18 or 22 than it is to learn incrementally (and with much lower stakes) in those first 18 years. The kids who master these life skills in the early years have lot more time to dream big during their early adulthood (and beyond).
I love the title of this post. And I love how you set up the tension between losing control over things and holding kids accountable. It can be hard to breathe through the sometimes ensuing mess.
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