How much independence is the right amount of independence for kids?

June 12, 2012

in Adoption, Adventures in Parenting, Different Points of View, Parenting

Last week, I posted on Facebook a picture of my kids that melted my heart. After we arrived at preschool for drop off and I unbuckled them from their car seats, they hopped out of the car and put their sweatshirts on.

Mattix quickly zipped his up, but Moll was stuck. She asked for help. He pushed his lunchbox at me and said, “Here, hold this, Mom,” and took care of his baby sister like the best kind of big brother there is.

Often, when I take their picture on my iPhone, they know I’m taking it. They smile all cheesy - albeit cute – and look adorable for the camera. But this picture is the type that is fewer and further between. It’s of my kids, just doing what they do.

And what they were doing was sweet.

Mattix is an incredible big brother. He has been from the day he first saw Molley’s referral picture on my laptop. He wasn’t even 2 years old yet. I told him he was looking at his new baby sister. He leaned over and gave her a kiss.

He has treated her with the same amount of love since that day. They squabble here and there and they sometimes even brawl a bit – they’re brother and sister who are 18 months apart and spend a whole lot of time together – but they are best friends.

And the amount of love in Matty’s heart for his sissy is staggering.

I just went back to an old blog post and grabbed a large portion of it – pictures, mostly.


He tried his best to help take care of her (April 2009, a week after Molley came home)

He gave her kisses (May 2009)

He got better at helping to take care of her (May 2009)

Molley began to get the hang of things. I think they even started conspiring (early June 2009)

Mattix hugged her a lot in his barely-2-year-old way (June 2009)

Naturally, as Molley got older and more mobile, she also became a bit of an annoyance. Because that’s what little sisters do.

But he still took care of her. When Molley cried because she finished all of her ice cream, Mattix fed her his. (August 2009, pic from Crackberry)

Honestly, he fed her all. the. time. (Late August 2009)

Molley learned from Mattix how to care and share and love. And they became buddies. (Halloween 2009)

We officially moved from Arizona to California in October 2009 after living in both states for five months. By then, they were close siblings and friends. (November 2009)

They care (August 2010)

They have a lot of fun playing (October 2010)

This photo captures their relationship well and it’s over one-and-a-half years old. It was taken on my Droid, so the quality isn’t the best, but it’s natural and un-posed. I asked them to smile at the camera and Matty reached over and put his arm around Molley. She leaned in. After I took it, they hugged. (November 2010)


In the year and a half since that last photo, Mattix has perfected the art of being the world’s best big brother. And Moll has settled into the role of an adoring little sister.

And so I often see him doing those small things for his sister, like zipping up her hoodie. Sometimes she legitimately needs the help and others, she wants to feel special. And special to her is having her big brother dote on her.

So it caught me off guard when I posted that first picture of Mattix zipping up Moll’s hoodie and among all of the comments about how sweet it was, someone wrote, “Teach that girlie girl some life skills.”

Beside it breaking the cardinal rule of Facebook – thou shall not make comments on other people’s parenting – never in a million years would I have looked at my 5-year-old helping my 3.5-year-old zip up a sweatshirt and thought, “Wow, my child is severely lacking in life skills.”

Now, I’m not all bent out of shape over the comment. My mom was a typical grammy and was quick to respond. And offending commenter was quick to continually insist that Moll would be much better off if she were more independent. At some point, after I had enough, I explained that a 3.5 year old needing help zipping a hoodie doesn’t really correlate with a lack of life skills or independence, then I blocked offending commenter. (Facebook is my happy place – I block and/or hide anyone who is excessively negative.)

But that aside, it left me to reflect on exactly how much independence we expect of our children.

I’m rolled my eyes and ignored all of the hoopla about how the French do it better. Sure, they do some things better. And we do others better. Blah, blah, blah.

I consider myself rather far to the right of the independence continuum. I am a highly, highly independent person. It’s one of my greatest strengths… and one of my greatest faults.

It is one of the qualities that Ed, my husband, admires the most about me… and one of the qualities that can frustrate him the most.

Independence can give a person pretty serious survival and life skills. I have both.

And independence can isolate someone like nothing else. I have experienced it.

As for Molley, Ed and I have always treated her as though she’s older than she is. And that is what I consider one of my greater parenting failures. Molley is far smarter than her age. She always has been. In the beginning, her abilities and intelligence were positively fascinating. As time went, on, they became our norm and so we began treating her as though she was years older than her chronological age.

In some ways, it has worked. In others, it’s unfair.

