One important parenting goal is to raise children who are independent. Hopefully, by the end of two decades of effort, parents have been able to teach their child to take care of him or herself in every way. When the young person leaves home, he or she should be able to cook, clean up, pay bills, manage money, do laundry, maintain healthy, hygienic personal standards and take care of him or herself in every other way. Training starts early in life: as soon as a little one can pull on his or her own socks, parents must stand back and give room for trial and error. While it seems easy in principle, in daily life teaching a child habits of self-care can be quite challenging.
In teaching your child to take care of him or herself, consider the following tips:
Baby Steps to Independence
At first, parents do EVERYTHING for a new human being – dressing the infant, grooming the infant, changing the infant’s diapers, washing the infant, carrying the infant, feeding the infant. As the child develops, we hope that he will be able to take over all of these functions. By toddlerhood we are hoping that the child can dress himself, brush his hair with a little parental assistance, toilet himself with minimal assistance, cooperate with the cleaning process (starting to learn to brush his teeth and use soap in the bathtub), walk about and feed himself using cutlery. By the time the child is in school, we expect that he can completely dress himself (perhaps with a little assistance for difficult snaps or buttons), brush his own hair, take care of his bathroom needs independently, brush his teeth, wash his face and bathe himself (with supervision), walk, run, cycle and perhaps skate and swim as well, and eat properly with a knife and fork.
Small Children Enjoy Being Helped by Their Parents
Very young children, and even kids up to 6 or 7 years old, enjoy parental attention and contact. Although they may be able to take their own clothing off or put new clothing on, they thrive on the feeling of being assisted. It reminds them of the “old days” when Mommy and Daddy nurtured them in every way possible, taking care of every tiny need. Now that they’re “big,” parents often abandon them to attend to the new baby in the family or just to do their own things. The young child misses the affectionate and gentle touch of the parent. An adult woman may be very skilled at putting her own coat on, but this doesn’t stop her from feeling oh so special if her special man holds it up for her to slip her sleeves into! In a similar vein, it is fine to assist young children in their dressing and grooming activities even though the child is capable of doing everything on his own. This sort of assistance is just one way of showing love and affection. Don’t do EVERYTHING for the child, however, as this may actually stunt his development. Rather, it’s fine to hand him his second sock as he is putting on his first one or help zipper up his pants after he pulled them on himself. Make sure that the child can, in fact, perform all the tasks adequately by giving him plenty of opportunity to demonstrate competence. Offer assistance in different ways rather than just the same way every time. This helps ensure that the child gets to practice his skills. Unless your child is severely disabled, you have every reason to expect that he’ll be able to perform all acts of self-care during the period of childhood; you needn’t worry that assisting him will somehow prevent his normal development.
Teach Your Child
Actually sit down and show small children how to get dressed, comb hair, brush teeth and so on. It’s fine to repeat aspects of the basic lessons with older kids as well. Some children need verbal instructions and demonstration – with everything broken down into small chunks. Don’t assume your child already knows what she is supposed to do. If the child needs practice, try to make it short and pleasant – even a form of “quality time.” Older kids can learn more indirectly. Bring home library books along with books on all sorts of other interesting subjects. Leave them in the bathroom and around the table. There are books on fashion, style, image and all aspects of personal appearance. If you feel your child needs a gentle hint, leaving such books around can be useful. An uninvolved party is delivering the important information. Similarly, local libraries may carry DVD’s on the subject. For teens who cannot get themselves together nicely, consider a consultation with a personal style consultant. Such a person can show your child how to pick out fashionable clothing, make-up and hair styles. A consultation such as this can give the child necessary confidence as well as skills.
Allow Time and Permit Failure
Whether you are encouraging your toddler to put on his own snow pants or encouraging your teen to get a driver’s licence, you need patience and a tolerance for the learning process. Everyone learns by trial and error. You can get your 5 year-old dressed faster so it’s very tempting to just grab those clothes and dress the child yourself when you’re in a rush to get to work. However, your child really needs the practice in order to become independent. Doing everything for your child not only delays skill-building, but may actually interfere with the child’s normal development.
