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?
Get Lindsey's thoughts on mindful living and parenting in your inbox