Raising self-sufficient kids means less work for you — here's how to do it
Start young, so you won’t have to push them out of the nest
The first time I did my own laundry was at age 22. Moving to Mumbai came with many firsts. My first job, the first time I lived away from home, filing taxes, doing laundry… I wasn’t one of those self-sufficient kids growing up, an overachiever with honours in every subject and their own Youtube page.
I blamed my parents. To feel better, I’d tell myself, ‘they never got me ready for life outside the nest’.
But there is plenty that I could have done myself.
“Like you, a lot of us grew up with house help. Our mothers oversaw the housework and we happily sat back and enjoyed it without even giving it a thought,” family therapist Ambika Mallah tells me.
Children grow into adults living in bubbles that pop when we’re either shipped off to college or relocate for work, a transition that can be traumatic and even cause depression, says Mallah.
“A lot of what we term as ‘homesickness’ grows from the realisation that the person has to now do everything for themselves,” she adds. We want to run back to the safety and comfort of home with the speed of Dutee Chand, dreading our return to the real world.
A mother herself, Mallah is a vocal advocate for raising self-sufficient kids who tend to grow up to be well-adjusted, independent adults. “In India, I’ve seen a lot more of this dependency in young men,” says Mallah. Mollycoddling is often confused with love in our culture, and it very often becomes gendered when women unleash their inner smother nature.
Mallah notes that more of her millennial clientele are interested in raising self-sufficient kids. “We’re living faster-paced lives now. It’s a good thing that we’re instilling such independence from an early age.”
An expert’s guide to raising self-sufficient kids
Give them tasks they can accomplish
Start with simpler house chores that are age-appropriate, and give specific instructions. “Vague tasks confuse a child’s brain. You can’t just say, ‘go clean up your room’. What are they supposed to be doing? Dusting? Sweeping? They will be uninterested, get frustrated and so will you,” she adds.
When you start, give them a very simple task — like placing their dirty clothes in the designated laundry basket or taking their plates to the sink after a meal — and praise them when it is completed.
“Build on a task as they get older,” says Mallah.
Giving them responsibilities that they can complete will instil in your child a sense of confidence and self-esteem. It also imparts a sense of ownership over the house.
Be a guide, not their handler
All parents would like to be their child’s best friend and know all their dirty secrets. “Your child has enough friends. You are their parent, be that,” says psychiatrist Dr Syeda Ruksheda.
As much as you may want to, you can’t control every aspect of your child. “We need to recognise our children as their own people and not miniature versions of us,” adds Mallah. “You are a guide in their life towards making good decisions, helping them up if they falter and fall.”
“There’s a difference between telling them ‘you like green’ and letting them decide what colour they like. This also sparks the neurons in their brains to think for themselves instead of being spoon-fed,” Mallah comments.
Present yourself as someone always available for help, without forcing yourself into the equation and solving problems or taking decisions on their behalf.
“If your child asks you for help on an art project, of course, you can get them the paints and help with the scissor work, but it’s not your responsibility to get it done on time or do the entire project for them.”
Give them some decision-making power
From an early age, parents should encourage collaborative-decision making. It doesn’t have to be anything very complex either.
“Do you want to do this or that? I’m not going to open the cupboard and say, ‘Pick what shirt you want to wear’. I’ll ask, ‘Do you want to wear the white one or the blue one?’ When you’re giving options but also setting boundaries, they learn how to make decisions for themselves,” says Ruksheda.
If it goes well, it boosts their self-esteem. “If it goes badly, they take responsibility for the failure and it can help them learn and grow,” adds Mallah.
The confidence to make decisions for ourselves become an important pillar for being self-sufficient kids. “They feel as though they are running their own lives, which they then grow up to do, with full faith in their judgement.”
Whether they’re younger and choose an orange plate instead of green, or when they’re older and pick a college they want to go to, kids also need to know that you support and trust their judgement.
Encourage them to solve their own problems
A mother’s worst fear is having to hear those three dreaded words – “Mama, I’m bored.” Instead of breaking your head over finding ways to keep your children engaged, let them solve the problem themselves, says Ruksheda.
“In our house, we will give one suggestion, occasionally. At other times, the children will be told that they need to figure out what they want to do. Boredom is also important for their brain development, it teaches them problem-solving and creativity.
We need to stop spoon-feeding them and let them come up with solutions and games that you can then play with them.”
Gently nudge them towards finding answers with ideas and clues. Help them come up with options but make suggestions instead of giving them the answer straight away.
Mallah says problem-solving skills are integral to being a well-adjusted and independent adult. “If they’ve lost their pencil box and come running to you for an answer, instead of getting up and going to look for it, help them track their movements about where it could be. ‘Where was the last place you used it? When would you have taken it out of your drawer?'”
She adds that it may be the longer route, compared to just giving them what they want, but it pays off in the end.
Just be patient.
Teach them practical life skills
A parent’s mind won’t rest until they know they’ve prepared their child the best they can for the tornado that is life. One of the starting points of that is the knowledge of basic life skills.
We’re not saying train your child to be a domestic goddess, but basic survival skills are key.
You don’t need to thrust a knife into a toddler’s hands, but involve them in the cooking process by letting them touch, feel and rinse the vegetables if nothing else – this even encourages them to them eat better.
If you’ve made your child responsible for their breakfast, do the prep beforehand to keep the cereal box, bowl, milk and fruits within reach.
Whether it’s managing finances, grocery shopping, cleaning and laundry or changing a flat tire and replacing a light bulb – “Involving children in maintenance and the household management work can be a fun and exciting bonding process where you both work on something together and they develop a new skill,” says Mallah.
Let your kids take charge of their own finances and piggy bank. Talk them through the process of fixing a leaky pipe. Get a small broom and dustpan and turn jhaadu into a game.
“Position it not as them having a job to do, but as them helping mummy and papa, give them that ego boost.”
Get creative in your approach, says Mallah, and maybe then doing chores won’t seem like, well, a chore.