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Learning to Let Go: When Is It Time to Let Kids Fend for Themselves?

Thanks to Philips Sonicare for sponsoring this post. Click here to see more of the discussion.

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As a mom of five kids, I’ve had to do a lot of letting go over the years. First, there was the time I let my precious oldest son (the first babies always seem the most breakable, don’t they?) toddle away from me on chubby, halting feet, rather than hovering just above him, my arms extended.Or when I allowed my second, an eager eater, to begin shoveling table food into his own face a month before the development charts said he would probably be ready to self-feed (there wasn’t much I could have done to stop him, anyway).

And on and on. When you think about it, parenting is basically one big long process of letting go: just as we slowly get comfortable with the idea that our kids are really capable of putting on their own shoes or climbing up the jungle gym on their own, they get it into their heads to take on a new challenge and we have to hem and haw and grit our teeth and second-guess ourselves again until they’ve mastered it.

Rinse, repeat.

Speaking of rinse and repeat? One of the biggest challenges in letting go has always surrounded my kids’ personal hygiene habits. To a toddler, tooth-brushing feels like a fun experiment. To a six-year-old, it can seem more like an unwelcome interruption to the business of being a kid.

Same thing with fingernail clipping, hair brushing, and showering. At some point, I learned from experience, a growing boy does not want his mother coming into the bathroom to check on his showering technique anymore. You just have to give detailed directions, then take a deep breath and hope that his appearance will start mattering to him enough to inspire him to wash his armpits and take the extra ten seconds to get the suds out of his hair.

Of course, there are risks in life — like not smelling so great in school — and then Risks with a capital “R,” and as parents it’s also our job to know when our kids need guidance and when it’s OK to let them try for themselves (and very possibly fail, with a capital “F”).

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It’s more art than science, but here’s how I determine when to intervene….and when to let go:

  • What’s the risk vs. reward? Allowing my 5-year-old cross the busy street in front of our house by herself? Not happening. The risk is far too great, and the potential consequences serious — for no real reward. But letting her learn to climb the jungle gym is a much less risky way for her to experiment with independence, develop her confidence, and be active and have fun at the same time.
  • Is it developmentally appropriate? Letting a one-year-old practice brushing her own teeth is a fun way to get her used to the idea, but won’t do much for her oral health. A seven-year-old is a totally different story! By that age, kids are developing the skills and dexterity needed to take care of their own personal care; products that make it easy, like the Philips Sonicare for Kids toothbrush, can help.
  • How can I set my child up to succeed? NoI don’t follow my ten-year-old into the bathroom when he showers anymore, but I do give him careful directions for getting his hair all the way clean and deliver frequent reminders. I also make sure to stock the kids’ bathroom with products that make the job of getting fresh and clean easier, and make sure to allow plenty of time for them to brush their own hair and teeth and get on their own socks, shoes, jackets. When it comes to outdoor play, the bike helmets are in an easy-to-grab spot in the garage, and I give frequent reminders on things like crossing the street safely. That allows me to feel good about letting go a little, a little at a time.

Whether I’m taking the chance that one of my kids might scrape a knee, smell a little funky from time to time, or leave the house wearing mismatched socks, the truth is that life comes with risks and my kids need to learn to manage those for themselves.

My goal? To make it a little easier on myself to deal with the hard job of letting go, while also helping my kids learn to be independent, confident, and self-reliant members of our community….who also happen to have clean hair and teeth!

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