We have all heard the news about helicopter parents and boomerang children, and baffling statistics like the fact that one-third of American men aged 22 to 34 still live with their parents. But how can parents safeguard against these trends, when every moment of a child’s life is increasingly scheduled and competitive?
Pediatrician Dr. Alanna Levine, author of Raising a Self-Reliant Child, offers a refreshing and authoritative new voice in the parenting arena. Her commonsense approach finds a healthy balance between the overindulgence of free-range kids and the strict control of tiger moms and dads, instead focusing on back-to-basics parenting strategies for raising self-reliant children from the start.
The time from birth to age 6—when busy parents are most tempted to do things for their children (like tying their shoes, or cooking special food for picky eaters)—is also, according to the latest research in neuroscience, when children’s brains are becoming organized, making them the most developmentally important years for establishing self-sufficiency. Children who don’t learn independence skills at an appropriate age grow into adults who expect others to fix challenges and conflicts for them.
Dr. Levine explains that well-meaning parents have been keeping young children from the self-development that’s a natural outgrowth of learning and doing on one’s own. “Proficiency develops only when children are given the space to achieve independently,” says Levine. “Parents can be present as guides, but children need to do the work, make the mistakes, and learn from them in order to become fully-functioning, productive adults.”
Raising a Self-Reliant Child focuses on key teachable moments from breakfast to bedtime when independence can be emphasized, such as self-soothing, toilet training, mealtime, playtime, and chores. Young children learn to take responsibility for their daily routines, where each accomplishment becomes a building block in creating a strong foundation of self-empowerment for the child. With Dr. Levine’s strategies and techniques, babies learn to sleep through the night; toddlers speak for themselves and learn to communicate effectively; and school-aged children dress themselves, make breakfast, do their homework, and even resolve disputes with little parental intervention. And since parents won’t be micromanaging their children’s lives or engaged in daily power struggles, families will have more quality time to spend and enjoy together.
Today’s overextended parents of young children will greatly benefit from Dr. Levine’s advice. Raising a Self-Reliant Child not only gives parents the tools they need to teach and model independence for their children, but the peace of mind that their children will be developing the skills they need to become confident and capable adults.
Here is an excerpt from Dr. Levine’s wonderful new book. I highly recommend it. (And on a personal note, I admit I’m a huge Dr. Levine fan. We met on the TODAY show set several times as well as at the AAP conference. She’s warm, competent, wonderful, brilliant, and also a fabulous writer. 🙂
Excerpt: “Raising A Self-Reliant Child”
Effective parenting means that throughout our kids’ childhood, we assign them progressively greater degrees of autonomy in order to help them become self-reliant. Here are some of the ways that we can let them take the lead in decision making and problem solving.
The most successful way to get children on a regular schedule is to create an environment conducive to sleep and to pay attention to when they get sleepy. Their natural drowsiness cycles can help them decide when to sleep. We can let them learn how to soothe themselves by not springing to attention at every whimper.
Self-soothing is a very important life skill. With your help, even very young children can discover and decide on preferred modes of self-soothing (such as using a pacifier or sucking their fingers, or choosing a safe age-appropriate alternative for a toddler like a favorite stuffed animal or a blanket), and that can help them become self-sufficient.
We can promote self-feeding by allowing kids to select their own little utensils. We can help picky toddlers achieve a balanced diet by letting them choose from a broad range of healthy food choices. And we can encourage preschoolers and older children to expand their food horizons by letting them pick out items from the healthy food aisles at the supermarket, choose the condiments that will make less appealing foods palatable, and help pick out recipes that they want to help us make.
Toilet training is most effectively done by creating a conducive learning environment for potty training and then simply letting toddlers decide when they’re ready to trade up from diapers, for daytime and nighttime.
Even infants can learn to problem solve. Seemingly simple, age-appropriate play can help develop an infant’s motor skills. We can facilitate by placing interesting objects slightly out of reach and offering children toys that invite manipulation. We can give toddlers and preschoolers a range of play options, keeping toys on low shelves so they can decide on their own activities. When we play with them, we can foster problem-solving skills by letting them direct us, deciding on storylines and other imaginative elements. When they play on their own, we can also encourage creativity by letting them decide what to do or make (resisting their efforts to have us instruct them). In doing so, we teach them to be self-reliant, generating their own entertainment.
Rather than impose discipline, we can elicit desirable behavior by letting a child decide whether to observe limits and rules or else face reasonable consequences tailored to the “crime.” Encouraging children to decide to behave well by letting them track their progress and rewarding them appropriately when they succeed makes discipline much less contentious and teaches important life skills.
Kids should be encouraged to choose what to wear, to experiment with their own taste, to build their self-reliance. Ultimately, our goal should be to have our children learn basic responsibilities such as how to get themselves ready to go in the morning and how to pitch in around the house by giving them jobs they can make their own.
We can and should encourage kids to keep peace with siblings and friends by setting limits, guiding, and redirecting. It’s our job to teach them to use words to assert themselves and settle disagreements, not by feeding them lines but by sparking them to decide what to say. Unless it’s essential, we shouldn’t intervene in conflicts but should allow kids to decide independently (within reason) how to resolve them. The recognition that they are not helpless but have the power to advocate for themselves is a major pillar.
ALANNA LEVINE, MD, FAAP (Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics) is a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, the world’s foremost pediatric organization comprised of 60,000 pediatricians. She is in private practice with Orangetown Pediatric Associates and is on staff at both Englewood Hospital and Nyack Hospital. She lives in New York with her husband and two children and is available for interviews.
For more information, visit www.alannalevinemd.com.
You can also follow her on twitter @DrAlannaLevine