Why I Need to Stop Being The Problem Solver

It’s all about change in our house at the moment. It’s that time of the year, here in the UK, when both my daughters are about to finish their school years. The oldest is finishing her secondary education and will be moving away from home come September. The youngest is also finishing her school year and next year will be in post 16 education. Because she is in a specialist school the move from school to post 16 is a pretty big deal and is seen as the first step in her moving from child to adult.

So, it was rather handy that the theme of my latest podcast Stepping Back (Part 1) was all about the challenge of letting your children take risks, make mistakes and learn to solve their own problems. Listening to Lisa (a speech and language therapist) and Milla (an occupational therapist) talk about how they work with young people – encouraging their independence, and how it is often us parents who unwittingly hold back our children by not stepping back – it got me reassessing what I do in terms of actually encouraging my daughter’s independence. It would appear I could be all style no substance. Let me explain what I mean.

Every day my daughter walks to school, accompanied by myself and our dog. Its only about a 20-minute walk, the dog loves it, and despite my daughter’s occasional objections, I think she does as well. It’s one of those times we can chat, but when I’m not making her talk to me. She can talk if she wants or she can just walk. But the main reason we walk is to help her develop independent travel skills. She is what can be best described as an inconsistent road crosser, so the walk involves opportunities to practice her road crossing skills.

Now, before listening to Milla and Lisa, I thought I was doing this pretty well: we come to the road; we stop; I let her look both ways, and then we cross. So far so good. But listening to them made me think about how this goes. I walk beside her. I stop at the road. I let her look both ways then I move when it’s ok to cross. Maybe she is not learning to cross independently; maybe she is reading my signs and responding to those?

Another example they used was on the train. Again, as we approach our station, I pick up my bag and start looking towards the door, getting ready to get off. That’s the cue for my daughter to get ready to get off as well. What if I didn’t move, would she do it without me? Would she know which is her stop?           How many other cues and signs do I give her without even realizing it. This stepping back idea sounded very easy before I thought about it too deeply.

Lisa and Milla talked also about shopping. Now I thought this was one area I was doing ok. I was stepping back and letting my daughter develop some skills. She has started to go into the supermarket alone to buy a few items. She has a shopping list app on her phone and we have kept the list fairly short. But not being with her I hadn’t considered exactly how she shops. What I hadn’t thought about was how we all shop intuitively. I know if I want milk and cheese, these are near each other. Luckily the app she uses groups things together but what if she hasn’t got her phone. Maybe some work to be done here. And another thing I hadn’t considered – add in those dreaded use by dates. When I buy milk I have quick look at the date on the container. I don’t think my daughter knows what to look for. One way for her to have a system to get this right (suggested by Lisa in the podcast) is to take the milk from the back.

Lisa and Milla also talked about the merits of the self-service checkout. That is very definitely my daughter’s choice of exit. And I must admit I hadn’t really thought too deeply about the why. I often prefer it too as it can be quicker. But they reminded me that more likely it’s because she doesn’t really want to talk to anyone. So I guess that needs to change, with queues ahead of her as she learns to shop independently.

Following on from this, as Lisa and Milla suggest, is to think about how to use every opportunity to build skills. Thus, a trip to movies can include the actual purchase of the ticket. I can almost feel the level of fear that will bring to me and my daughter. I’d worry for her and she would hate it, which means it has to be done.

Of course, it’s going to get very tiring if every time we leave the house I’m trying to teach or reinforce some skill. And Lisa and Milla talked about this, suggesting that the best approach is focusing on a few areas at a time. Learning independent life skills needs to be fun, not a chore. Some things will be challenging and take time. I must remember to let her see a purpose to what she is doing and make it as natural as possible.

So what will happen in reality? Me wondering how my daughter will feel when she gets it wrong, and how long will it take her to learn? Will her confidence be dented? Does this make me a bad parent? Shouldn’t I always be there beside her? But if I need to be reminded why I’m doing all this then I should listen to the parent Milla quotes at the end of the podcast, “I allow my children to take risks because if I’m not here I need to be sure I’ve given them the opportunity to be as independent as possible.” I couldn’t put it better myself. It won’t be easy watching her struggle and make mistakes, but it will be very easy watching her become a problem solver and an independent young woman.