My children are classic Montessori kids. They make their own decisions, have the ability to act very responsibly and have an extreme amount of self confidence. It’s interesting to watch them around some of their peers. At a birthday party recently, 20 kids sat at tables and ate cake and drank juice. When they were all done, 18 kids hopped up and ran off. Mattix and Molley collected their crumb-filled napkins, shoved them in the paper cups, and carried that, along with their plates and forks, to the trash.

They’re fun to take out. They’ve been able to sit at a nice restaurant table since they were babies. They’ll try just about any food. My son has the coolest taste of any 5-year-old I know. My daughter has eaten sushi since before I should have allowed her to consume it.

They’re independent. They’re smart. They’re capable.

And yet they are my kids. My preschoolers. How much independence is too much? Should I make my daughter go upstairs and get her own “comfy clothes” when she insists on changing into them after school? Or should I get them for her? Because she’s 3 and she wants to be taken care of?

Should I tell my son to get up from the dinner table and fill his own glass of water? Or should I do it for him sometimes? After all, he sets the table and both kids have cleared their own plates for over a year. Shouldn’t I just be a mom and get the glass of water?

How much independence is enough for kids? How much is too much?

I don’t have the answer.  I question it every day.

But what I do know is that allowing my 5 year old to be a big brother to his sister who is 18 months younger than him – who he adores and loves and takes care of – isn’t going to deprive her of life skills.

Because when you’re 3 years old and used to being treated as though you’re a few years older, it’s nice to know that your big brother will always offer to put your shoes on for you.



{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa June 12, 2012 at 6:07 am

Oh please. Taking care of others is showing love. Molly could zip her coat after practicing for 2minutes if she had to. Your troll was wrong wrong wrong. I will tie Lucy’s shoes till she’s 20 if she wants me to, then she can start tying mine.


Jules June 12, 2012 at 6:44 am

Zipping your sweatshirt is now considered a life skill that needs to be conquered by age 3.5? Wow! Some of my 5th graders who get their’s stuck and ask me for help are in a world of hurt! I think showing love and compassion is a better life skill to have. And your children definitely have that!

And yes, I am commenting on your parenting skills.

P.S. Those pictures ALMOST make me want to have kids. Almost.


Mandy_Fish June 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

Okay, I was all misted up and touched by their love for one another. And then I slipped into white hot rage when I read that incredibly rude comment from your (former) facebook friend.

I’m glad that person isn’t my parent, or my kids parent, or your kids parent. Geez. It reminds me of something I read once, that when the Native Americans saw how the European parents let their newborn babies cry and cry without soothing, the Native Americans presumed it was because the Europeans wanted the children to learn that the world was a cold, hard place.

P.S. I love blocking people from my happy place. Wish I could do it in real life.


Alicia June 12, 2012 at 9:18 am

Truth: Sometimes I can’t zip my own zipper.

This post made my day until Negative Nancy ruined it. I don’t even know your children and I think they are the sweetest most amazing kids I have ever seen plastered on Facebook. I think that person missed the point and in all reality if Molley didn’t know how to do anything but Mattix knew how to take care of her, that is a far greater achievement in parenting. Especially considering he is 5. If zippering is a life skill, I am nervous for our future. I prefer to think of compassion, the willingness to not only ask for but to accept help, and love as the more important life skills and your kids have that down.

I don’t know literally about kids and independence but I do know that being able to care for and do things for my future kids is one of the things I look forward to most.


Nicki June 12, 2012 at 9:26 am

Um, the very first and most vital life skill we can teach is to love and be loved. Geez. Does it not occur to people that kids have only 18 years to be kids – a (hopefully) very small snapshot of their entire lives of zipping their own coat? Gah! That’s so sad to me.

Have you seen that meme on Facebook/pinterest with the life skills list? I may have even pinned before reading. It’s shocking and horrifying. I can’t imagine raising my kids in such a way.

You know addy and Molley are similar. It’s hard to treat them like their age because they don’t act their age. This isn’t a failure – its following your child’s lead! Had you chastised her for not zipping her own coat in an effort to push her to need less and develop life skills ? THAT would be a failure! Don’t doubt yourself. Molley has and will continue to show you what she needs. Some days that will mean she needs her coat zipped an others it will mean she needs you to advocate for more challenging work at school because she’s bored to death. Kids are so smart and if we choose to look (like you always have) they will guide us much better than any life skills list or cluelessly misguided commenter.


Terry June 12, 2012 at 9:42 am

You nailed the crux of your article in one small but succinct sentence; independence can be one’s greatest strengths and at the same time one’s greatest faults. That will never change and though it can feel solitary at times, I would rather err on the side of it. I believe everyone can feel solitary at times anyway. As for too much independence…wait until the teens – and that is a whole new perspective! I love, love, love the pictures and they tell a very wonderful story as evidenced by the growth of these two very special little people who exhibit just the right amount of independence and with whom I’m blessed to share a piece of my life with. Great post!