The solution? Start the morning routine earlier to allow for time for the child to develop skills. Once your child knows how to dress herself, brush her teeth, do her hair, make her bed, get herself some breakfast and make her own lunch – you’ll have a much easier morning! It’s worth the investment of your time up front to help your child learn each skill.
Self-care for older children involves more complex tasks like thoroughly cleaning their own rooms, knowing how to cook healthy meals, knowing how to clean up afterward, knowing how to use the washing machine and dryer and wash clothing by hand, knowing how to get into bed at a decent hour and how to get up independently in the morning. It can also involve knowing how to apply for a job, take public transportation or learn to drive, go to work, purchase personal items, use a credit card and manage money. Of course, teens also need to be responsible for taking regular showers, brushing their teeth and arranging for regular medical and dental check-ups. Children grow into these skills over the second decade of life – but only if their parents encourage them to do so and give them opportunities to spread their wings.
Emphasize the Positive
Look for the “right” part of whatever the child is trying to do. If she is learning to wash her own hair, praise as much as possible before correcting her. For instance, tell her she is using the right amount of shampoo and you like the way she is scrubbing hard. Then, if correction is necessary, keep it short and emphasize what needs to be done, rather than what she is doing wrong. For instance, instead of saying, “you didn’t rinse all the shampoo out of your hair,” try saying, “you need to rinse a little longer to get all the shampoo out of your hair.” Obviously children need lots of guidance before they can become competent at any aspect of self-care. In order not to discourage them, ensure that your positive feedback far outweighs your negative feedback. If a small child has gotten dressed all by himself, it is more important to applaud his independence than to point out that his pants don’t match his shirt. All people go from strength to strength. Letting the child know that he is on the right track helps him to continuously improve.
Use Positive Reinforcement and/or the CleaR Method
Use simple praise to reinforce attention and competency in self-care routines. Trying telling a young child, “I like the way you got dressed all by yourself and so quickly!” To an older child you can offer, “You look really nice today. I really like the way you color-coordinated that outfit.” To a teen, you might quietly utter “Hmmm… someone smells nice!” When a child allows you to help him with a task the he needs help with (i.e. a 5 year-old who can’t tie up his shoe laces), you can praise his cooperative attitude: “Thanks for letting Mommy show you how to do this.” When a youngster struggles and struggles with some difficult article of clothing, finally succeeding at getting it on (or off), you can say, “I like the way you persevered with that! You worked hard and it paid off!”
The CLeaR Method takes praise a step further through commenting and labeling positive behavior and then providing a reward for such behavior. This can be especially important when a child has been having a very hard time learning some aspect of dressing or self-care and especially when the child’s attitude toward the task has been very negative. For instance, if your 5 year-old has been refusing to button his own clothing and finally relents, doing the whole job himself, you can Comment: “You did up all the buttons yourself today!” Then you can offer a Label such as “You’re a good dresser.” Finally, you can offer a reward for the effort he put forth, “You know, since you worked so hard at that today, I think I’ll make your favorite pancakes for breakfast this morning!.” You can say to a child brushing her hair properly, “You did a very nice job brushing your hair this morning (Comment). You’re getting to be very competent at that (Label). Do you need any new hair accessories? I’ll be in the store today (Reward).”
Some Kids Have Problems that Interfere with Self-Care
Ask your pediatrician about normal developmental milestones. If your child is not able to put his shirt on or use a fork properly or perform some other physical act as skillfully as you expect him to by his age, you might consider the possibility of some sort of perceptual deficit , muscle weakness or other problem. Alternatively, problems with following directions may make it difficult for the youngster to perform a complex task that has many steps. Short-attention span can lead to similar difficulties. Similarly, auditory processing difficulties, gross motor skills, immaturity, a mental health diagnosis and a host of other issues can impact on self-care performance. If your child is lagging behind his or her peer group in self-care activities, seek professional assessment. The sooner you intervene to give corrective treatment, the sooner your child can make progress. Young children can learn rapidly. However, if you don’t identify a lag in development, you are not giving your child the chance to receive the help he or she needs.