Why I Do Things For My Son That I Know He Can Do Himself
We’re at the mall, making our way towards the playground when my boy stumbles in front of my feet, a puppy tangled in my ankles, arms raised upward. “Pick me up mommy,” he pleads. “My legs are so tired.” I reach down and lift him, shifting my newborn in the ergo and situating my big boy on my hip. By the time we reach the play structure my arms are aching. “Isn’t he a little old for that?” asks a passerby as I gently set him down. “No,” I say simply, and turn my back.
We’re out to dinner at a family restaurant, surrounded by other families with kids of all ages when my little boy begins to get tired. He climbs from his chair into my lap, “Feed me, mommy,” he mews. And I do. I spoon macaroni and cheese and fruit into his mouth as he rests against my chest, taking a break from the world. “Hey, little buddy,” says the server. “Why don’t you give mommy a break? You’re a big boy!” My boy turns his head away from the server, burying it in my shoulder. “He’s alright,” I say, knowing she was trying to be helpful.
“Mommy, put my socks on.”
“Can you show me how to build with my blocks?”
“Bring me my cereal.”
“Hold my hand when I come down the slide.”
“Comb my hair.”
“Ask the lady for more lemonade for me.”
My boy is three and he can do many things. He can dress and wash himself. At restaurants, he can order his own food. He can feed himself and build elaborate train villages. He recognizes letters and numbers by sight. In three short years, he has, as children do, grown from a totally dependent infant to a fiercely independent little boy. He is capable and competent and confident.
Yet, despite his typical pre-school unwillingness to be helped with the smallest of tasks, every day, at least once or twice, he asks me to do something for him that I know he can do for himself. And always, I comply. I comply because when my little boy asks me to do something for him that he can do himself, there’s something bigger going on than a desire not to pull up his own socks.
When I hear my little boy ask for help putting his shoes on, I hear, “I want you to sit with me and look into my eyes.” If he asks me to speak up for him, I hear, “I had a hard time at school today and I just don’t feel like talking to strangers.” When he asks me to pour his cereal or bring him something from the kitchen I know that he’s asking me to care for him.
It feels good when people take care of you. How many times have I come home from a hard day at work and asked my husband to make me dinner? Or watch the babies while I take a bath? Or bring me a big bowl of ice cream while I sit on the couch? Sometimes, I’m tired and it feels good to have someone take care of me. Sometimes, my little boy is tired, and he wants to be taken care of.
As a society, we value independence. We’re told that our babies should be in their own beds and in their own rooms when they’re mere weeks old. TV experts tell us not to comfort them in the night and extol the virtues of self-soothing. We celebrate early walkers and early talkers. Parents spend hard earned money on games and programs that promise preschool readers and writers and compare their babies' progress to others in their peer group. This desire to push our baby’s towards independence is why my son's requests for my help in public, on the playground, or at a restaurant, are often met by others commenting that he can or should do something on his own.
Early in my parenting journey, I pushed for milestones and compared my boy’s progress to other babies. But as he grew, I began to understand him as a person. I got a better sense of when he needed encouragement and when he needed reassurance and indulgence. I became more comfortable with the meandering pace of early childhood. And those outside voices telling me I was babying him or coddling him, that he would never learn if I always helped, stopped making me question myself.
As my boy grows, I’m sure he’ll stop asking for help with his zipper or his coat. In time he’ll be too big to carry and too tall for me to push him on his scooter. He’ll also (hopefully) develop the language and emotional intelligence to ask for tenderness, attention, and affection directly. Until then, I do things for my son that he can do himself. Because I know that my actions are helping him feel safe, loved, and happy.