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Encouraging Self-direction for Your Child

April, 2009
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KeEr 1 Children who are self-directed are able to manage skills, tasks and problems independently. They have a degree of control over themselves and feel able to influence at least those aspects of their lives that are currently important to them. Children who lack the ability to direct themselves feel helpless and become dependent on others to take them forward. Being able to control, or at least influence, both your present and your future is vital.

  Being Trusted. We must know that we can manage our body and our life, and that we are entitled to have a say in what happens to us. A child’s first experience of self-direction, making her feel capable rather than helpless, will be connected to her parent or caregiver understanding and responding to her basic needs: food, warmth, comfort and attention. Older children will develop their feelings of “mastery” further if they are given increasing responsibility for managing themselves, are encouraged to question, explore and express negative as well as positive feelings and learn how to negotiate.

  Choices are important. We define ourselves through choices, because they say something about who we are. Asking a child, “Do you want to do this task this way or that way?” not only helps him invest something of himself in the task, but also gives him some control over what he has been asked to do. Used appropriately, choices also reinforce personal responsibility. The very act of making a decision encourages a child to accept an important commitment to the consequences of that decision. However, children should not have free choice about everything. The younger the child, the more we have to manage and limit their choices. It may be easier to avoid the well known “morning rush -to -get -out -the –door” stress if you give your young child a couple of choices about breakfast and getting dressed. “Would you like toast or cereal?” Would you like to wear your red shirt or the blue one?” Older children of course are capable of making many more choices. They could be asked to tell you what their schedule is for the day and how they plan to get things done. Be prepared to negotiate and compromise.

  Self-direction and independence feed each other. The more self-directed children are, the better they can manage independence. The more independence they are given, provided it is appropriate, the more they develop the confidence and skills to become self-directed and self-reliant and show initiative and creativity. The more adults tell children what to do, the less competent they will feel – so they end up asking for direction. It is self-fulfilling; directive parents produce dependent children. Parents frequently ask, “How can I make my child become a leader?” Well, leaders make themselves through a combination of temperament and the opportunity to challenge themselves. We, as adults, just have to get out of the way sometimes!

  Time Alone. Children cannot become self-directed if they are monitored and guided every minute of the day and have no discretionary time – time that is theirs to fill as they please. How would you feel if after a long day at work you were expected to play soccer or concentrate on a new piano piece or sit with a tutor for an hour? Boredom is not unhealthy. That awful whine, “I’m bored!” can give us a heavy heart, but boredom represents a pain barrier through which children have to pass to help them explore their inner resources and find new interests. No one needs to be entertained all the time and having some down time is a good thing for all of us.

Here are some tips for increasing self-direction for your child:KeEr 2

*Encourage independence, within appropriate limits. The playground is a wonderful place for children to move and think independently.

*Give her practice in making decisions that directly concern her. Older children should have the opportunity to manage their time – when to hang out with friends and when to do homework.

*Encourage him to take some responsibility for tasks appropriate for his age. Every member of the family can have chores to do around the house whether it is making their bed, folding laundry or grocery shopping.

*Allow her to spend time on her own, without the television or computer, which will encourage her to have ideas about other things to do. If your children observe you doing something by yourself that you enjoy, perhaps reading or painting, they will have more awareness of this and be more inclined to “do their own thing.”

*Let him do things his way; don’t always force your way on him. Loosen the reins when it comes to choices that are not safety issues. For example, if your child wants to wear their hat to bed let them. Who does it hurt?

*Encourage her to plan ahead and manage her time. This applies to all ages; the earlier they start the less nagging you will feel the need to do. Younger children do not have a developed sense of past and present but will respond to five-minute reminders about picking up their toys or getting ready for bed.

*Give him an allowance as soon as he can understand money so his spending decisions are his. Once you decide what is an appropriate amount stick to it and do not add to it randomly. We all work with budgets.

Generally, the younger a child is the fewer choices you offer in order to keep them safe and feel good about their decisions. However, any choices offered should be real. Don’t offer them a choice and then override it. As children grow they can handle the consequences of their choices, whether they are negative or positive, to a greater degree.

By Laurie Robinson

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