Things Grace and Whit do alone

I loved this post by Elisabeth Stitt about 10 things children need to be able to do on their own by middle school.  The post, and the topic, reminded me of Jessica Lahey‘s marvelous book, The Gift of Failure, which I read, loved, and reviewed this fall.  Lahey asserts, as does Stitt, that we need to let our children do more, in every way.  Their learning certain skills and activities both prepares them for adulthood and lifts some of the stultifying burden of doing everything from parents.

I share this view.  I want my children to emerge from our household able to do a load of laundry, cook a simple dinner, and interact confidently with adults.  With that in mind, here are a few things that I both encourage and expect Grace and Whit to do by themselves.  These tasks make my life easier (though at first I am always nervous, of course) but far more importantly they build their confidence and sense of mastery in the world.

Cook dinner.  Late this summer, when Matt was away, I went to a late afternoon yoga class and left both the children at home and asked Grace to make dinner. She cooked hamburgers on the stove, cleaned everything up, set the table, lit candles.  It was pleasurable for me and hugely gratifying for her.  She’s asked several times since them to be allowed to make dinner alone, and each time I joyfully say yes.

Fold and put away their laundry.  It was reading Lahey’s book that made me realize I have to stop putting away Whit’s laundry and refolding his tee-shirts when he rummages through them.  Who cares.  He can find what he needs, and the lesson of re-doing everything he does is far more toxic than letting a little mess stand.

Walk to and from school.  We don’t do this often in the morning, since I prioritize sleep.  As soon as our school allows it, I like Grace and Whit to walk the 0.75 miles home alone.  They know the way home that has stop lights and crossing guards, and I think they enjoy the downtime.

Solder metal.  Whit as a soldering iron and he uses it unsupervised.  It took both Matt and I a little while to get used to this idea, but the pride Whit feels when I wear a necklace he fixed for me with his soldering iron – every single time – delights me. Plus, I love that I didn’t have to go to a jeweler.

Shake hands with, address by name, and speak with adults. We are old-fashioned and use Mr. and Mrs. by default.  Grace and Whit still struggle in some cases to make eye contact with grown-ups, but it continues to be an expectation.  We spend a lot of time as a family and rarely seat the children at a separate table.  I expect them to interact with adults, to make conversation and respond when spoken to.  They’ve both learned from a very early age that it’s very important to ask questions of other people.  I’m constantly amazed at how few people do this.

Pack their own lunches.  I still sometimes do this, but the truth is I do that because I love it.  Grace in particular enjoys packing her own lunch and both are hugely capable of it.  Even when I pack lunch, they both know that the first thing they do when they come in the door after school is empty their lunch boxes and put the glass containers from the day in the dishwasher.

Do their own homework, alone.  Both kids know that if they need help or have a question, they can ask.  They do, from time to time.  Otherwise, the expectation is that they manage their own homework.  We received an email from school recently asking parents to back off from “helping” with homework.  In many cases it was clear the work was not done by the children themselves, the email said.  I laughed out loud, since while I have many issues, that is not one of them.  I think expressing interest in what they’re learning at school is vital.  I think doing their homework with them is damaging.

What should Grace and Whit be doing alone that they’re not?  What are your kids doing alone?  Do you agree with me that this is important?

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  1. Posted November 30, 2015 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    This is a great list and I am anxious to read Stitt’s piece. I need a lot of reminding in this category. I still do far too much for the girls. There are so many things above that they are not doing but so easily could. Great reminder!

  2. Isabelle
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Oh yes, nodding. My nine year old can use a variety of tools and build things with electronic components independently, and cook a number of simple things. We are just starting laundry but want him independent with it soon. I also heartily agree about expectations for interactions with adults. I think building kid’s competence increases their confidence and reduces their anxiety.

  3. Pam
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I always encouraged my 3 children when they were very young to respond to any invitation they received. They may have been shy and protesting…but I insisted. It wasn’t Mom’s invitation. If they did not do this –they did not go to the party.
    Also, to hand the cashier the money to pay for something they were buying was also important.
    ‘Pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ were also part of the plan…and self-confidence gained!

  4. Pamela Bernstein
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    I was always a believer in setting their own alarms and being responsible for getting themselves up in the morning. I don’t mind being a back up but after one time of being blamed for not waking them up on time did it for me!

  5. Elizabeth
    Posted November 30, 2015 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    This is a great list, but goodness do we have a lot of work to do! My ten (almost 11) year old boy is not too self-sufficient, nine year boy is slightly more so. Our five year old daughter is the most interested in doing things for herself, which is curious…

    I need to prod but I have all three writing thank you cards themselves. One thing I’ve been working on (with some progress) is showing initiative or being more proactive in conversations with the grownups in their lives. If your swim team goal is X, talk to your coach about how to get to X. I think this has the added benefit of demystifying authority figures (:

  6. Posted December 1, 2015 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Since our move this summer, I have still not restarted their list of chores and allowance, but this post serves as a great reminder. But I’ll try a little self-love and share what’s working:
    Dishes are a big one in our house. I’d rather they break than do them on behalf of the kids, even the 5 year old, but I admit to being up tight about how the laundry system is managed. I could definitely stand to let go a bit on how the clothes look in their drawers (what I saw as a help may have actually hindered them, never thought of it that way. What a revelation). I have similar feelings to you and the commenters on developing a capability to talk to adults (asking questions! This reminds me of The Signature of All Things, ha), and we also have the kids handle their own cash transactions, give donations, etc. as well as ask them to look at adults, even if the adults shrug off my demand as unnecessary or even unwelcome. But manners are important in the South, so I suppose people here have been less confused about my rigid politeness rules than in Boston. What a fun way to avoid thinking about work right now! xoxo

  7. Gale
    Posted December 1, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I love that you facilitate such independence in your kids. We try to do the same, although since my kids are still young-ish (7, 4.5 and 4) I sometimes have to stop myself from doing things that they can do out of regard for efficiency. That said, they all make their own beds and clear their places at the table. 7yo can fold and put away laundry. Little boys clean up all their own toys and sometimes sweep and dust. I recall from my own childhood that around 2nd grade I started doing my own laundry. And by middles school, my ironing. We’re not quite there yet, but soon.

  8. Posted December 1, 2015 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree – now if I could only get my children on board!

  9. Posted December 3, 2015 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I love this list! And totally agree it is important. It usually takes me a while to remember that my 6yo can do things on her own, and then a while to convince her that she can, but after that it always makes a huge difference in our lives and in her confidence.

  10. Posted December 7, 2015 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    What an inspiring list. This is undoubtedly my favourite bit though:

    They’ve both learned from a very early age that it’s very important to ask questions of other people. I’m constantly amazed at how few people do this.

    My husband and I often talk about how people (adults) don’t know how to carry a conversation anymore and i think it’s because they were not taught.

    admin Reply:

    It shocks me too! I’m a stickler for manners and I constantly feel (a) old-fashioned and (b) shocked by how other kids behave.

  11. Posted December 13, 2015 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    An interesting list. May give it a try at home. Thank you for sharing.