Thursday, September 10, 2009

Teaching Self-Sufficiency

Having five kids is a lot of work. In a typical week, I work part-time, do ten or more loads of laundry, and go to the grocery store four or five times. I stay on top of four sets of schoolwork, play, cuddle and read with my kids, intervene when needed in fights (see post on Conflict Resolution for Kids), cook, clean and sometimes manage to snatch a few moments alone with my husband, who travels often for work. People who meet me for the first time and find out that I have so many children often ask, “How do you do it?”, or sometimes just say, “God bless!” and shake their heads in wonder. Some imply that I am crazy, and one total stranger suggested that I get cable TV installed in my bedroom.

How do I do it? Part of the answer lies in teaching my kids to be (relatively) self-sufficient. As soon as it is developmentally appropriate, I start to teach and encourage the kids to do as much for themselves as possible.

It all begins with the diaper. Once kids discover that by pulling the tabs on the disposable diaper, it comes off, they love to do it. (Of course, if they’re still pooping in the diaper, you want to avoid this as much as possible by dressing them in overalls or other cumbersome clothing.) When your little one reaches this stage, you can praise her for doing it all by herself, or thank her for helping you. Then give her a wipe and let her do the next step herself too, after which you can take over.

The next logical step is getting dressed. Be prepared for some pretty hilarious outfit combinations (tights with bathing suits, feather boas with shorts, all kinds of crazy color and pattern combos). Sometimes they will get it wrong, putting clothes on backwards or inside out, putting shoes on the wrong feet or mismatched shoes, but that can all be corrected (or ignored, as you see fit). If you are going somewhere that it important that the child looks nice such as a wedding or a sitting for a photographer, you can limit the amount of choice available (“Would you prefer this outfit or this one?” “Skirt or dress?” “Blue or red?”).

Kids get a sense of accomplishment by doing things themselves, even if it’s not done perfectly, and you as a parent can notice, praise and celebrate their growing independence. As your child grows, entrust him with making progressively more important choices and assuming more responsibility. For example, a middle school child can be responsible for putting completed homework in his backpack, making sure he is on time for school, and cleaning his own room.

The next level of teaching self-sufficiency is giving children responsibility for caring for others. This works really well when you have multiple children, since it is a natural fit for an older child to help with a younger one. In my family, at the point that each child was consistently able to buckle his or her own seatbelt, that child also was given the job of buckling the baby into her car seat. I have had my older kids help with the younger ones by reading to them, putting them to bed, carrying them to bed, getting them a snack, getting them dressed, helping them brush their teeth and even cooking for the entire family (with supervision). This participation in the hard work of running the household and childcare helps lighten the load for the ever-busy mom. Combined with a chore schedule, it might even give you time to relax for 5 minutes or even take a shower.

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