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Opinion I A 21-day challenge to make your child an independent thinker

Teaching independence has a lot to do with parents providing their children with opportunities to explore, make mistakes, learn and function freely

Supervise only when necessary, with rules and boundaries being very much a part of learning.
Supervise only when necessary, with rules and boundaries being very much a part of learning. (Photo: Alamy)

My son was two years old when we visited my sister in San Jose during the summer holidays that year. She put a bowl of cereal in front of him and handed him a spoon. Severely jetlagged and worried that the bowl would come crashing down to the floor, I lifted myself from the couch to feed him, thinking “god forbid that he goes hungry". But before I could reach him, he had clenched his spoon and had instinctively started to put cereal in his mouth, without dropping or spilling. Teaching independence has a lot to do with us providing our children with opportunities to explore, learn and function freely. We like to give them everything except the chance to make mistakes and thus learn in the process. 

Research in psychology has come a long way to finally look at cognitive and constructivism, in which children are seen as active learning entities, who are encoding and memorising through stimulation. However, even as research and methods change with time, the one constant in these equations is exposure. Parents are the primary agents of learning for children, and it seems to have become our life’s quest to take up every aspect of their learning in our hands. 

Shwetambara Sabharwal
Shwetambara Sabharwal

Under the spotlight and desire to out-do others as “perfect parents", we tend to over parent. Another concern is that we teach them what we want them to learn —reciting poems, dancing, reading or performing—and not allow for child-led learning (for instance, wanting to spill water mug after mug from one bucket to another)

While we indulge our need to “teach", we prevent the formation of the basic building blocks of learning, which motivate them to explore, think, observe, solve problems, experiment and experience consequences. While being honest to our roles as primary educators of our children, we need to encourage kids to become independent by letting them have greater autonomy. Supervise only when necessary, with rules and boundaries being very much a part of learning. 

Of course, accommodating autonomy can be challenging and time consuming. But it is worth every hour lost or gained watching our little ones become independent decision makers—a life skill, which I believe is fundamental to functionality and success. 

Now that challenges are the new fad, let’s experiment with another one: a 21-day challenge to make the child an independent-thinking individual. Here is a to-do list:

a) Talk to your child like they know and understand things. Condescending language communicates your lack of faith and every time you offer help, the child will smartly oblige and not make the effort. 

b) Do not hand hold. Guide, point in the right direction or make a suggestion and step back. Be patient and allow them to try their hand at a task. Watch them navigate wearing socks and shoes, let them figure what they are doing wrong and allow them to do it again. Appreciate the effort that the children have put in and allow for self-realisation to seep in. Let them take a few uncomfortable steps with wrongly worn shoes. 

c) Give them responsibilities. Picking up toys and books after play, ticking off the brushing chart, petting the dog are just some simple tasks that allow them to dabble with independence.

d) My personal favourite is giving children choices with limited and practical options. “Would you like a banana milkshake or strawberry?", “We have this blue T-shirt and that yellow one ready for today. Please take your pick". Their brain processes these choices, evaluates them, makes a decision and experiences the thrill of causality! By giving them the opportunity to make a choice teaches them the value of thinking, taking responsibility, coping with consequences and being an individual entity. This is also a magic trick to get things done and not have to deal with grumpiness, because they made the choice!

e) Help them cope with consequences and appreciate the decisions that they have taken. If they regret asking for a banana milkshake, help them focus on the fact that because of their decision, they now know what they will not pick the next time! Teaching them to focus on the importance of thinking for themselves, solving problems by trying another option the next time, appreciating their candour and confidence will help them blossom into independent thinkers.

 While it takes way more than 21 days to raise a child, I can assure you these days will be an eye opener. We may struggle with time, patience and frustration tolerance (don’t we always) but you will watch them love and savour this adventure as they make millions of neuronal connections while being presented with opportunities to try.

We need to slow down, to allow exploration and to remind ourselves that there is no perfect way of doing things, teach ourselves that mistakes are necessary to learn, and that constant help and interference can stunt a growing and proliferating mind.

Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.

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