Debbie in the UK June 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

Aw Laura, you brought tears to my eyes with this post. It’s just so lovely, and of course its right that Mattix acts the big bro and loves his sister and she loves him right back. Those life skills will come when they need to, what a stupid comment you received on facebook. I still love to look after and baby my kids, and they are 28 & 23!! They love it too. Thanks for the great post xx


January June 12, 2012 at 9:59 am

Wonderful post Laura. I think we all tend to question what we *should* be doing for our children verses what we *want* to do for our children. If you know your child is capable of doing most things but sometimes they feel the need for their parent to ‘tend to or indulge them on occasion’ as we all should be doing anyway – it’s OKAY! My goodness. I can run my own bath and put my own bubbles in it, pour my own glass of wine too … but sometimes….sometimes it’s REALLY nice when my husband does it for me. And I’m as independent as they come (yes, to a fault as well).


Margie June 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

Laura, I had a very similar experience when Lani was in kindergarten, and I still smart from it now, 15 years later! Her speech teacher (another funny story; the school told me that she couldn’t get speech help because she was an international student — but, um, she had a slight speech impediment! Can an international student — laying aside the fact that she was actually, um, an American student — not have a speech impediment?) cautioned me harshly because she saw me carrying Lani’s backpack for her into the school building and said that I was hampering Lani’s development by not pushing her into greater independence. A long time later, I finally got up the courage to visit the speech teacher and explain that children adopted as “older kids,” as our daughter had been, and who feel rejected by their first family, need the reassurance that somebody truly dotes on them and has their back, even more than they need to be able to carry their own backpacks into school. She was very apologetic, but it reminded me that people who haven’t walked in our shoes just can’t be expected to have a clue. But that’s not our problem.


Jen June 12, 2012 at 11:48 am

I love seeing all of these photos again :)

Doing for others shows love–it doesn’t mean that your children cannot do these things themselves or lack life skills because it is obvious you’ve given them what they need to succeed. Our kids are at an age where they are not quite babies and not quite big kids…and they need a lot of reassurance and love. Added to that is the whole adoption dynamic which Margie explained so well above. We cannot dote on them enough when they need added reassurance. Shame on anyone who questions you!!


Nichole June 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Just lovely, Laura.
Leaning on another person is a beautiful thing. Letting another person feel helpful is a gift in and of itself. And the ability to look outside of ourselves to see that someone else needs a bit of help? That’s so important, yet so rare.
This connection that they have will serve them well through life.
Your kids have it all figured out.
Good job, mama!


Angela June 12, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Life skills? Pft. How long would it take a child with average dexterity to learn how to zip a hoodie? Maybe an afternoon? It’s much harder to instill compassion, nurturing, and the desire to help others in our children. It seems like your beautiful kids are learning the “life skills” that will really serve them well.


Ellie {Musing Momma} June 12, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Wow – the relationship captured in these photos is absolutely beautiful! It is so clear these two will be life-long friends and have a brother-sister bond that is above and beyond what most sibs have. I struggle too with the balance between encouraging independence and giving my kids the sense of safety and comfort that comes with being taken care of. When my second was born my oldest (then 3) suddenly wanted me to feed and dress him again. Did I say, Too bad, you’re 3, do it yourself? No way. He needed to know his Momma was still going to have his back. So I did it for a while and then we started a little reward chart to encourage some of those independence skills that we knew he had. I think we just follow our intuition to find that balance.


mimi lam June 21, 2012 at 9:18 am

Wow, I can see the love, and the affectionate Mattix and Molly have for each other in these images. I wish I have a great big brother as Mattix to lean on, be spoiled, and have him do things for me such as to tie my shoes strings, zip up my jacket, feed me goodies, just because I want to and because I know he loves me. Their sibling relationship is very touching, and heartfelt. A very touching, beautifull post, Laura.


Laura June 21, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Hi Mimi! I was just thinking about you the other day, wondering how you are! I hope you’re doing well. It’s great to hear from you!!


Maureen June 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm

The problem today is we do not have enough parents like you. I think you balance how you treat your children very well. My daughter would give anything to have a big brother like Mattix or to be a big sister that could dote on a younger sibling. Sometimes I make her do things for herself, while at other times I love being the mom helping her child. Keep doing what your doing!


Laura June 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Thank you, Maureen! I agree about doing both – sometimes we do things for them, sometimes they do things for themselves. Good balance. :)


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: