In this article, Greg Warburton, experienced counselor and author of Ask More, Tell Less: A Practical Guide for Helping Children Achieve Self-Reliance, offers great insights into redirecting behavior problems by encouraging youngsters to become more self-reliant. This account comes from the book.
Children instinctively want to do things by themselves at very early ages. Remember the “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” call of the toddler?
How can parents foster rather than diminish their children’s early interest in self-reliant action and lead them toward a life of positive contribution? You will read in this story how self-reliant thought and action emerges for a six-year old when I set the stage with creative language, curiosity, quality questions and a belief in their capabilities.
I had been asked to meet with six-year-old Mary because her crying and inconsolability were increasing as her mother left for work each day. Mom had recently gone back to work because the family needed the extra money, but she was thinking of quitting her new job so she could again stay home and take care of Mary.
Three Special Questions
At our first meeting, Mary looked so small she almost disappeared as she sat on the edge of my office couch, feet dangling far above the floor. She earnestly listened to my three foundational questions. These quality questions, in which I used word-picture language, put the light of attention on Mary’s getting-on-with-growing-up challenge and instantly provided some practice for self-reliance, as viewed in her responses.
(Question #1) Have you made up your own mind about whether you plan to get on with growing up or growing down?
(Question #2) Are you the kind of child who likes to do your own thinking, or do you let others think for you?
Do my own thinking.
(Question #3) Are you the boss of your own life, or do you let others boss you?
(appearing amused): I’m the boss.
In an effort to understand Mary’s interpretation of the behavior trouble at home, I asked, “What do you call what you are doing that has your mother so upset?”
Mary’s word for the troubling behavior that was jeopardizing the family’s financial plans was CRYING, so I asked, “Can you be the boss of crying, or is crying the boss of you?”
“I can be the boss of crying,” Mary said.
Her answer was one indicator that, although this was only our first meeting, this young lady was starting to make up her mind to get on with growing up.
As we began our second meeting, however, it was clear that the troubling behavior was continuing. Mary sat in my office with her head down. I asked her a very challenging question:
Mary, how much longer do you plan to practice crying when your mom leaves for work?
She was silent, still looking into her lap.
Believing that she heard my question, I waited beyond the point of comfortable silence, yet she remained silent. I was getting ready to check in with her when she suddenly looked up at me with bright eyes, then clearly said, “I know I can’t keep crying for my whole life. I know I can’t always have my mom.”
At our next meeting, I asked Mary if things were better, the same, or worse with the crying trouble. Mary told me that she had stopped crying when her mother left for work, adding, “It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.” Telling herself the truth and admitting to herself what she had been experiencing led her to life-changing awareness at age six.
Recording “Growing Up” News
During a follow-up meeting with Mary’s parents, Mary and I had put her big ideas on big paper. (I playfully use chart-pack size paper to record growing-up news.) One of her parents took the big paper filled with her growing-up news out to their car, because Mary had said she wanted to put it up at home.
As we were discussing her progress with her parents, Mary announced that she had another idea to write on her paper. Neither of Mary’s parents were eager to go back out to their car to get the paper and bring it back into my office. They suggested they could just add the idea when they got home. But Mary stood firm and convinced us that she was serious and wanted to add her idea right then.
Given her insistence, we were all quite curious about why this was suddenly so important to Mary. Her father went out to the car and brought the paper back into my office. When we were all resettled, I asked Mary what idea she wanted to add.
“Do My Own Thinking,” she exclaimed.
I still remember feeling excited and emotionally moved by the fact that Mary knew that she could take charge of her life. No one asked her to do her own thinking about adding “Do My Own Thinking” to her list of big ideas; rather, she had begun taking charge of her life at age six! She now had a road map for how to help herself get on with growing up.
Children have the resources and innate abilities to handle whatever comes along. A parent’s task, then, is to assist children in getting clearer about their capabilities and practicing, practicing, practicing “I Can” thinking. They develop self-reliance when they are allowed to practice thinking and deciding for themselves, plus the successful completion of the tasks and activities they choose. ###
Greg Warburton is an experienced mental health professional who believes that children and parents grow as they become more self-reliant. For more information about his work and this book, go to his website [link].