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Monthly column: Raising capable kids

When you let your kids take responsibility for themselves from time to time you’re doing them a huge favour, writes GH columnist Susan Hayden
Raising capable kids

A curious thing I’ve noticed on becoming a parent is how much my parenting style differs from the way I was raised, and it seems to be a phenomenon. I see friends whose relaxed, hippy parents I loved being around as a teen turn into strict, almost autocratic moms and dads. And it’s an interesting thing to observe. My maternal granny’s Victorian sensibilities meant her five children had to help with the housework, mind their manners and pull their weight or else they got the belt. My mom, by contrast, went to extremes to make my childhood as close to idyllic as she could manage – to the point that by the time I went to university and moved into digs I’d barely done a chore in my life and had no clue how to do laundry or clean a loo.

And I watch my mom watching me with surprise and some measure of horror when I make my daughters clean up the kitchen and tidy the lounge and bring in the washing. And it’s not a deliberate thing or about purposefully giving them life skills, it’s just that I don’t think it’s fair that I should pick up after them all the time and do all the work in the house. And since our home has always operated this way, they don’t think it’s unusual and as a result are pretty adept little humans. They can cook a few simple dishes and are great at taking the initiative when it comes to school things, which is just as well, because I’m not. And I guess they figured out that if they don’t give me the form to sign and return it to their teacher by the correct date, they won’t be going on the outing because I have nine million other things I’m thinking about at any given time. The form is their indaba.

Related: Monthly column: Little monsters by GH columnist Susan Hayden

And while, to be honest, this status quo is mostly due to scattiness on my part and work commitments and the conviction that my life can’t revolve solely around my children, I have to say with some measure of pride that this non-helicopter approach to parenting has resulted in two very independent kids. They pack their own stuff for camp, make sure their school clothes are clean and for the past year (hallelujah!) have started setting their own alarms in the morning and get up and fix their breakfast and make sandwiches for school, which leaves me to drink my coffee in peace and read Facebook till my brain is awake enough to function. And really – while the school-lunch thing is an unexpected bonus – I think kids should take some responsibility for what goes on in their lives.

Sometimes, if we arrive at school and one of the girls discovers she’s left her swimming gear/soccer boots/ project at home, I’ll deliver the item later if I can, but if I can’t I don’t. And it’s something their headmistress advised us parents about right in the beginning of their school careers: when your kids mess up, don’t be too quick to make everything okay; children need to learn to think and to do things for themselves. If they never get to experience the consequences of their own mistakes, you deny them an important life lesson. They have to get a bit hungry or get in trouble with a teacher in order not to make that mistake again. And it can be hard, as a parent, because our instincts make us want to protect our kids no matter what. But if you want them to develop into capable, well-functioning adults, sometimes you have to stand back a little and let them experience life.

And a great by-product of this parenting paradigm is that it seems to foster self-confidence. Kids know what they’re capable of and it gives them a sense of power and an opportunity to negotiate the world on their own terms. They know they’re not helpless and when you trust them and believe they can do things for themselves, they believe it too. It’s okay – within reason – to let your children sort out their own affairs. It’s okay to let them fix their own meals from time to time and it’s totally okay to expect them to help out with the running of the home you share. They need to know this stuff, and the self-reliance you’ll be fostering in them will stand them in very good stead when the time comes to leave the nest and stand on their own two feet.

Susan Hayden is the voice behind the popular blog Disco Pants & A Mountain

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