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Helping My Little ‘Follower’ to Think Independently

(All names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of minors mentioned in this post.)

Recently, my preschooler got me thinking about how I can help him think independently and be less of a ‘follower.’

My son currently attends a great preschool program that he really loves and where he is thriving.  As part of their curriculum, they have a ‘letter of the week’ group sharing activity. Once per week, the children bring in an item from home to share with the class that starts with the letter of the week. This is very exciting to him because he loves to talk about letters and phonetics and practice writing.  One day recently, the letter of the week was ‘H’ and my son decided on his own (with no prompting from me) that he wanted to bring his stuffed hamster. Of course, I praised him for his excellent independent thinking and told him that ‘hamster’ was a great ‘H’ word and off to school he went the next morning, hamster in tow.  

He came home that day and, as usual, I asked him how circle went. He gave me the lowdown on who bought which ‘H’ items.

The following morning, as I brushed his sister’s hair, my son said to me “Mom, I should’ve brought a hairbrush, that begins with an ‘H’.” I told him that “hairbrush” was another awesome ‘H’ word but told him bringing his ‘hamster’ was just as wonderful an idea.  To this, he replied disappointedly, “But *Bobby* brought a hairbrush to school. I should’ve brought one like him.  No one else brought a hamster.”

This stopped me in my tracks for a moment. As an adult, I thought it was wonderful that he’d come up with a unique idea by himself. He, however, wasn’t so proud; he didn’t want to bring in something different than his friends.  

Encouraging my son to think independently.

Strange, isn’t it?  

I was embracing his independent thinking, while he seemed to feel that bringing in a different item than his friends set him apart and did not see it as a positive thing.

Having worked with young kids before becoming a stay-at-home mom, I understand that some people are born with natural leadership qualities.  However, this ‘peer pleaser’ behavior can also be entirely normal for a four-year-old and it does not mean he will always be a natural ‘follower.’  Children his age are trying to figure out how to make friends and how to keep their buddies happy and wanting to play with them.  They need adults to help them navigate these relationships at times.

I believe we can encourage our kids, at any age, to think independently. After some reflection and reading, I’ve made myself a list of actions to encourage him to think for himself. Some of these things I already do, others I could do a better job at.  

I can:

  • Give him choices.  

    I do this all the time. Not to the extent where I overwhelm him with choices, but I can give him a couple of options during our daily schedule. For example, I can let him pick one of two choices of places to go on a weekend or ask which of two cereal kinds he’d like me to buy for the week. Even if he picks the option I do not desire as much, I do not try to sway his decision. Instead, I respect it and follow through.

  • Help him make kind and respectful choices, and recognize that the choices others make aren’t always okay.

    He already has proven to me that he understands the difference between a good choice and a bad choice. He also can tell me what kinds of choices his sister or his friends are making if I ask him. He needs to learn that, before joining someone in an action, he needs to stop and evaluate whether or not it is respectful and kind– or not. This is very hard for 4 and 5 year-olds. They are still developing their planning skills and don’t always slow down long enough to stop and evaluate anything. Physiologically, the prefrontal cortex of the brain isn’t even fully developed until much later in life, which makes it especially difficult for children to understand the consequences of their actions. Then there are the feelings about wanting to fit in with their friends that also makes weighing choices difficult. Instead of being disappointed or upset with him that he followed another child’s negative choice, I need to repeat to him over and over again how important it is that he ask himself if the other child he’s tempted to join is making a positive choice.

  • Ask ‘you’ questions.  

    Have actual conversations. Challenge his ideas. This is probably the one thing I should really work hard on. As parents, we’re always telling our child what to do: ‘Put your rain boots on.’ ‘Eat your peas.’ ‘Go brush your teeth.’ There is nothing wrong us telling our kids what they should do (we are parents with rules, after all), but these are not conversations. When I’m playing with my son or discussing school, however, this is more of the setting when I can challenge his ideas. I can ask him what he thinks. “Why do you think the tower fell?” “What did you think about what Johnny said?” “How did your sister make you feel?” “What do you think we should do to solve this problem?” The word ‘you’ is crucial to making him realize that what he thinks is valuable.

