If you’ve been around a child of pretty much any age for more than half an hour, you probably are familiar with the phrase “Just let me do it!” One of the first full phrases my two year old put together was “Me do it MYSELF!” soon followed by “Don’t hold me…never hold me!” It is frustrating, as a parent, to hear this at every turn. You know you can put their shoes on faster then they can, squirt out their ketchup with less of a mess, and choose an outfit for them that doesn’t look like something from a failed early 90’s ska band. But I’m here to tell you…it’s just not worth it. It’s not.
I’m here to say…let them! Let them do it themselves. Heck, don’t just let them do it themselves…encourage them to do it themselves! It will make life easier and more pleasant for everyone in the long run. In my parenting and my teaching, I try to consciously employ a Montessori principle summed up as “freedom within limits.” Let me explain.
I don’t let my children make the household rules, and I don’t let them run the house. What I do is set the parameters. There are some basic rules that are non-negotiable:
No hurting people or being unsafe. Clean up your messes and help with chores. Speak in a nice voice. Respect peoples’ words.
But if they uphold these basic rules, they can pretty much carry on and do their thing. Awhile back, I started only buying food I was okay with them eating, and I started letting them decide when they were hungry and what they’d snack on if they were. Did we immediately run out of popsicles? Absolutely, at first! But when they saw they had no more pops, they quickly learned to ration them on their own. I also found that I tremendously cut down on the amount of junk I bought, which in turn meant they were eating healthier because they were choosing healthy snacks on their own. But who decides on family meals? I decide on seven meals each week, and they decide which one we’ll eat that night. They pick out their clothes (and yes, my four year old had a chilly day of preschool in March where he wore shorts, but he soon realized there’s actually a good reason to consider the weather), and they play with whatever they want to most of the time.
We also let them do things that may seem above their skill level, but usually, they rise to the occasion. We recently started allowing our four and a half year old to get his own breakfast from start to finish, meaning he gets a bowl (using a step stool), pours the cereal and milk, eats it, and puts the dishes in the dishwasher after. We both leave breakfast feeling as though we’ve “won”: I didn’t have to persuade him to eat breakfast, then prepare it, then clean it up; he didn’t have to feel like I was controlling every minute of his life. And I get 10 extra minutes to sit with a cup of coffee. Winner, winner, chicken dinner, right?!
Now, before you think there’s just no law at all in my house and we’ve reverted to some sort of “Lord of the Flies” kinda lifestyle, I will say giving them this freedom within very clear limits most of the time means when we do require them to do something essential, such as brush their teeth or leave on time for school, that they generally just do it. I will also caution that they are certainly times where they need one of us to step in and say “I’m making this choice for you because you aren’t making the choice yourself” with things like what to wear, but those times have become less and less as they’ve gotten a bit older.
I feel like there’s something important, while also frustrating, about encouraging that “Let me do it myself!!!” attitude in young children. For our family, taking that and running with it, rather than trying to contain it, has made life a whole lot easier.