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"I Did It Myself!"

It's 2:30 in the morning. I've finally got the baby settled again. The traffic noises outside our hotel room have quieted down. I might actually get some sleep.

"My heart! My heart!" It's 5-year-old Emma, shattering the silence. My husband stirs, muddled.

"This is unbelievable," I say. "It's her heart again."

He gets out of bed to search the floor by Emma's cot for the small, plush heart her best friend gave her for her birthday. He finds it immediately, right where she dropped it and, once the heart is restored, he and Emma fall blissfully back to sleep. I, on the other hand, am wide-awake and hopping mad. I have the feeling that, somehow, this is probably all my fault.

I have been Emma's obliging servant since her birth. Back when she was a baby, it was easy for me to justify; she was helpless in every way, her chief duties being to wave her arms and observe her dad and me.

As she got older, she and I tended to lock horns whenever she felt me trying to shift some responsibility on to her. "Have a bite," I'd say to her at the breakfast table. "You feed me," she'd counter. Too often, I ended up negotiating with her. "Okay, we'll take turns," I'd reply, forgetting that any toddler who argues like a trial lawyer is also perfectly able to operate a spoon.

Ultimately, this behavior created a bit of a monster: a 4-year-old who could ski, for instance, but who was seemingly incapable of getting back up on her skis, un-assisted, after a spill. There she'd lie, a mini-Garbo, skis splayed in the snow, saying, "Just take them off me."

If this is how Emma and I ended up with our "heart condition," how do I convince her that her job description has expanded? How do I get her to put away her toys, put on her socks, fold her clothes, put her dirty dishes in the sink, and retrieve her own heart at night?

Kate Southwood lives with her family in Oslo, Norway.

Why we're (sort of) to blame

It's comforting to know that missteps like mine are common. "I'm always rushing," says Gretchen O'Shea, a mom of twins in Cranford, New Jersey. "It's hard to give the kids the freedom and the time to do something when I can do it so much faster." When the phone rings, the baby cries, and the dog wants to go out, it's a little hard, moms agree, to pause and give a toddler a few unending minutes to struggle with a single button.

Sometimes it's just plain easier to go ahead and do things for our kids. But that isn't the only thing holding us back from shifting responsibilities on to them: It can be hard for us to recognize when our darling babies are old enough to try their hands at certain tasks. "Parents can make the mistake of assuming that a child can't cut a carrot or wipe up a spill because she doesn't do it perfectly or because it can be dangerous," says Rebecca Youhanaie, a preschool teacher at the Montessori School of Agoura, in Agoura, California. "If you start out small  -- like demonstrating how to cut a banana with a butter knife  -- you might be surprised at how much your child can do."

But why teach self-reliance from an early age if we all, eventually, learn to feed ourselves and put on our own socks? "It's really the foundation for later learning," says Youhanaie. "In doing a simple task like pouring, a child can learn independence, concentration, coordination, and a sense of order."

"Learning how to tackle new problems translates to a sense of 'I can do this on my own' in new domains, including school," says Fred Rothbaum, Ph.D., professor and chairperson of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts.

Ready or not?

The challenge isn't just in figuring out what a child is capable of but in finding a way to spur a reluctant picker-upper into action. Kids aren't necessarily up for a task when we'd like them to be. "My daughter welcomes new responsibility when she welcomes it," says Jane Rosenberg, mom of Eva, 5, in New York City. "It's all on her timetable, and if she doesn't want to do something, forget it. She means well, but she can't always follow through."

Small children can also flounder when faced with seemingly adult-size tasks. When I asked Emma to clean up some popcorn kernels she'd spilled on the kitchen floor, she gave me a stricken look and said, "All of them?" I realized that, although I knew they could be scooped up by the handful, she could only imagine herself picking them up one by one.

