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A new year is a great excuse for starting fresh. My fresh start for 2012 is to begin the process of letting go of some of my mothering responsibilities. Now that my children are older (12 and twenty) and fully capable of making their own beds, for example, or bringing their laundry hampers into the basement, I’ve decided to step back so that they can step forward. After all, I remind myself, am I really doing them a favour in the long run by always doing for them what they can do for themselves.
I want to be clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “doing” for them. If my daughter is studying in her room, there’s nothing wrong with surprising her with a cup of hot chocolate and cookies, even though she can boil the kettle and make a snack herself. Nothing wrong with offering to drive her to a friend because it’s cold out and she’d otherwise have to take the bus. These are examples of ways I can show how much I care. They differ, however, from feeling that I have to take responsibility because I think that it’s my obligation to do so or taking responsibility because I fear being blamed if I somehow don’t perform in a way that has become expected. It’s about doing because I want to, not because I feel I have to.
My first step back means that I have to make sure that both of the girls’ alarm clocks are in good working order and that they knew how to set them. Who am I kidding? They are more adept at making electronic things operational than I’ll ever be. My next step involves sharing my intentions with them. Not in a way that makes them feel as if they are being punished, but in a loving, caring way. So, I told them - “I love you guys and I certainly don’t want to see you being late for school, but I’m also tired of and stressed about having to nag you to get out of bed in the morning. So, I’m giving you advance warning that as of the first day of school I won’t be waking you up anymore. It will be your responsibility to set your alarm and get yourselves up with sufficient time to get out of the house on time. I figure that you are more than capable of doing that.”
The response wasn’t too favourable. Turns out they like being woken up by me, even when I’m frustrated. My older daughter asked if I could at least come in once and promised that I wouldn’t have to come back in. My younger daughter said how much she enjoyed snuggling with me in the morning. I almost stepped back into the ring, but I held back and stood my ground. As I write this, less than a week before school begins again, I am still feeling strong. I know that it will take nerves of steel to remain this way, especially as I see the clock ticking closer to the morning bell at school. I know that if I give in – even once – that the exception will become the rule and I will have blown my opportunity for a fresh start.
I figure that once I have remained resolute and steadfast in my attempt to encourage them towards greater independence, that I can then move onto other areas. The possibilities are endless. Imagine – I may even get them to make their own school lunches or order in pizza for the family.
When children are given more personal responsibility, they learn about accountability - such as when they sleep in, arrive late to school and have to explain why or when they don’t complete their homework on time and have to stay in during recess to complete it. Their self confidence and self worth is also enhanced as they become more self reliant. They feel proud of being able to take care of themselves, proud to be “cleaning up” after themselves and proud about becoming increasingly self reliant. My bet is that another positive side effect to pulling back is that, along the way, your children will show more appreciation when you do offer your help. When your time is more of a privilege than an expectation, they appreciate you doing for them rather than being disappointed or angry when you don’t.
Now, just don’t tell your children I told you so!
Sara Dimerman is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counselling to individuals, couples and families out of the Parent Education & Resource Centre in Thornhill, Ontario. She is the author of two parenting books, 'Am I A Normal Parent?' and 'Character Is the Key' and is one of North America’s leading parenting experts. Learn more or listen to advice from Sara and her colleagues by searching for “helpmesara” podcasts on iTunes or by visiting www.helpmesara.com