top of page

I accidentally made my son overly dependent.

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

I’m going to share with you a big parenting mistake I made in the early years. No one really knows who first shared the old adage: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Whoever said it though, was wise. So, in light of that thought, I’m going to tell you all about a blunder I made, what I learned from it, and how to avoid making it yourself.

My son’s deficiency in fine motor skills has made it hard to perform age appropriate tasks. For example, in the kitchen things like spreading peanut butter on bread, pouring a glass of milk, and cutting up food were just some of things he really struggled with when he was young. We tried to teach him how to do the tasks for a while, but eventually, we learned to accept that he was unable to perform them.

Since it was so hard to watch him struggle, we started “helping” him. If he wanted a peanut butter sandwich, couldn’t cut up his dinner, or needed a glass of milk, we would just jump in and help. Now, please understand, I am not saying it is wrong to help your child with things they can’t manage; however, there is a right way and a wrong way to help. We chose the wrong way.

Our method of helping was to do it for him. This was our mistake. If he couldn’t perform a given task after being shown how many times, we just took over – and we never stopped. We always cut up his food for him, we made his peanut butter sandwiches, and we poured his drinks – among other things. I thought what I was doing was caring for him, and showing him love; but it turns out I was doing something else.

One day, I realized I had taught him that he wasn’t capable of doing things for himself. One day when he was 12, I overheard him fighting with one of his siblings in the kitchen. I went to intervene and discovered that the fight was due to him demanding that his brother make him a peanut butter sandwich. His 17-year-old brother told him to make it himself, and that’s when I heard him say it: “I can’t do it, I’m not capable.” What? Oh no! It was like a slap in the face.

Through our over-helping, we had reinforced learned helplessness in our son. Learned helplessness is a term in psychology that describes someone who has gotten to a place where they won’t even try to do something because they have learned they can’t manage a situation. By doing everything for him, we taught him that we didn’t believe he was able to do things. This, in turn, led him to also believe that he was incapable – of many things.

Luckily, it is never too late to turn things around, and we did. From that day forward, I laid down a household rule, we would not do anything for him; but we would help him learn how – no matter what. It wasn’t easy, but with intense work, I was able to help him learn how to make a peanut butter sandwich, pour milk, cut up food, and more.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I used was a teaching method called scaffolding. In the world of education, teachers use scaffolding all the time. Simply put, it is the process of giving someone only as much help as they need, and slowly lessening the amount of help given, until the person can perform a task independently.

Here’s an example of how I used scaffolding to teach my son to make a peanut butter sandwich:

1. Full scaffolding: The first time he asked me for a peanut butter sandwich, I showed him where to find all the tools he needed, and then how to spread the PB on the bread.

2. Medium scaffolding: The next few times he asked for a PB sandwich, I had him find all the tools he needed, and only reminded him where to find something if he needed me to. Then, I put my hand over his on the knife as we spread the peanut butter. I used this level of helping until he could find all the tools without help, and would reach to scoop up the PB without help.

3. Minimal scaffolding: Eventually, rather than asking me to make him a PB sandwich, he would ask me if he could make one. He would get everything out and try to spread the peanut butter on the bread (which was usually more of a light scrape of PB on only part of the bread); and I would physically help him add enough to cover the bread fully.

4. Independence: Eventually, he started just telling me he was going to make himself a PB sandwich, and do it independently. (Mind you, cleaning up afterwards is something we are STILL working on!)

My son is a lot more independent now, but sometimes he still needs reminding that he is capable of doing things on his own. I occasionally need to remind him to read directions on a package when he asks me how to make something; or just flat out refuse to do something for him that I know he can do on his own. He has gotten quite used to me saying, “if you need reminding, I am happy to tell you how while you do it yourself. “ I wonder if things would be different if I had started scaffolding when he was much younger; but I guess I will never know.

The next time your child needs your help to do something, don’t make the same mistake I did. Try to use scaffolding to help your child develop independence and confidence in their own abilities. You will be grateful you did!

53 views0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page