We started Words For Parenting because sometimes, as a parent you just don’t know what to say. Lettering by Alanna Munro, Words by Jacquie Munro.

What Part Do You Need Help With?

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You can offer support without taking over. Before jumping in, you can ask “Would you like my help?” If yes, you can say “What part do you need help with?”

At two and a half, my grandson James has reached the point where he really lets us all know when he wants to do something by himself, or if he wants some help.

He was organizing my pantry the other day while I was washing the dishes, and things kept falling over as he piled large containers on top of a tiny jar. He was getting frustrated.

“Do you need any help?”

“No. Please go away — back away” he said, holding his hand up like a stop sign. I went back to washing dishes. I trusted him to be capable. He turned back to his task, took a deep breath, and reorganized the items into a tower. He gently placed a bottle of peppermint extract on the top.

“How did I do that?” James asked as the tower remained steady. “I did that!”

The tower eventually fell and some baking soda spilled onto the floor. James laughed, “Ha! I did not see that coming!”

He had just needed the time to figure it out for himself, without pressure.

Our role in supporting growing independence in small children requires that we take a breath, forget about time and always have a vacuum handy. I placed a wet cloth on the floor, and James cleaned up the baking soda himself without looking up. There was no need for comment or praise.

I think we’ve both come a long way.

It’s at this point that I must apologize for doing too many things for my kids over the years because I wanted to get the job done quickly or keep my kitchen tidy. I often had to run the kids out of the house, drop them off at my mum’s, and dash to attend a birth. But that’s no excuse. As a doula, I’ve always been on call 24/7, and have always known that babies can come at any moment. Doing everything for myself and by myself doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

Now, thanks to my best teachers, my kids and grandsons — when I hear “help!”, I’ve finally learned that “What part would you like help with?” is the wiser answer. The extra time taken to help children complete their daily tasks pays off. And, I’ve learned that we can clean the messy kitchen more quickly — together.

Children are inherently motivated to do things for themselves, to make their own discoveries and to succeed at daily tasks. Respect for a child’s drive for independence is a gift we can give them, at any age. One way to respect their need to do things for themselves is by giving them the time they need to practice as well as the freedom to make mistakes. As for us, we just need an abundance of patience, tolerance, and a sense of humour.

So, when a child finds a job too big or overwhelming, you’ll hear a call for help. Rather than jumping in to “save the day” and doing the task yourself, you can ask -

“What part would you like help with?”

This phrase helps us all to slow down and take a breath. It reminds us that our job is to help children help themselves. We are there to help, but only in part. Sometimes the child will be able to express what help is needed. Then it’s easy to give specific assistance. But, what if the child doesn’t even know what part they need help with?

Most self-care tasks can be broken down into distinct parts, like steps in a recipe. Each step is linked, from first to last. You can start by talking through each step as you demonstrate, then having little ones complete the last two steps. Making a peanut butter sandwich from start to finish is too complex for James, but he can do the last two steps. He can place the two pieces of bread together and cut the sandwich in half with a plastic knife. It makes him feel capable. Jack, who’s almost eight, might just need me to help him get started by opening the tight lid of the peanut butter jar.

You might also hear “help!” a lot when you need to head outside. Asking “Please put your shoes and coat on” might not be not specific enough for James. Breaking it down into parts really helps him. We do it in the same order every time. His boots are placed facing a wall. This allows him to put his hands on the wall to maintain his balance while he steps into his boots. He pushes his hands through the jacket sleeves, then struggles to start the zipper on his jacket. “Help me please.” “What part would you like help with?” I ask. “This!” he says as he looks at the two parts of the jacket that need joining. I start the zipper. He finishes without assistance. He pulls on his infinity scarf. “I did it!” He smiles.

Clients often ask me, “How do we restrain our own automatic impulse to jump in to help or take over? It sounds good in theory, but if we are pressured for time, what do we do?” I get it! I’ve been there. Try to strike a balance. There’s extra time needed to go at a child’s pace. But, it’s okay to be late for preschool if a child is learning a new task. There’s really no need to rush. Trust the child to be capable. Wait. Breathe. It’s all part of learning — for everyone. But, sometimes you’ll just have to say, “I’m sorry, but I need to do this for you today because we need to catch the bus!”

Supporting independence is challenging. It requires time. Time is often in short supply. But, it’s worth the time, the planning, and the effort. You might need to breathe deeply when a child heads out of the house with her shirt inside out. But far too soon, you’ll have an eight year old who is asking for help. When you ask “What part would you like help with?” you might hear, “I’m trying to understand how to get to level 50.” And you might say, “Well, I can’t help you there! Can you help me with level 1?”

Further Reading

How Much Should Children Do for Themselves?

Alanna Munro