Self-Help Skills in Children
Most children eventually want to try everything from making their own sandwich to riding bikes on their own. The professionals at KidsHealth note that your child's strong desire to "do it myself" is natural and even vital to her development. You might end up with a kitchen disaster or a child on the ground, but parents sometimes give the best support by providing an age-appropriate safety net and then standing back and letting the process happen.
Self-help skills enable your child to meet his own needs and involve activities and behaviors that eventually lead to independence. Skills such as dressing on his own, learning how to set a table or pouring his own juice express growing maturity. However, self-help skills also involve emotional and cognitive growth, such as learning to express anger with words rather than throwing a toy, respecting property of others and some day learning to read a book without your help.
For most children, the desire to gain independence comes naturally with age. For instance, your baby might begin by trying to hold his own bottle or pick up small pieces of food to eat. Your preschooler or toddler might insist on using a cup and spooning up her own food from the plate. As cognitive abilities grow along with physical dexterity, your school-age child demonstrates growing self-help skills when she memorizes important phone numbers or asks you to take the training wheels off her bike. You can help your child mature by encouraging her to continue with her efforts, even when it means waiting a few minutes as she tries to zip her own jacket.
In their web-based learning unit, "All by Myself: Self-Help Skills in Child Care," educators at Pennsylvania State University note that your understanding of appropriate development for your child's age will improve his chance at success 1. For example, a 3-year-old can generally dress and undress on his own but might still need help with tying shoes. Expecting him to tie his own shoes at the wrong age or, on the other hand, not allowing him to dress when he can hinders his progression toward independence.
Confidence plays a significant role in your child's ability to learn self-help skills. The pediatric pros at the KidsHealth website note that your child develops confidence to try new things because of achievements and not because you keep describing how great she is. They suggest you look for specific examples to praise an accomplishment, such as when she makes her bed, and focus your encouragement on her effort as much as the goal. This increases self-esteem, and might lay a solid foundation that gets her ready for the challenges of school, sports and other activities.
In order to mature, children also need to learn how to help themselves by solving problems, negotiating conflict and learning from mistakes. The pediatricians at Healthy Children suggest you take a step back when appropriate, such as when your child is working on a puzzle, and not try to help him do it better or faster. Provided it is not dangerous, you might just need to listen to him talk about his solution for getting something done without correcting him or giving your own ideas. It may be the long way around when it comes to getting the bed made or the dishes from the table to the dishwasher, but the process helps him discover his own way.
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