I was speaking with a mother about training her son to do things on his own, and her concern was that she would miss the opportunities that those tasks give her for extra hugs and kisses with him. I love that she is worried about that (especially with her boy, because I've read studies that show that even in infancy we touch our boys less than our girls), but to me that is a separate issue. After all, I don't get my husband up and dress him, nor do I make his breakfast. Yet I am there along side him, getting myself dressed and making my own breakfast. We chat and laugh and share things (including some extra hugs and kisses!) as we orbit around each other. The kids fold into this scene naturally as we are all getting ready. So how do you create it?
If you are already having to wake your child in the mornings for childcare or school, it is not too early to introduce him to an alarm clock. If you want some hugs and snuggles, ask him to wake YOU up. You can have a ritualized morning hug before you get out of bed. If you are concerned about connecting with him in the morning, have him help you make your bed and then go help him make his bed. The skill of interdependence is also an awesome one for kids to learn. When the family is helping each other, a child is still gaining a sense of importance and competence. It is not just that Mom and Dad serve me all the time (which leads kids to either feeling entitled or to doubting their own self-efficacy).
Make getting dressed in the morning easy for little ones by putting clothes that fit (and you are willing for them to wear given the season) in drawers or on shelves that they can reach. Look for pants with elastics and shirts with neck openings wide enough that your child can push his head through fairly easily. Either buy clothes where the colors match or let him develop his own fashion sense over time. Undressing is easier than dressing, so starting at 12-18 months, pull your child's cloths off most of the way and have him wriggle out of the rest giving just enough assistance that he gets to struggle a little but not to the point of getting really upset.
For breakfast also set kids up for success by putting their bowls, spoons, and cereal low enough for them to get to those items themselves. As soon as they are using a booster seat at the table, they are big enough to get those items and bring them to the table. You can still pour the milk, though if you give him a little pitcher, a three or four year old can pour his own milk. Train him first by giving him lots of opportunities for practice pouring water--in the tub or the backyard on a warm day are great places for this. Provide a variety of different kinds and sizes of containers. Through lots of experimentation he will internalize a sense of how much water in one container will be needed to fill another container. His control and ability not to spill will get better and better.
When it comes to making lunches, have your two year old right there next to you. Get her a stool she can pull up next to the counter. As you make her sandwich and cut up her fruit, talk her through what you are doing. Narrate how you scrape off the extra peanut butter on the inside of the jar and show her over and over how you use a knife safely. She can start to practice using a butter knife by spreading softened butter on a piece of bread. This is a skill she can practice on a Saturday afternoon for snack when you have the time and patience to monitor her. Children love to help and they love to do things on their own. Three and four year olds can take responsibility for putting any staples--baggies of crackers or fruit snacks--into their lunch boxes. Again, they can help you with this task on the weekend when you have time to fill up containers for the week. Just as they practiced pouring water, sacrifice a box of cheerios and have them practice using a 1/2 cup measuring cup to scoop out cheerios and put them in baggies or small boxes.
Keeping the Long Run in Mind
But it is just so much faster if I do it myself, I hear you saying. And yes, that is true in the short run, but by the time my daughter was seven or eight she was making lunch entirely on her own, including adding things we needed to the shopping list. That took five or six years of training. But for the next eight or nine years, I didn't give one thought to her lunch. Eventually, since I also packed a lunch to take to my school, we streamlined the process. Mom, she would ask, do want a sandwich today? Yes! Thanks, Darling. Meanwhile I would fill two baggies of carrots--one for her and one for me. We each knew we were responsible for our own lunches, but we were happy to help if we were doing it together. By the time she was in high school and super stressed by schoolwork, there were days from time to time when I would make her whole lunch before she got out to the kitchen. The look of gratitude on her face was as great as if I had given her a precious jewel wrapped in a box. Likewise, there were days when she was up early to study for a test, and she would make me my tea, so it would be hot and ready when I walked into the kitchen. That felt like a gift from the heavens! But really it was just the payback for the work I put in in the early years.