Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Help Yo'self Summer {encouraging autonomy}

A few weeks ago, as summer was about to start, I remembered something I learned in MOPS. A speaker once advised that as soon as your child was capable of doing a thing, you should require that they continue to do it. For instance, as soon as he is able to complete a simple chore, assign it to him. When they can dress themselves, let them. All of this is in the name of encouraging autonomy.

It’s tricky for some of us. It may be the trickiest job we have as mothers: to slowly wean ourselves off of mothering for eighteen years straight. It is a very slow process of letting go, but the process should ideally never cease. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We are not raising children; we are raising capable adults, aren’t we?

This job is even implied in the word autonomy, which means "to rule oneself". Isn’t that precisely what we want for our kids when they leave our home? They need to be fairly self-sufficient rulers of their own lives and bodies.

I know a mom of a near junior higher who still picks up off the floor the child’s clothes she’s strewn about and puts them in the hamper for her. I am a mom of a seven year old who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes because I keep tying them. And I was a child who never had to get a job, or do her own laundry, or cook a meal before she left home. I turned out okay; I figured out how to work and cook and do laundry. But I still want to be intentional about encouraging autonomy with my children. And that means slowly stopping doing some things I have always done.

This summer, I created a whole space where I am choosing not to be in charge. It’s called our Outdoor Art Station. I know I already told you about this, but here are more details. I bought a table off Craigslist for $25, painted it, covered it with a piece of vinyl, and organized all our art supplies on it. The Art Station is Help Yo’self. Entirely.

Then I took my grandmother’s metal tea cart, covered that, and made it the Help Yo’self snack bar. All I do is bring out a pitcher of some kind of drink and a tray of snacks. My child can take a cup, pour his own drink, take a paper plate, serve himself a sandwich, take a paper bowl, scoop out some popcorn, or chips, or grapes or whatever is there, and feel BIG. He can then decide what to create, on what kind of paper and with what materials, and then he can hang the finished product up with a clothespin on a line. Of course he can also put away what he’s used too.

The first day, there was a big spill. Of course I had to jump in, but then I showed the kids how they are equally able to wipe up spills themselves. They can move their bodies quickly. They can run for a dish towel. They don’t just have to stand there and stare at ME doing it all.

Also, I’ve already heard a lot of, “Mom, can you get me __________?” Every time, it has been something I have provided already. Which shows me that even if I am giving them the tools to help themselves, they are more familiar with asking me to do everything for them. And that, to me, is a red flag. That tells me this little exercise is a good thing. Each time, I’ve replied in a cheery voice, “Go ahead and help yourself!” They‘ve said, “Oh!” with a tone of surprise. I think it’s a combination of not feeling certain they were capable of doing that thing, and not being sure they were allowed to.

Here’s the thing. I can err on the side of micro-managing my kids. It’s gotten them in a habit of asking me for and if they can do anything and everything. Most of the time that’s good – it’s not a free-for-all over here. They need to ask permission to have a popsicle or play on the computer. But I need to wean them off some of that overdependence, now that it is age-appropriate.

I think some people thought I created the art station so I could have more time to myself. So the kids could be occupied for chunks of time this summer. Well, that is nice at times. But that wasn’t my motivation. I wanted to show my kids that I trust them, that I believe in them, and that they are capable of more than they realize, namely taking care of themselves in a few ways.

It’s been fun to watch them experiment and get used to helping themselves (and each other) for short stretches of time. And twice, I’ve had the freedom to sit down and create with them. Giving them a little autonomy is giving me room to enjoy them and appreciate them more, instead of me simply bossing them around, or me feeling disappointed in the things they can’t seem to get right.

{my chevron design :)}

What is one area that you could let go of managing as a mother? Does your toddler want to choose her own outfits? Can your child make himself breakfast? Maybe you can think of one way to shift some power to that little person in your life this week. It may surprise you how good it is for both of you to see that he or she can really do it.



  1. Great post! My 2.5 yo has been helping me unload the dishwasher for a year now. I can see now how I can/ should have her help me every time, to make that chore part of her daily life, just as picking up toys and books is already part of the nighttime routine. There are a lot of things I can/should be working on with her. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

  2. see? this is why i read your blog! i get this 'i can do it' feeling when i'm done. it's probably a good thing we are not friends because i would be calling you every two minutes to talk things through with you. ;) i have a desire to teach this behavior to my children. they have a very hard time entertaining themselves, and have this feeling of entitlement that they should just command me to wait on them, and i should do it. command a new toy, and they should get it. they are 6 and 4....and 1, but the issue lies with the older ones. my heart has been so heavy with feeling like i'm doing something so wrong. it seems like i am in constant prayer during the days. it's been a bit easier but still feel there is a huge missing piece. thanks for always being so straight forward. you are the first blog i read. just so you KNOW, it is helping those moms who need the words of advice and encouragement. so thanks. oh, and i am seriously in love with the art station idea! my kids are OBSESSED with crafting. do you set a limit on when how much they can use a day, or ....how do you keep it refilled? how often do you allow yourself to refill it? it would cost me $200 a week to keep up with my kids if i gave them free reign!!

  3. Such great insight, Leslie. I find that I micro manage because it feels easier. I've always been a "just do it myself" person. I can see how this will not benefit my kids in the long run. I had the goal of teaching my older two to do their own laundry this summer and I haven't done it yet. This post gave me a good push. Thanks!

  4. Goodness Leslie, I just love this. I just love it! And I am totally in agreement with Amanda up there and I am so glad this space is here for encouragement. I feel like I can try some new things with my Grace after reading this. Its funny I my husband and I both read your blog ( I sorta leave it up and tell him to glance at it ) haha...but one night he just decided to put Grace in panties and take away the pull ups at night. She has been potty trained for almost a year and a half but I still have her in pull ups...I dont know why. Maybe its just easy. But all on his own he just said welp..thats it. no more. and no accidents. Its so crazy we moms can just get so caught up in routine and the everyday things but you are so right...we arent raising children.what a concept! love!!!

  5. I love this idea! It makes me want to join you for some art play!

    But, I really love that you are giving them the chance to be independent, and that's got to be a great option for those "I'm bored" summer days.

  6. I find that when I don't "helicopter" parent, I'm really amazed at what my kids can accomplish on their own. My 12 year old can now write big reports all on his own... it's so neat to see how happy he is when he realizes what a big accomplishment he has made. :)