Then the explosion happened. Partially blended frozen fruit ended up all over the kitchen counters and floor. “She always knows to make sure the top of the blender is in place,” says the West Hurley, New York, mom. “But I guess she didn’t double check the base of the blender this time.”
Children are bored, and parents are busier than ever. No wonder kids are taking on more responsibilities in the kitchen and beyond. And according to Claire Lerner, a child development specialist based in Washington, D.C., it’s something that children often want—if parents will let them.
“The major challenge of parenting is finding this balance between supporting and enabling,” she says, “So the question I'm always asking parents is, are you doing something for your child that they actually can do for themselves?”
Though tying your kids’ shoes or making their lunches get the job done more quickly, Lerner says that letting children take control and develop new skills is especially important right now and can have long-lasting benefits.
“When a child takes on new responsibilities, they get the sense that they are capable and confident,” Lerner says. “And that internal feeling is what leads them to get excited about taking on new things.”
Creating the framework
Giving children a little control when things feel so out of control can make them more independent. Often that can start with mundane chores. And though you might get some eyerolls when asking them to help you out more, Lerner advises showing them the positive benefits.
“When kids help with chores, it saves time—that means more time for fun activities,” she says. “If they help set the table and clear dishes at mealtime, it means they have time for family movie night or to take a family walk in the dark with flashlights.”
Candice Rivera, teacher and parent educator at Public School 89 in the Bronx, sees the effects of getting kids to do things they might normally not be expected to do. “Whether it's walking a dog or even washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom, it helps kids realize that that the world is bigger than them,” she says.
That’s great … until the dishes break, the dog runs away, and the toilet overflows. But with a bit of advance work, letting kids figure out the best technique for folding their socks and then deciding where to store them develops problem-solving skills—and likely helps parents who need an extra set of hands.
“The most positive, healthy parenting is knowing yourself,” Lerner says. So if your kid wants to be in charge of salads but a big mess in the kitchen is going to cause stress, break down the recipe into discrete tasks and have overarching guidelines—like “before we eat, we need to clean up”—that you feel comfortable with.
Learning from mistakes
Bigger projects that kids can be charge of—like maintaining a vegetable garden or creating a daily schedule—can also help them feel empowered. But make sure they’re tackling something within their limits, even if they’re just doing part of the project (like scheduling Mondays instead of the whole week).
“We don't want to set the situation up for disaster, where something that should be super joyful now becomes fraught with anger,” Lerner says.
So what happens when the veggies don’t grow or something’s left off the schedule? Don’t try to fix their mistakes—show kids it’s OK to own it.
“It’s actually not great for kids for everything to always come out perfectly because that's just not the way life is,” Lerner says. “[The fact that] everything doesn't always come out the way you want it to is a critically important message.”
Rivera agrees. “Learning happens through mistakes. It happens through communication and collaboration.”
Lerner gives an example from one family she works with, who wanted to empower their 12-year-old daughter to plant a garden as a way to foster self-reliance and focus her days. But the girl picked out seeds that wouldn’t grow where she lived. That led to a conversation about responsibilities and limits. After researching the right type of seeds online, together the family came up with several options for her to choose from. Only then was able to take charge of the planting in a way that worked for everyone.
Putting them in charge
If your kids are begging to be in charge of something (or complaining about how you do home tasks!) here are some fun ideas that can get them started on the road to self-reliance.
Kids café. Let kids plan and cook a meal once a week. For a more restaurant-y feel, encourage them to create personalized limited-option menus. Younger kids can help with planning, setting the table, and cleaning up. (Get kid-friendly recipes.)
Weekend warriors. Empower children to create the family’s Saturday schedule by suggesting restaurants to order from, board games to play, and movies to watch. (Get advice on taking back your weekend.)
Nature walk. The next time you’re up for a family stroll, have the kids choose the route, then turn it into a weekly event. They can map it as they go, or plan it out beforehand. (Get tips for creating maps.)
Plan a "stay-cation." Children complaining about never getting to go anywhere? Let them plan a virtual trip. Paris anyone? Have them choose snacks (baguettes and cheese!), movies (Ratatouille is a classic), and other location-based activities (eating like you’re at an outdoor café). They can even teach parents a few words or songs inspired by their choice. (Research locations at Nat Geo Kids.)
Grow a garden. Set your family up for success by researching plants that grow best in your region. Choose veggies your kids like to eat and flowers you'd like to display. (Find out how gardening can teach life skills.)
Family historian. Instill this title on your kids and have them document your pandemic life. Let them use an old camera or cell phone to interview family members about their lives right now, then put it all together as a movie or scrapbook. (Here’s how to engage children with family stories.)
Make them entertainment directors. Let the kids be the boss of the after-dinner entertainment. They can plan out a new activity each night, whether it’s a family talent show or a themed movie night.