Helping a Child Become Independent
Question: My child is 3 years old. I am not sure how much to help him when he is struggling with something. Do I make him sleep in his own bed? Try to wipe himself? Clean up when he has made a mess with his toys? The list goes on and on. I want him to know he can rely on me, but I also want him to be responsible. What should I do?
Answer: If only there were a rule book about such things! We can at least provide a framework to help guide you.
Four stages of dependence
Infants depend on their caretakers for virtually everything, while adults without special limitations independently take care of their own basic needs. The balance between dependence and independence evolves through life, and can be described as going through four phases, which were first described by child psychoanalyst Erna Furman. Each phase can be illustrated by the type of interaction that occurs between parent and child while dressing.
Being done for – During this phase, caretakers completely provide for the child. Consider an infant who is a few months old. During this first phase, the parent chooses clothes and fully dresses the child, who does not participate constructively.
Parents can help children during this phase by making the task pleasantly interactive. When a task is embedded in the pleasure of a loving relationship, a child will be more motivated to ultimately take over the task, because it conjures a feeling of a loving connection.
Doing with – The key to understanding the second phase is to recognize that the child is beginning to participate in the task as a helper, but cannot achieve the task without a caretaker.
When dressing, a 6-month-old infant may wiggle her arm excitedly when she sees a blouse. Over time, her participation will actually help. Parents may need to ask a 12-month-old to be still, and an 18-month-old might try to put on some clothes by herself.
At this stage, a parent can support the child’s effort to participate and show pleasure in the child’s involvement. Parents can encourage and praise the effort rather than focus on “getting it right.”
Standing by and watching – During this phase, a child does most of the task himself. Parents are literally or figuratively standing back and watching, occasionally reminding a child. (If a great deal of reminding is required, the child is still in the later part of phase two.)
When getting dressed at this stage, a child may complete the task while a parent watches or hangs around. The child has the functional, but not emotional, capacity to carry out the task with some parental support.
This is a hard phase for many parents. Some might be tempted to hold back the support that children need, wondering why they need to be so involved when their child “really can do it.” Does the child just want attention? The answer is “no”; children in this phase want continued parental involvement because they have not yet grown to fully own this function. Other parents struggle with a sense of not being needed as much, and may be tempted to linger in phase two, providing more help than their child needs.
Do for themselves – At this point, the child can really do the task himself. A 5- or 6-year-old child in this phase will dress herself with only occasional help from a parent.
Handling the balance
Your son will be at different phases with different tasks, and he will fluctuate in his capacity from day to day within a task. One night he might be able to sleep in his own bed if you lie down with him for a while as he settles in, and the next night he might be able to sleep with you putting him to bed and returning occasionally to check.
Consider each area individually. Identify the phase that best describes his function in that area and help him to grow within that phase, one phase at a time. So, if he is still asking you to wipe him after he goes to the bathroom, accept for the time being that he is currently in the “being done for” phase in that particular area. He has the coordination and cognitive capacity to wipe himself, but emotionally he is at the first phase.
Encourage him to join you so he can progress to the “doing with” phase. Perhaps you can begin by asking him to tear off the toilet paper. If you guide him through the second phase, he will be ready to move on to remaining phases in a secure and stable way.
Your child will always fight autonomy somewhat since it brings the loss of the pleasures of dependency. With your support, his wish to grow and be capable will win, and he will do so feeling good about himself and his loving relationships.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents’ questions.
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