A couple months ago, while visiting my parents, I overheard my mom tell my stepdad a parenting revelation that stopped me in my tracks…
“When they were little, my kids were more capable than I gave them credit for.”
Flashback to the previous afternoon, when I got into a standoff at home with my two-year-old, Ella. It’s 3 p.m. and she asks for a yogurt. I reach into the fridge, ready to twist the top off a reusable yogurt pouch and place the snack into her chubby hands. But before I close the fridge, I hear a tiny voice ask, “Ella do it?” My stomach drops. What should be a one-minute transaction will now turn into a 10-minute negotiation, where the smaller party will end up on the kitchen floor in tears.
I was faced with two options.
Option 1: Hand Ella the yogurt pouch. Then watch her fingers struggle and fail to twist the lid until she eventually tosses the pouch across the room and starts crying.
Option 2: Reply, “Can mommy help?” — an offer she turns down more and more each passing day. Then start to twist off the lid, hoping she will see the merit of teamwork. She will not. She will grow distraught and burst into tears.
Lately, life has been feeling a lot like this comic:
Two-year-olds itch for independence, of course, and I want to support her. But after a long day of parenting and work, I often lack the energy to deal with the meltdowns and messes that happen when Ella can’t do whatever she’s trying to accomplish.
Hearing my mom mention that young children are more capable than we realize, however, made me reconsider my approach to Ella’s “do it myself” phase. But it was the end of her story that motivated me the most:
“One day, I had to pick you kids up early from daycare,” my mom told me. “When I walked in, I was floored. Your whole class, a group of three- and four-year-olds, was standing in line, waiting for your turns to pour, cook and flip your own pancakes on a hot griddle! And you each did it. My kids could make their own pancakes!”
Just picturing the image makes me want to bust out laughing because it sounds so ridiculous. But, also, how cool is that? Ever since that morning in my parents’ kitchen, I’ve been looking out for daily tasks that Ella can do on her own. So far, she has started:
Helping make morning smoothies
Watering the zucchini garden
Putting away her dishes
Throwing her dirty clothes in the laundry after bath time
Brushing her teeth (then letting mommy take a turn)
Overall, the tone shift in our home has been HUGE. Whenever she finishes one of her chores, she beams with confidence and lets out an enthusiastic “I did it!” — complete with a dimpled grin and jazz hands. And the meltdowns have completely died down.
Letting Ella figure things out on her own is harder than I thought it would be. It’s also a parenting muscle I didn’t realize I’d be working this early in the game (isn’t that what the teenage years are for?) But I’m learning to admire this stage. And now every day I wonder more and more, “What else can she do?”
How do you let your kids move through the world on their own? And how does it make you feel? I’d love to know.
(Comic by Liana Finck for the New Yorker.)