Building Competence

lavender foot bath croppedDear Miss Faith,
My son is almost four, I’m struggling with teaching him how to dress himself, pull down and up his own pants for going potty, etc. He seems to have no interest in learning whatsoever, and when I ask him to “try before mummy helps”, he only does so halfheartedly. Any suggestions?

Dear Mom,
It’s so interesting how different children are really different, isn’t it? Some children never want help, while other children seem to have no interest in doing things on their own! In either case, it can seem easy to view this as some sort of “too much” in that child. That child is too headstrong, or too lazy, or too something else.

An alternative way that I’ve found to view children that feels much better to me is to look at them through a lens of strengths and balance. For your son, first look at why he’s not interested in doing things for himself. Is it because he is easy-going and likes to go with the flow? Or is it because he loves the feelings of connection that he gets from getting you to help him? Either of those traits could be a strength, if it were balanced out by raising another strength in him: Being easy-going is a lovely trait, if it could be balanced by a stronger sense of hard work: a child who is easy-going AND a hard worker would be a joy to be around. Likewise, feeling a strong sense of connection is a strength, if it could also be balanced by a stronger sense of competence: a child who is connected AND competent would be a joy to be around. (For more thoughts on this idea of balance, check out my post on Balancing Virtues). The trick is to strengthen that balancing virtue without withdrawing or diminishing the virtue that’s there already.

So, how might you boost his sense of competence, without squashing his feeling of connection? One way might be to always respond to his requests for help, but to simply be a little less helpful. You’re still totally willing to help, and you join in with him if he asks, but bit by bit you start being less and less effective. So, if he wants you to help pull up his pants, you say, “OK, you do it; I’ll help.” Then he takes the front and you take the back, but you only pull as hard as he’s pulling or maybe even a little less. If the pants don’t go up, say, “YOU’RE doing it; I’m only helping! Pull harder! There you go!” Then you can be proud of his budding competence, and you and he can feel connected over that.

As he gets the hang of the fact that he has to do the bulk of the work, but that you’re right there with the moral support/help, then you can start backing off more physically, without backing off emotionally: when he asks for your help you can say, “You do it; I’ll watch.” But then you can still give him moral support by watching and commenting on what he’s doing: “Oh, you’re getting it! You’re pulling them up in the front, but that back is still down. What will you do? Oh, now you’ve got it! There, it’s done. You did it.” So he feels like you’re doing it with him.

Does this make sense? Think about what he’s getting out of wanting you to do things for him, and make sure that you don’t withdraw that thing from him. Instead, you’re helping him grow and expand, in ways that you can both be pleased with.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. This is a great response, and so timely for me. We’re having a similar problem here with my 4-year-old girl, but I’m going to give your suggestions a try. Thank you!

  2. Great post! I appreciate the way she had tried to solve this topic. Inculcating a sense of duty in our children is one of the most important duty of every parent. Sometimes is become a difficult task for them, but I personally belief that teaching your kids by example, inclusion, and positively communicating that it is a privilege to work together can help you out from this problem.

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