Asking my son "what do you think" to encourage him to think independently.

  • Don’t just act interested, be interested.

    I let him know I am really excited about what he has to say and what he thinks. I can tell him that ‘hairbrush’ is a great word for ‘H’ and I am glad *Bobby* thought of it, but I also tell him that I thought it was special that he was able to do some great thinking and come up with the word ‘hamster’ knowing he has a toy one he can bring to school.

  • Teach that sometimes you will have similar thoughts as others, and other times your thoughts will be different and both are NORMAL AND OKAY.  

    The truth is, the differences in the way individuals think makes the world not-so-boring. If everyone had bought a ‘hairbrush to share,’ well, the kids wouldn’t have learned many ‘H’ words, would they? To promote the idea that people are going to think differently and that it can be a beautiful thing, I can say things like ‘Wow, your class really worked as a team to come up with ‘H’ words! Wasn’t it fun to see how many different ideas you all had? You all learned a lot of words that way.’ Conversely, in response to him telling me both *Jenny* and *George* bought hippos, I can say ‘That’s cool that *Jenny* and *George* had the same idea and they didn’t even talk about it before they bought those hippos in!’

As he grows up, this concept and conversation may become harder for both of us. The desire to fit in with peers will continue to exist through his school aged, high school, and college phases, although in different ways.  

For now, I will begin laying the groundwork in teaching him that his own thoughts do matter, even though he’s only in preschool. I can keep conversations open and healthy, and continue to ask him to share what he feels the positive and negative outcomes of his potential choices are.  We can talk about how he feels in situations or about certain topics to help him celebrate his own thinking.

In the end, I just want him to understand that I love him for who he is and what his ideas are and that anyone who is his true friend will as well.

How do you encourage your children to think independently?

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2 Responses to Helping My Little ‘Follower’ to Think Independently

  1. Caroline Henne
    Caroline Henne January 8, 2017 at 10:33 am #

    Great post, thanks for writing! My baby is only 15 months but already I’ve been wondering about this because I was definitely a “follower” as a child.

    I would also like to learn how to help kids build confidence so that they are not crushed if they are ever made fun of by peers for being different or trying to be independent. Rejection by peers was what I was terrified of as a middle schooler (partially because I experienced it several times); Eventually, this helped make me into a quiet “follower” rather than an independent thinker with a strong sense of self. It took years to get over this and in some ways I still struggle with it! Any thoughts on how to help kids with this?

    • Amanda
      Amanda January 15, 2017 at 8:07 pm #

      Hi Caroline! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for reading!

      In regards to growing up being afraid of rejection, that is a hard one, but I believe that really building up our kids social skills at very young ages (even at one or two years old) is important. When I worked in preschools, the teachers worked hard on teaching children that it is okay if a friend doesn’t want to play with them right then, but that they had other friends they could ask to play and really helped the kids talk through these interactions. We also tried to teach kids that it is okay to say you don’t want to play with someone else (or play a certain game) as long as they say it in a ‘nice’ way. We tried to teach them to say that, even though they don’t really want to play right now, they’ll play with them later (and attempted to teach them the importance of sticking to that). It is tricky and there is a fine line there between being nice and being hurtful, but we did our best. I’ve taken what I learned professionally and I’m trying to use these strategies with my son at home. I tell him it’s okay to tell his sister he doesn’t want to play if he’d like to play alone, but to tell her that he’ll play with her in a little while. I’ve also talked to him a lot about ‘it’s okay if ___ didn’t want to play with you today. You can ask again tomorrow and, if it still doesn’t work, who else might like to play a special game with you?’ and that kind of thing. I hope that gives you some ideas.

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