It can be confusing when your child embraces independence one minute  -- and reverts to his "Mommy, I can't" the next. "Karly, who's five, can do all the getting-ready-for-school things, like get-ting dressed and brushing her teeth. Usually it takes a reminder or two and she's off and running," says Kari McChesney, a mom of two, in Pacific Grove, California. "But in the evening, it's next to impossible to get her to do anything without using the threat of going to bed early."

Having more than one child adds an extra layer to the readiness issue. Many parents, like Jennifer Boyer of Hamilton, New Jersey, mom of David, 3, and Mary, 2, notice differences between older and younger siblings: "David still wants me to dress him, but Mary gets very upset if I try to help her. I'm partly responsible for this, I think, because in his first two years I did everything for David. Even when he started to get old enough, I still did many of the tasks he could have done. He won't even carry his lunch bag into school in the morning because Mary will do it for him!"

Some younger children crave being more grown-up, but others play the baby card and remain dependent on Mom longer than their older sib did. And some older children relish being the big kid, but others cling when a new baby comes along. Rothbaum says that birth order and gender may affect your little one's level of self-reliance, but it's really about the individual child. We all learn to walk, talk, and put on our socks, but each kid's distinct personality will drive him to master new skills at different times.

Getting them on board

For a child to learn to do tasks for himself, it's all about baby steps. Just as a toddler learns to construct sentences only after months of using individual words, your rookie will need for you to break down everyday tasks or even do them with him, especially at first. This'll give him a goal to strive for  -- and confidence that he can reach it. Make the chores sound doable and give a limited set of choices: Ask if he would rather clean up the crayons or put away the drawing paper. Explain that you're willing to help, too, and he'll more cheerfully comply.

Look around your house to make sure you're not setting yourself and your child up for failure. When I looked at things from Emma's perspective, I realized that her coat hook was out of reach, her dishes and cups were on a high shelf in the cupboard, and her snack foods weren't accessible in the fridge. Within minutes of moving Emma's dishes and rearranging the fridge, she was standing on her stool in the kitchen, excitedly preparing a snack for herself. (Her excitement hasn't transferred to putting her sneakers on the apparently invisible shoe rack in the hall, but we're working on it.)

Teaching skills is work, too. Call it reminding, prompting, or prodding: You may feel as if you are still doing everything for your child for a while, monitoring him until a task is done, but it's work that will pay real dividends when the reminders are no longer necessary (that day will come!).

You'll also need an extra measure of patience for the whining once the novelty of your child's new responsibilities wears off. I was ready for Emma when she moaned, "I can't put so much stuff away!" I smiled and said, "I know you can. You got it all out." I was less ready, though, the next time she complained, which was after I'd asked her to clean up toys her little sister had been playing with. "I didn't get them out!" she cried, with a great sense of injustice. I realized then that I also wanted Emma to learn to contribute work to the family home. "I didn't ask who got them out," I said. "I asked you to please put them away."

Staying the course

Once you've decided which tasks are appropriate for your child to take on, whether it's clearing dirty dishes or folding clothes, stick with it. Deep down, your child will grasp the fairness of the new arrangement, leaving you free to hold your ground and impose logical consequences when she protests  -- if she doesn't dress herself, for instance, she can't go to the park.

Of course, breaking old habits will take time, for both of you. It's as big a challenge for me to leave things undone as it is for Emma to do them, maybe bigger. I cleaned a pencil mark off the pantry door one day  -- rather than hand the cloth to the culprit  -- because it was quicker. I redeemed myself the next day, though, when I found handprints on the hall mirror and handed the glass cleaner to Emma. Letting go means relinquishing control. Emma's bed may not be made to my liking anymore, but at least I'm not the one making it.

So how is it working? Does Emma retrieve her heart by herself at night? Well, no, she outfoxed me there: She switched to sleeping with her six-foot stuffed snake. She reported the other morning, though, that both her snake and her comforter had fallen on the floor during the night. When I asked, "What did you do?" she just laughed and said, "I picked them up!"

I may win this one yet.

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