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How to Stop Being Your Child’s Servant

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


No matter how old your child is – anywhere from two to twenty-two – if you are doing for him what he could do for himself you are enabling a dependent state of mind. The child who feels dependent seems anxious and whiney. He’s demanding. He acts lazy and thoughtless. Being dependent is not a happy condition for him … or for you. You feel frustrated and used. You start to think, “This has got to stop!”

Luckily, with a few simple steps, you can change your dependent child into someone who feels capable and strong and does things for herself. The key bit to remember is that we can never change another person’s behavior by complaining or insisting or wishing for change. We can only change ourselves but that’s enough. Here’s how. 

Meet requests for help with a question. Instead of just responding with the requested help, ask a question that encourages the child to perform on her own. For example, if your four-year-old wants help to put on her coat, say, “Here’s your coat! Which arm goes into which sleeve, do you think?” If your child insists that you drive him a short distance to play at a friend’s house, and you think he could walk instead, ask “I wonder how many steps it is to Brian’s house?” or “I wonder how quickly you could walk there…” and suggest he walk and then report back.

Be pleasant and supportive. It’s tempting to try to hurry things along by telling your child he’s a big boy now or that he’s acting like a baby. This isn’t very encouraging to any kid and it’s also not fair. Remember you’ve created this little dependent person. Calling him names now or acting mean is blaming him for your own misguided actions. Instead, be as pleasant and supportive as you can be. Sympathize when he tells you it’s too hard or he doesn’t know how. Let him know you have confidence in his abilities.

Act as a scaffold. If you’ve been doing a lot for your child you might discover that she truly doesn’t know how to do some of the things you think she should know. But instead of stepping in again to do it for her, take the time to show her how to do the task herself. If the task is complicated, you might scaffold it by doing the hardest parts and letting her do the easier ones. So if your thirteen-year-old asks you do iron her shirt, say, “Let’s do it together.”

Trust your child’s instincts. If your child thinks he can, he probably can. Let him try. This is often the hardest part – knowing when to step back and watch. You could do whatever it is so much more quickly and easily and maybe more successfully. But your child will probably do well enough and will learn and grow by trying. Recently a parent I know offered to help his three-year-old snap some Lego together. The child said, “No. I want to do it myself.” Dad wisely backed off and, yes, the child did it!

Quit trying to be so perfect. If you hover because you think a perfect parent should make sure her children are always happy, get busier with your own life. While your world might indeed revolve around your children, make sure that you don’t seem to them to be living in their shadow. Perfect parents let their children grow and aren’t always at kids’ beck and call. 

If you do things for your child because it’s quicker and simpler for you, slow down. Factor in the time it takes your preschooler to get her shoes on all by herself. She will get faster with practice. Yes, you’re busy and, yes, children are slower than you would be at just about everything. But taking the time to help them learn to be more self-reliant is part of your job as a parent. Slow down enough to do just that.

If you hover because you’re anxious for a perfect outcome, work on taking the long view. Just as children are not very fast, they also are not so perfect. Naturally, they make mistakes. But imperfectly done-all-by-myself is almost always more satisfying to a child than perfectly done-by-Mom-while-I-just-watched. Let your children grow into their abilities by letting them try. Abandon “perfect.” 

The key is to start being less available and less accommodating while at the same time being your very nicest self. It’s also important to be consistent. You can certainly step in when there’s a real emergency but the more consistent you can be with a new approach the easier it will be for your child and for you to make a new habit.

Helping children become more confident and competent is joyous work. It’s far more fun than doing everything for them every moment of the day. If you’ve been enabling dependency, now is the time to kick back a bit and have a good time learning together.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.