Katja Wulfers: Around The Table


Teaching Kids to Be Independent: Not Everything Goes as Planned

Six parenting tips to help your kids make informed choices and the pros and cons of each one

Teaching Kids to Be Independent: Not Everything Goes as Planned

When we imagine our kids as adults (it will happen someday, even if you think you'll be stuck in diaper land forever!), we see them as happy, healthy, and well-adjusted people. Hopefully, we haven't scarred them too badly and they come out of childhood with fond memories of that time mom and dad thought making them pose with a giant, deranged Easter Bunny in a mall was a good idea. We also hope they will have ability to make smart choices about important aspects of their lives. By giving them tools at a young age to make independent decisions, we lay the foundation for them to lead healthy lives. 

But what does that even mean? Every family has to figure out what it means to them, and in ours, being healthy goes beyond just preventing the flu. It means raising independent thinkers who think critically, are willing to throw themselves into new experiences, and learn to decide what will keep their brains and bodies strong and healthy. After all, we can't be with them 24/7, even if we sometimes want to be. My husband and I use six parenting tips to help our kids grow up to make smart choices when they're bombarded by outside influences. It's not foolproof, but following our own advice helps when we get bogged down in the parenting trenches.

1. Teach Kids to Make Informed Food Choices 

Why are we born with an instinctive desire for butter tarts and sweet chili and lime chips? When my kids were toddlers, I spent more time reading Nutrition Facts tables when grocery shopping than I spent showering in any given week. While my husband and I read these tables to understand what we're feeding our family, the kids watch us and learn to do the same. Because we're a French/English household, they see and hear us reading both sides of the packages. By reading the tables, we also get a good understanding of how much of a particular food they can eat by taking note of Serving Sizes and % Daily Value for certain nutrients.

The Government of Canada makes it easy to decipher what we need to know when reading Nutrition Facts tables and how to Focus on the Facts with a one-stop shop of info.

Paying attention to this info has also helped with our grocery shopping. It became easier for me to show my kids how to compare packaged foods and explain why we couldn't buy a box with only two servings when there are four people in our home. The Serving Size and % Daily Value info are super helpful to keep us on budget, too. Our kids learned to understand what carbohydrates (or glucides, because everything has to be read twice in our house) are, along with various minerals, vitamins, and other key nutrients listed on the Nutrition Facts tables. They also learned approximately how much of each they need per day to keep their bodies fueled for school and sports. The best bets are usually foods that combine protein, carbohydrates, fats, and some vitamins thrown in for good measure.

Pros: Kids will still reach for a bag of popcorn or pretzels (because who can resist??), but they'll also learn that consuming a package of 52 servings in one sitting is not cool for their growing minds and bodies. They'll then be more likely to make independent, informed choices about the nutrients they get when choosing a snack.

Cons: It’s all fun and games until reading Nutrition Facts tables becomes the game. There’s a favourite game in our kitchen and it’s called "Read All the Nutrition Facts tables in English AND French and Drive Mom and Dad Crazy!" The problem when encouraging kids to read and understand tables as part of your parenting strategy, is when it works so well, the kids become mini nutrition lecturers at the breakfast table when all parents want to do is let the first hit of caffeine sink in.

2. Teach Kids to Love Being Outdoors and Being Active

As we drove home from my daughter's riding lesson recently, we heard a commercial for a business college and she started talking about her future career choices. I asked if a business degree interested her and she said, "NO! I want to work outside not in a building." Okay, she's young, and she doesn't realize that a lot of what adults do to earn a living is done indoors, but in her mind, any time outside is good. We've been taking our kids hiking and canoeing since their only mode of transportation was the Baby Bjorn.

Full disclosure: I have moments, days, or weeks when my couch is more appealing than my running shoes, but then I crave movement. I've noticed our kids are the same. The key is finding ways to move every day because you want to. If parents are active, kids are active. It becomes their norm and it's a clear case of monkey see, monkey do.

Pros:  See everything above, and also breathing fresh air and not letting our muscles atrophy. But perhaps the greatest pro is that being outside is good for the brain. It's hard to stay stressed when you're hiking through a forest trying to keep up with your kids and the dog.

Cons: There's no sleeping in any more. Ever. 

