The other day I was reading in (gasp!) a Facebook Group for parents where a member was struggling with when to “give in” to their child’s request for acts of service, particularly when the child is capable of doing it himself. I was surprised at the strong inner turmoil this question brought to light in the responses; some parents felt very strongly you should ALWAYS comply with child requests, in order to keep the peace and form a positive relationship.

It’s an interesting dilemma you probably face daily in your house – where do you draw the line between being pleasant and being permissive? When are acts of service appropriate and when is it okay to decide you’ve had enough? Should you ever refuse a child’s request?

The Time When Acts of Service Created Havoc For Me

Around the time that my son turned two, we started having more demands for attention and service, and consequently more power struggles. My infant daughter was just started to becoming more, “human,” by smiling, giggling, rolling over and generally interacting more. It was tough for our oldest, and like most children, he started to notice that she got more acts of service than him. So, naturally, he started asking to be carried down the stairs, or for help eating his yogurt, even though he had long been able to do these things himself.

Knowing what I know now, I’m embarrassed to admit we indulged him. For a couple of months, I carried my almost 40-pound toddler up and down the stairs, and into daycare. I, “helped,” him by feeding him yogurt with a spoon like a baby. But the more I gave, the more he felt compelled to demand. The less time he spent playing on his own when he used to enjoy his time so much. The more unhappy we both became; him because he could never get enough love/attention, and me because I never felt I had enough to give.

My son wasn’t being manipulative, he was trying to find satisfaction in our relationship the only way he knew how; by requesting acts of service. Because that’s how we showed love for the baby, who was competing with him for attention but unable to experience many other forms of love due to her age and capability.

For me, the challenge to performing constant acts of service is that a child who never faces natural challenges and is always served will struggle in more than a few ways. There are certainly times when acts of service are appropriate, but it’s up to you as a parent to decide where you draw the line.

Let’s ? bout it for a minute.

Risks of Constant Acts of Service

I mentioned the daily yogurt ritual to my mentor, who has been a Montessori parent-infant teacher for several decades. She shook her head and gently tried to dissuade me from feeding my toddler like a baby (it feels ridiculous typing out that I did not notice how silly it was myself).

In all honesty, it took a couple weeks for what she said to sink in. Meanwhile, the frequency of meltdowns increased, the demands were constantly growing, and the constant stress was really getting to everybody in our house.

In the face of the instant gratification of peace and quiet from giving in to your child’s request, there are some very real risks to your child’s immediate development and long-term challenges.

Here are some examples.

Inability to Feel Loved Without Acts of Service

What kind of message are you trying to give your child when you perform an act of service?

  • ✔️I love you.
    ✔️I take time/effort out of my day for you, because you are special to me.
    ✔️Childhood is special, and you have plenty of time to grow up and do this on your own.

These are really beautiful sentiments, and clearly well-intentioned. But what kind of message is your child really receiving?

  • ❌I only love you/pay attention to you when you are asking me for something.
    ❌I don’t think you are capable of doing this on your own.
    ❌It’s not worth trying because I can do it better than you.

A child who experiences acts of a service as the primary interaction with caretakers risks becoming motivated only by external forces (such as acts of service). They require constant attention and input from parents, other caretakers, and eventually their friends in order to feel satisfied and confident.

Struggle with Independence

I sometimes like to imagine what it would be like to come home from work and have a healthy dinner on the table, all the laundry done, and the floors clean enough to eat off. Well, okay, sometimes I pay for someone else to clean my floors. But what if people would take care of this for me for free?

How different would your life be if you didn’t have to worry about the chores anymore?

Now imagine that you had all that help. Life was amazing because there was always somebody there to do the dishes, hang out with you, and show you how to use the TV remote.

But what if it suddenly went away?

A child whose only experience is constant acts of service is robbed of opportunities to learn how to be independent, use their imagination, socialize with their siblings or neighbors, and be by themselves without feeling uncomfortable.

Those are life skills, mental muscles they never flex and build with enormous future consequences. It will be so much harder for them during transitions like getting a new sibling, going to daycare or school, heading to college, and living on their own.

Childhood is the time when the brain is best able to adapt and learn new skills. Constant acts of service handicap your child during the least painful times for growth, putting them in a position to learn those skills when their brain is much less prepared for the stress.

Lack of Self-Confidence

One of the biggest factors in self-confidence is the ability to be motivated internally. A person who can feel satisfied and capable without someone else telling them how great they are (through words or actions) has a big leg up in self-confidence. A child who is only motivated by what happens to her, instead of what happens because of her, will always be dependent on others for her sense of self-worth.

Another factor in self-confidence is willingness to make mistakes and recover from them. Mistakes are how we master new skills and maintain positive attitudes with all the challenges we face each day.

Your child’s “mistake muscle,” needs to get flexed so she can feel confident that it’s okay to make mistakes. A child who is constant served experiences less challenge, and less opportunity to make mistakes and recover from them.

How will your child learn how to drink from an open cup if he doesn’t spill it a few times first? Your reaction to the “failure” is critical. He’s looking to you to see how he should respond. Should he cry and demand that you drink for him or give him a sippy cup? Or should he accept the failure without drama and try again?

Go ahead, hand him a cloth and say, “hey, it happens, sometimes I spill too! Shall we try again together?”

How to Support Your Child Without Being Permissive

I started to research some strategies to make the change that our family needed to get back to a healthier relationship with our son and help him to continue growing.

When I started implementing these strategies, the power struggles got worse before they got better. But the end result was so worth it.

  1. Spend some time observing considering what your child is already capable of, and what activities are a “reach” goal.
  2. Decide where you will begin to set boundaries on what acts of service you are willing to perform. Involve other caretakers to ensure you are being consistent.
  3. Talk to your child about what your new boundaries will be. Be very factual, and non-judgemental. Even a child as young as two will be able to understand.
  4. Don’t give in once you have created a boundary. Giving in this would give a confusing message to your child.
  5. Be gentle, firm and kind when you refuse a request. Try and infuse your answer with the understanding and love behind your motivation for refusing.
  6. Express calmly and without judgment that you know your child is capable.
  7. If your child experiences a meltdown, be empathetic and supportive without giving in. Let them experience their emotions without judgment.
  8. Once they are calm, tell the story together about what happened by naming the emotions, emphasizing that they are capable, and being kind. Pause or invite them to participate in telling the story.
  9. Find other ways to show love, like wants-nothing quality time with them. Invite them to help you with household chores. Enjoy family dinner together without an agenda.

What can independence do for you and your child?

These are real-life results I have seen in my own family through encouraging independence and self-reliance.

  • My children are happier and so am I
  • Fewer tantrums
  • Fewer power struggles
  • More quality time together
  • Less stress for the whole family
  • A more capable, confident, independent-thinking and self-motivated child

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