My dog and I took two kinds of walks. One was about taking care of business: The dog needed to walk and eliminate. I was in charge, and the goal was either to move fast and get exercise or to complete the walk as quickly as possible, because the weather was bad or I had a lot to do. The other walk was about making the dog happy. She set the pace, chose how long to sniff each tree and did her eliminating when she was ready, with no pleading or commanding from me.
As a parent, many experiences with our children fall into one of these two categories. There are times when expediency and getting things done is essential to the success of the family. Getting out of the house and arriving on time at school and work is one of those experiences. Washing the car on an open Saturday afternoon can fall into the second category. For parents trying to build their child’s independence, we try to create environments and systems that allow many parts of the day to feel like the second type of walk while still getting things done.
This requires a lot of patience, careful observation, trial and error, a lot of patience, the creation of time and, finally, a lot of patience. It may mean that the family gets up earlier in the morning in order to avoid feeling rushed, or it may mean keeping your mouth shut and sitting on your hands as your purposeful three-year-old manhandles carefully chosen plants into their pots.
This approach to parenting also requires an adult who appreciates that the time and effort put in now will lead to a more responsible, independent and capable child in the future. At the Montessori school I lead, when parents watch five-year-olds set the lunch tables with tablecloths, napkins, ceramic plates, glasses and water pitchers (with little to no help from a teacher), they develop a true sense of what their children are capable of.
These skills require training and the opportunity to practice without criticism or too much advice. As the children develop the various skills that go into this process in the fall, mistakes are made, and it can be difficult for any adult to watch without jumping in and taking over. By spring, the process is automatic for the children, they take pride in their work and the adults can take care of other things while the children set up for lunch.
At home a similar process can happen as a child develops and gains the ability to be truly helpful. Laundry is a fact of life. The most efficient way to get the laundry done is for an adult to do it. The least efficient way is to have your two-year-old help. Watching a toddler revel in the joy of pulling warm clothes out of the dryer makes it worthwhile, though. Three-year-olds love to sort socks and deliver them to the appropriate bedrooms. Four-year-olds like to fold. Six- to eight-year-olds can read tags, sort the clothes and wonder about how cotton plants turn into fabric. Children eight and older can independently load and start the washing machine.
Doing real work to help the family makes children feel capable and important, even when they grumble. The next time you make breakfast, think of what piece could be handed over to your child – finding the milk in the fridge, pouring their own cereal and milk, putting their dishes in the sink. The time that you spend now - setting up the kitchen so they can reach supplies, training them in these skills and helping them develop confidence – may mean that in a few years, you can sleep in while your child prepares her own breakfast. She might even take the dog for a walk.
Castle O’Neill has been a teacher and administrator in schools and teacher education programs in five states. She co-leads Wild Rose Montessori, a Wildflower school serving ages 3-12 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.