How to increase independence in our children?

"If my kids screamed 'Mom, I need x!', one more time I am going to lose my mind!" a stressed-out parent vented in an ASD parenting Facebook group. While it is our responsibility to take care of our children, it doesn't mean we have to be their servants. However, what happens when the child does yet have the skill to do that specific task independently? what happens if the child responds poorly to changes in routine and expectations?

As tempting as it is, the last thing we want to do is to abruptly declare "No, do it by yourself!" because, predictably, conflict will arise, and the chances are high that the child will not be able to do so competently. When children are doing something you do not approve of, we must first examine:


The child's ability to meet the expectation of the environment.


Using B, in the photo above, as an example. He is 5 years old. He is too short to reach the faucet and our kitchen faucet is like a fire hydrant. B also has poor balance and proprioception, and I am not sure he could even safely lean forward even if we were to get a stool. A water jug would be too heavy for him. He does not have the skills to meet my expectation of getting his own water from the faucet. So what would happen if I abruptly told him to get his own water?


1. Change the Expectation


Both skills building and adding accommodation can take time, we, adults, can instantaneously change our expectations to meet the competence of the child. I know B can definitely accompany me to the kitchen to get his water. Perhaps he can also hold his cup while I pour water into it. Whatever the task, we can create ways to involve them. Maybe your child can do all these tasks, but not today and definitely not right now, and that is okay too. We all have our off days and we can model generosity and compassion in our helping. Maybe, your child just wants to feel your tender loving care and they see you doing a task for them as a loving action.


We parents don't actually have a problem doing things for our children. We just don't want them to be dismissive when asking for help or feel under-appreciated for our efforts. We just don't want to be treated like servants. The process of independence offers an opportunity for the child to become more attentive and aware of all the unspoken work involved to take care of them. Mindfully doing little things together is also a great way to bond and create joyful memories.


2. Change the Environment


What are the steps and skills required to accomplish the independent task? How can we reduce the difficulty level of each of the steps so the task is within the child's edge of competence? Edge of competence refers to a task’s difficulty level as slightly beyond the current level of proficiency. A child would experience a slight challenge and small discomfort at their edge of competence, but still have the confidence and a high probability of completing the task. Becoming independent is a social-emotional skill on its own and children can experience challenges and discomfort by doing something independent even when they are fully proficient in doing so. How can we as their emotional anchors offer emotional support in these moments?


3. Skill Building


With B, we can bypass all the skill barriers to independence by using a water dispenser placed at his height. However, in the beginning, there were some difficulties.


He could not manage to hold the cup in one hand and turn the facet with the other, so I hold the cup until he has more practice. He was filling it too full, so I marked the water level on the cup. He could not remember to turn off the faucet fully, so a laminated image of a leaky faucet was taped below to jog his memory. Then, he upgraded holding to a light plastic cup, and then, to a heavy glass cup, as shown in the photo. I do not force B to do this at all. He thinks this is all a part of a fun game and pleasurable connection with mom.


His accomplishments were highlighted (not praised) and celebrated each time. Once in a while, he may still ask for water and I would respond to accompanying him through the task (without offering actual help), and then again highlight whenever he does get it on his own without prompt. Sometimes, I still get water for him sometimes, because I enjoy caring for my children this way, and I feel empowered when I do this when I want to.

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