Promoting Independence in Children
Coaxing a baby to use a spoon for the first time, teaching a kindergartner to tie his shoes or practicing parallel parking with a teen aren’t merely milestones for the scrapbook. They’re part of guiding a child toward independence — a process that often involves pitfalls along the way. Experts say preparing children to become happy, successful adults starts long before they leave the nest. Children start learning self-confidence and self-reliance during infancy. Here’s how to foster your child’s budding independence, starting today.
Ages 0-4: Building skills
Even before a child takes her first wobbly steps, she’s moving toward independence. “Babies begin to understand themselves as separate from others around 6 months, sometimes a little earlier,” says Kimberly Allen, board-certified parenting coach and assistant professor at N.C. State University. “That is typically the first sign in independence.”
Encouraging independent play by allowing infants to entertain themselves for short periods (up to 15 minutes or so) can build the foundation for more sustained creative play during toddlerhood. Babies may enjoy sitting in a swing or bouncer, listening to music, peering at images of faces or bold patterns, or simply gazing out a window.
A toddler’s quest for independence boils down to four words: “I do it myself!” When your child utters this familiar phrase, allow him to try the activity he’s angling for, whether it’s pulling on a T-shirt or pouring a glass of milk.
To determine the amount of guidance your little one needs, try “scaffolding,” a tactic often used by educators that involves showing a child how to do something, then stepping back and letting the child try the new skill. Sometimes, parents just need to “move out of the way,” Allen says. “The more children try, the better they’ll get.”
Ages 5-10: Give and take
Building independence is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance, particularly during the elementary years, when children may ask for more independence than they’re ready to have, Allen says.
Parents can help children build confidence and self-reliance by honoring a child’s requests, when appropriate. For example, a child who asks to make the two-block trek to a friend’s house alone may be up for the challenge. Consider your child’s developmental abilities in everyday contexts. Has she demonstrated good judgment in public places? Does she understand and obey basic pedestrian safety rules? If all signs point to yes, it may be time for a trial run, with the understanding that you’re always only a few doors (or a phone call) away.
Allowing kids to take a few calculated risks is key, recommends Michelle P. Maidenberg, a psychotherapist in New York City. Perpetually cautioning a child against risk communicates doubt about his competence or trustworthiness. These damaging messages can thwart a child’s self-esteem, confidence and burgeoning independence.
Ages 11-18: Growing wings
Tweens and teens are moving toward independence daily, Allen says. Though tough for parents to swallow, spending time with peers instead of parents is developmentally appropriate for teens. “Parents shouldn’t take it personally, as a move away from us, but rather as a move toward independence,” she says.
Don’t wait until your child starts packing for college to teach important life skills, like financial responsibility, time management and cooking, which can take years to master. “As with most lessons, the earlier parents start teaching these skills, the more successful youth will be,” Allen says. Setting up a checking account for your teen, turning over laundry duty or asking him to prepare one family dinner each week are great ways to start practicing for life after high school.
“Research shows that parents who allow teens the freedom to learn by doing have the best outcomes,” Allen says. “With guidance, youth can learn to manage their finances, care for themselves and move toward independence.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist, author and mom.