Doing Too Much For Our Kids :: How Over-Helping Can Be a Hindrance


teaching kids skillsFive years ago, I sat across from my 3-year-old’s preschool teacher as she gently told me my son needed more practice putting on his own coat.  I quickly thought back to how I shoved his coat on him that morning, and every cold morning of his life, without even thinking about giving him a chance to practice it.  Oh…I stammered…we’re usually in a hurry and I guess it’s just faster and easier if I do it for himum, I guess I should let him try it more.  “Perhaps you could let him practice when you’re not in a rush, or even when you aren’t even really going anywhere,” she suggested.

Fast forward, and now I’m the preschool teacher gently reminding parents to give their kids an opportunity to learn how to put on their own coats.  It’s a lesson that has stuck with me as I think about all the ways I get into the habit of “doing it for them” instead of taking the time to help them learn how to do it for themselves.

It doesn’t only apply to toddlers.  In every stage of my children’s lives there’s been something I’m still doing for them that I should reconsider.  As moms we are natural helpers.  It’s an important part of our role.  And kids naturally need a lot of help!  It’s a perfect fit…except for when those kids need to gain responsibility, independence, and skills that we hold out of arm’s reach by taking over instead of taking time to teach.

Here are age-appropriate skills kids can do on their own:

Age 18 Months-4

Put away toys, get dressed, put on coats and shoes, carry cups and plates to the kitchen, hang up their backpack and coat at school/daycare, wash their own body/hair in the tub

Age 5-8

Make their bed, put away clean laundry, pack a lunch, tie shoes, check out books at the library, order their food at a restaurant, feed a pet, plug in electronics to charge, load/unload the dishwasher, sort laundry, empty small trash cans into a larger one, pour water and cereal, water the plants

Age 9-13

Wash a load of clothes, clean the bathroom, cook simple meals, add to the grocery list when they use the last of an item, put clean sheets on their bed, carry the trash/recycling to the street

Of course this list is not exhaustive and the age ranges are adjustable according to the needs and abilities of the individual child.  My goal is to get us thinking about skills we can cultivate in our children by allowing them the opportunity to practice.

It’s not just about chores and self-help skills either!  There are interpersonal skills our kids can develop when we take the time to coach them through it.  I’ve taught my kids how to go talk to their teacher when they have a question about a grade when in the past I might have sent an email asking on their behalf.  Instead of apologizing for my toddler’s behavior over their head as they keep on playing, I make the child stop and form an apology of their own.

When we let our kids start practicing new skills, it doesn’t always turn out right the first few times or go smoothly.  There will be spills and mistakes.  It will probably take longer than usual, and it might not be done how you would prefer.  For example, here’s what happened recently when I told my son to “get his own glass of milk.” 

teaching kids skills

Obviously, I would prefer that he not use the wine glasses.  That just means there’s an extra step of teaching I didn’t realize I needed to do until now.  It’s a constant learning and growing process for the children and the parents!  But it’s a process that only happens when we let go of the need to get things done “fast and right” and give our kids the chance to practice.

This post originally appeared March 10, 2015.


  1. I am an ECE in British Columbia, Canada. Your article came to me today and was nicely timed. I work for a center that is in a church building. The Rector of the church pops in now and then for something or other. Today she noticed one of our 3 year olds had his shirt on backwards. The shirt was a polo type so it was obvious to us adults. She wanted to know why we had not fixed it. FIXED IT? This child often dresses himself, and is quite proud of his accomplishment. I explained this to her and pointed out the damage it would cause this child to be told he had put his shirt on wrong. He could loose his sense of accomplishment, his pride in a job done with no help, and he may decide to not do anything by himself again. What he had done was no easy feat for a child his age. He’s 3. This is monumental in his development .
    I love how his parents don’t try to “fix things” for him. Really in the big scale is a backwards shirt a bad thing? The other children never notice it and we, the staff, get a kick out of how he is dressed in the morning. He can usually be found wearing mismatched socks, but I believe this is a fashion statement.
    So I say yes, teach the children to dress themselves and let them do it.
    At our center we teach all the children the flip method of putting on their own coats. You can appreciate how much time this saves when you have 25 children trying to go outside at once.
    Thank you for this article, I hope parents read it and let their children do more for themselves. I will be sharing it on our parents board at work.
    Sincerely, Valerie Kelly

  2. Valerie- thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I enjoyed reading about your experiences and can picture that little one with his backward polo shirt soaking up the encouragement and affirmation from his teachers and family! What a great story and example of letting them do it for themselves.


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