Independence is budding at my house like the bright, yellow jonquils in the front yard. I have a toddler and a tween. Both ages are often characterized by a desire for more independence while lacking the skills to pull it off. Just like those harbingers of springtime who warm in the promise of the sun and recoil from the remaining winter winds, my kids vacillate quickly between “I can” and “I can’t.”
The toddler fights to do everything himself. He wants to buckle himself in the car seat, open his box of raisins, and pour his own milk. When I do not let him try, he loses his mind and proceeds to demonstrate his frustration in a toddler tantrum. When he tries and cannot succeed, he might ask for help or drop to the floor and put on a show. When he is able to do that hard thing all by himself, he practically glows with pride as he declares, “I did it!”
Big sister is fighting for independence on another front. Great ideas pop in her brain like popcorn kernels in hot oil. This kid, along with her best friend, developed a t-shirt fund-raising campaign for a mission project. They contacted the shirt company and started taking orders without any adult counsel or involvement. I was simultaneously proud and alarmed when she started bringing twenty dollar bills home for Project Nicaragua (the name they gave their campaign). She faltered a bit in the execution and I paid for a few extra shirts because of it. I was stuck between cheering her on and capitalizing on this teachable moment.
Our kids can do more than we think they can. They can do more than they think they can. As they inch toward independence, our kids will vacillate between confidence and insecurity. They declare, “I will do it myself!” one minute and call for help the next. How can we encourage our kids to do the hard things?
First, uncover the reason “I can” becomes “I can’t.” Is it a lack of ability? Fear? Or a barrier standing in their way? Once the cause is identified, use one of the following strategies to help them succeed.
Bridge the Gap
As is the case with my toddler, there may be a gap between the task and their ability. Parents can help to bridge that gap by teaching them new skills. Shoe tying, making a grilled cheese sandwich, driving a car—all are important skills transferred parent to child. Give your child the skills they need to be more independent.
If your child is stuck because of fear, you can help them get unstuck by providing the tools they need to battle fear. First, help them recognize that God is with them. Show them some of the hundreds of references in Scripture that encourage us to trust instead of fear (search “fear not” or “not afraid”). Read promises such as Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And don’t forget the narratives in God’s word that share examples of God’s faithfulness and people’s courage. Then, share a time you were proud of them for doing something hard. The most important weapon you can give them in the battle against fear is prayer. Guide them in a prayer for strength, courage, and faith. As they bravely step forward, cheer them on by recognizing the little victories and point to God as their source of strength.
Break Down Barriers
Barriers to doing that hard thing come in many forms: endurance, money, time, space, and even other people. Help your child problem-solve ways to overcome these barriers. You can simplify the activity by breaking down difficult tasks into steps. Set a timer to get them to work on the task for a set time with built-in breaks and rewards. Role-play with your child to prepare them to deal with difficult people. Engaging your child in critical thinking will set them up for success the next time they face a hurdle.
Parents, we are preparing our children to launch. Proverbs 22:6 tells us, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Encouraging our kids to do hard things is an excellent training for the road ahead. As we build up their strengths and gently correct their missteps, we give them the tools they need to succeed as adults.