It’s a celebratory day when kids are able to buckle their own seat belts and pour their own glasses of milk and bathe themselves and cook their own food (wait, when does this happen again? I’M READY ANYTIME, KIDS).
When they’re little, we spend so much of our days doing every single thing for them that every tiny little mastery feels like a major victory.
But in order for them to learn how to do things for themselves, in order for them to achieve true autonomy, there is this frightening limbo between beginning and mastering when we must let them practice.
I say it’s frightening, because I know. Here’s what working toward autonomy looks like in our home:
The 8-year-old: Check the level on the milk. If it’s less than half-filled, overcorrect, because you got this. If it’s too full, try anyway, and spill a whole ocean where you can let your Lego man swim before you try to clean it up. And by cleaning it up, you mean wiping it toward the floor so it soaks not only the counter, but inside the drawers and cabinets, too. Conveniently forget to clean up the spills you can’t see that your mom will smell three days later.
The 5-year-old: Only pour from a gallon that is less than half-filled, because you’re careful like that.
The 4-year-old: Pour anytime you feel like it, but do it from the floor. Wipe up the mess you’ve made with a paper towel but no cleaner, so the stickiness will steal someone’s socks tomorrow. Laugh hysterically when it does.
The 8-year-old: Tie one, and then get really frustrated when the other one doesn’t tie as easily because everyone is talking. Tell everyone to be quiet so you can concentrate and then try again. Tell them to quit looking at you. Make three good attempts, and then take off your shoe that just won’t tie today and throw it across the room. Say you’ll go to school with only one shoe on. You don’t care. Change your mind five minutes before you’re supposed to leave, after you’ve forgotten where it landed when you threw it. Your dad will find it and help you put it on.
The 5-year-old: Don’t even try. Your mom will do it.
Packing up for school
8-year-old: Look in your room for your school agenda. Complain that you can’t find it, even though it’s sitting just beside your desk, right by the four thousand Lego pieces you dumped out last night and “forgot” to clean up. Say it’s gone forever. Say someone must have stolen it. Say you’ll never be able to write down your school assignments again. Ever. Say “You must have moved it,” when your mom comes downstairs with it.
5-year-old: Let your mom know you can’t find your red folder, then laugh when she pulls it out from under your lunch box, the same place it is every morning.
Sweeping the floor
8-, 5- and 4-year-olds: Only sweep a square area of four tiles across and four tiles down. Don’t even try to get under the table, where all the food is. It’s too hard.
Wiping the table
8-, 5- and 4-year-olds: Push all the extra food to the floor with the sponge. Be sure to leave streaks all over the table, because you didn’t want to use the cleaner, OR leave a lake because you had a little too much fun spraying the cleaner and the sponge is too soaked to absorb anymore.
8-, 5- and 4-year-olds: All the silverware must fit into as few slots as possible, even though there are six slots and three that are still empty. There is no rhyme or reason to putting dishes in; just throw them randomly into whatever space is available. After all, the dishwasher is like a car wash for plates and bowls.
Putting laundry away
8-year-old: Hanging clothes don’t have to be hung up, per se. They can be stuffed into the underwear drawer, because it’s not full, and all the other random empty drawers in the room.
5-year-old: Don’t pay attention to the labels your mom put up in the closet. Just put your clothes wherever you feel like putting them, even though you share your closet with three other brothers. That way, when you dress for school, you’ll have a legitimate reason for dressing in a shirt two sizes too small. “It was on my side,” you’ll say.
4-year-old: Get mad trying to hang up shirts, and throw your hangers across the floor so some of them break and your parents will help you hang up the rest.
2-year-olds: Rearrange the pajama drawer eight times a day because your parents let you put clothes in it once.
Putting on shoes
2-year-olds: It doesn’t matter if shoes don’t match or if they’re different sizes. Just put them on. Shoes are shoes are shoes. Stop trying to match them and put them on the right feet, parents.
Cleaning your room
8-year-old: Make sure all the books that are supposed to go on the bookshelves in your room end up in your bed instead. That way your mom won’t be able to find the library books when they’re due. Push everything else in the closet and shut the door. You don’t need the closet anyway, now that your clothes are stuffed in drawers.
8-, 5- and 4-year-olds: You really only need to wash your hair, your belly and your feet. Everything else is already magically clean.
I know that eventually they will get good at all this, because practice makes perfect.