3. Teach Kids to Help with Meals

Every mom knows that grocery shopping with kids is the second circle of hell, which is why a solo trip to the grocery store is almost like a mini vacation. We get away, we relax, we stop and smell the flowers. But there's another option: bring the kids along. 

You read that right, and I'm mostly sane when I suggest it. Now that the kids know how to read Nutrition Facts tables (see tip 1), start with a plan and give your children options.

  • Ask your kids to choose two out of a possible four meals.
  • Have the older kids write the grocery list, or enter it into your shopping app.
  • Give each kid a task once you arrive at the store: finding the healthiest options based on Nutrition Facts tables, choosing items that meet the certain recipe requirements, loading the cart, or bagging the groceries.
  • Once you've brought home the ingredients and the groceries are unpacked, the kids can help prep the meal. Little hands can wash vegetables while the older kids can help peel or measure out ingredients.

Pros: There's a method to teaching kids to help in the kitchen. In the beginning, it will take you twice as long to get anything done, that's unavoidable unless you have Stepford Children. Once they get into a routine of helping to choose meals, finding the ingredients, and prepping, you'll be serving up meals that won't have 1/2 the table turning up their noses and going on hunger strikes.

Cons: Grocery cart accidents and flour explosions in the kitchen are a given.

4. Give Kids Chores

Are you tired of coming home to a kitchen, or living room, or THE ENTIRE HOUSE looking like this:

Besides getting the kids to help with meals and grocery shopping, they can take on other chores too. It's better for everyone's health (or at least a mom's mental health) if there aren't dirty socks piled up on the floor and if the recycling is taken out before it spills across the kitchen. I assign age-appropriate tasks for my two. They don't always toe the line, and I sometimes have to remind them again and AGAIN before things get done, but generally they clean their rooms, empty and reload the dishwasher, vacuum, water the vegetable and flower gardens, and mow the lawn.

Pros: Hopefully, they'll remember to apply these lessons when they have their own places and in the meantime, we get to live in a house that doesn't look like a struggle occurred in every room.

Cons: There was that time my son mowed the lavender along with the lawn, and watering the garden once became a full out water fight for two days.

5. Teach Kids to Care for Pets

I'm a firm believer that every home needs a pet and preferably one with whom we can snuggle with and walk. When we lost our last dog, we all cried for days; now that our new pup has joined the family, there's a definite change in mood. He's the unofficial calmer of nerves and protector against monsters under the bed. Sure, a pet is work and lots of moms think the responsibility will inevitably fall on them. It will, I won't lie, but it won't last forever and there is also a lot kids can do to pitch in. Eventually, they'll take on more and more responsibility. When kids are little, they can take on watering or grooming the dog/cat/pony/fish and as they get bigger, the kids can become household dog walkers and pooper scoopers.

Pros:  When kids care for an animal, they learn responsibility without being hit over the head with a lesson book. My daughter cares for her pony without being asked because she knows it's what's expected and the pony depends on her. 

Cons: Letting 4-legged animals into your life means never leaving the house without having fur stuck to your clothes. 

6. Teach Kids to Travel

We love travel for what it teaches us about ourselves and the people we meet. It was one of our greatest wishes that our kids would learn to love it too. So we did what we could to foster that feeling. The key to raising kids who are explorers is to bring them along on expeditions small and large; even a hike close to home counts as an expedition when kids are young. We’re only limited by budget, time, and health when it comes to discovering new places. Travelling is trickier when there are two kids with shorter legs trying to keep up with mom and dad, but it’s still possible if you want to do it. It will even add to future travel stories.

Look through magazines, travel sites, and maps together and ask the kids to pinpoint their favourites based on categories you all agree on: adventure, relaxation, sports, food. Once you start, you’ll be well on your way to making a family travel wish list.

Pros: It’s gratifying to realize you’ve raised kids who are confident enough to explore someplace completely new. When my husband and I had our first child, we worried our frequent trips would stop, even as we vowed to keep trekking to as many places our budget would allow. We kept our vow and we’re now raising kids who have the urge and courage to explore, with or without mom and dad.

Cons: They won’t write or text home nearly as often as you want them to because they’re too busy exploring. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to troll them on Instagram or Snapchat and follow along on their trip, or you could just be stuck with receiving one missive in a 10-day span.

Some of my favourite and proudest moments happen when I see my kids figuring out they have the wits and tools to decide to do (or not do) something for themselves.