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Practice Makes Perfect: How To Let Kids Try

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Have you noticed how often you do things for your kids instead of letting them do things themselves?

If you have, then you’ve probably also noticed how often kids refuse to do things for themselves, instead whining and pouting until you do things for them.

How did it get this way? And how can you help your children do things for themselves?

It’s easy to see how things got this way: it’s just easier to do things ourselves. We’re neater, more careful, and more skilled. We’re quicker. And because everyone is so busy these days, and in such a hurry, getting things done quickly and with as little mess as possible matters.

So we sometimes feed children who could feed themselves. We dress our kids, zip their jackets, organize their homework, maybe even occasionally do their homework for them. We clean their rooms. We clean their faces.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised when now our kids won’t do things on their own.

We’ve inadvertently sent the message that we believe our children are incapable of doing things on their own. We’ve hinted by our actions that left on their own, our children will do everything wrong.  They are helpless or incompetent.  These are the messages we send when we do things for our children that they could do for themselves. We send the message that, really, we’d rather do things ourselves.

Of course, this isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later we feel like our kids’ servant, doing everything while they sit by and watch. Sooner or later our children will grow up and need to be able to do things on their own. Now is the time to let them practice.

Practice does make perfect.

To let kids practice means letting them try. Letting kids try means letting them make mistakes. We have to get comfortable with failure. Only when kids fail will they learn how to do things better.

Remember that very little that children do has long-term effects. Not making the team, not making an A, and not winning a ribbon in the science fair doesn’t doom a child’s future career. In fact, what does doom a child’s chances is relying on a parent to make everything perfect.

If you’ve been doing it all, now is the time to stop. By how can you do that if your children are used to doing very little?

  1. Quit doing. Smile sweetly the next time a request comes in for something a child could do herself and say, “I’m going to let you try.”
  2. Avoid making excuses. It’s not that you’re too busy or that you’ve got your hands full. It’s just that you want her to try. If you need to soften your refusal, say, “I’m sure you can do it well enough.”
  3. Don’t back down. Your child may cry and carry on. He may do this especially if he believes you only love him if things are perfect. Giving up on perfect is difficult for both of you. Continue to smile, continue to be supportive, but continue to refuse to do what he can do.
  4. Provide moral support. If you’ve been over-involved in your child’s homework, for instance, instead of completely withdrawing your help, sit near your child as she does the work on her own. You’re there, you’re being supportive, but you’re no longer actually doing the work.
  5. Congratulate your child for trying. Remember you’re not hoping for perfect. You just want your child to do the best he can. Just trying – sincerely trying – is a good step forward.

Letting go of perfect and embracing effort is not easy if this has been the pattern in your home in the past. You need to do this difficult thing just as your child needs to do difficult things too. But no matter how little or how old your child is, helping him do what he can do and helping him accept a solid effort even if the results aren’t perfect – these are accomplishments that build the future.

If your kids aren’t trying hard enough right now, could it be because of you? Now is the time to step back.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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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.