Sunday, August 11, 2013

Teaching Independence

Chris and Luke have been in Canada for the last week – on a fishing trip with the guys in my family. You need to be nine to go, so Liam and I had a week together. It was only in having Liam by himself that I made an important discovery – he is not self-sufficient.

My nature is one of independence. I remember realizing this as a new mother for the first time, determined to do everything needed for this new baby. I’d rely on Chris for assistance, but hated asking for help beyond him. I knew to feel confident in my new role, I needed to be the one doing the work. This is a fault, I am sure, but I also do strongly believe in teaching children independence. 

With Luke I think we’ve done a good job of this. For an eleven year old, he can do almost anything I’d ask of him. I trust him completely to finish tasks and he is extremely responsible. I didn’t realize that he was doing so much for Liam – or that I was asking him to do so much for his brother – until he was gone.

All week I would ask Liam to do something, and he’d give me a million reasons why he couldn’t. From things like taking the dog out at night, to getting brownies he wanted when they were too high to reach, to emptying the bathroom trash, I was met with a child who was helpless. The last straw for me was when we were bringing groceries in. Both of us had full hands, yet Liam reached the door long before I did and waited for me to come. I asked why and he said he couldn’t open the door, his hands were full. I looked at my own hands and said mine were too, what could we do?  He simply shrugged. I deliberately – and slowly – put one bag down, opened the door, and we walked in as I picked up my own bag again.

Unloading our groceries in the kitchen, I talked to Liam about independence and how it feels good to do things for ourselves. I talked about how it was problem solving and that if we use our brains we can often figure out answers to the problems we have, but that we can ask for help if needed. He was irritated at first but then quietly listened as I gave him some examples.

Yesterday we were driving from Target to lunch and Liam sat behind me in the van. He was trying to open a package and it was a bit of a struggle. I asked what was going on and his reply was:

“It’s fine, mom. I’m using my brain and problem solving the best way to open this.”

I had a silent laugh as I continued to drive. When we pulled in the parking lot I opened his door and he held up the open package triumphantly. There are still lessons to be taught, but we’re on the right track.

Driving home from lunch with Liam I couldn’t help but think of my classroom. I set so much of the room up for independence. I’m ridiculously organized in the classroom – to Chris’s amazement. I want the students to know where things go without my constant assistance. I teach routines for the first few weeks of school – longer than I feel I need to – because then the classroom runs smoothly for the rest of the year. One area I think I need to work on teaching independence, however, is book selection. Often kids ask for help, unsure as to what book to read. I love spending this time with students individually – it is a wonderful time to conference – but like in my own family where Liam needs more help than Luke, typically it is the same students I’m helping over and over. This means I spend an inordinate amount of time with one child while many kids who are already picking their own books successfully don’t see me.

I don’t know what the right answers are for this, but like many issues I’ve had in the classroom, I will likely use lessons from parenting to try and solve it. I will do what I’ve always done in teaching them to select their own books: talking about genre, preferences, authors, classroom set up, recommendations from friends, etc. This year I think we’ll add one more thing. I can have the same conversation I had with Liam about independence and see where that takes us. Independence gives us confidence, belief in ourselves. Thanks to Liam for reminding me of that.