I DID IT ALL BY MYSELF!

by Wendy Canary, PT

“A parent’s job is never done!” SO true! A parent changes ‘hats’ all day long…chef, chauffeur, calendar keeper, housekeeper, personal assistant… the list of all the things we do in a day can go on and on.  One of the most important roles we have as parents is teacher. Children watch our every move and learn by example. I think we have all seen a piece of ourselves when our toddler repeats a phrase they have heard from us or our child’s mannerism resembles our own. That can be humbling at times! Our teaching is sometimes more direct and changes as our children grow and learn and gain independence.  We first teach children to hold our hand to cross the street, then to look both ways, and eventually give them the freedom to walk to the school bus or a friend’s house alone. Although not always on the forefront of our minds with these teachings, the truth is all of these skills learned at home will lead to the independent, self reliant person your child will be in the future.

When our children are small, self-care skills are  a big part of our everyday teachings. The tasks of getting dressed, tying shoes, brushing teeth, using a fork, etc. are things we do everyday and ultimately want our children to be independent with.  The challenge is they are repetitive and often fall in times when our ‘adult agenda’, does not allow for the pace of a child’s learning. We need to get out the door so it is faster to put our child’s shoes on.  There is a school bus to catch so in the interest of time, we dress our child. It has been a long day and everyone is exhausted, so to keep things moving along, you brush your child’s teeth. Before I move on let me say— I GET IT!  My children are grown but I remember all too well the exhaustion at bedtime as I watched my children brush their teeth or feeling agitated as I tried to move out the door and the kids never seemed to be moving at the pace I wanted. So I know the struggle is real! 

The challenge for parents is finding ways to promote these self-care skills without creating more stress in our family life. But if we can find ways to separate the learning from the time crunch, it can become more positive experience for all.  Bringing play and learning together is always a good place to start! For example, pretend play is a great way to practice dressing skills using dress up clothes and role-playing with your child. Another fun way to engage our children is to make it into a race.  Who can put their shoes on first? Can you put your shirt on before the timer goes off? Whatever the game is you choose, your child will be likely to enjoy your playful spirit and will be learning a new skill along the way!

Of course each child is different in their style of learning and their desire for independence.  Some will figure things out without with very little input while others may need more assistance and things broken down into components for success.  For the latter children, instead of saying ‘put on your shirt’, you could help them put the shirt over their head and then ask them to push their arm through the armhole.  Or you could ask your child to move their toothbrush in their mouth back and forth over their teeth and then afterward you could help them with hand over hand assistance to assure they properly brush their teeth.  For a child who is more resistant to doing things alone, by making each task smaller into components, they experience success, which will add to their confidence to try each additional task. With your support and encouragement, your child will master each part and will soon be independent!

Before ending, lets discuss shoe tying.  This task can be daunting for many parents.  If we think about the ideas from above of a non-stressful time and breaking things into components, it can be a skill that can be fun to learn.  A child can practice tying a shoe lace around a favorite stuffed animal, on a shoe tying board book or a homemade device. I learned with a shoelace strung through the lid of a coffee can.  I can still remember sitting on the floor of the kitchen as my mother cooked practicing on that can. I never once thought I HAD to learn this but instead I was thrilled with this fun activity my mom had given to me that day.  I am sure I did not learn in one day but learned by parts, but my memory of learning is a happy one. So consider ways you can start to introduce this to your child in a fun way and remember to follow up with replacing the Velcro shoes with tie sneakers!

Watching our children develop new skills and gain independence is exciting and best yet, with every task they learn, it makes our ‘to do list’ a little smaller.  It can be a challenge in the business of life and when a child has little motivation to learn, but with creativity on your part, you can make the teaching fun. So look for those moments where you can use play to practice a new self-care skill and then sit back and watch the learning unfold!  And one day your child will proudly say to you, “I did it all by myself!”

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