One morning last week, my 9-year-old daughter got herself ready for her sailing class and out the door without a single prompt. I was shocked. My daughter has always been fairly responsible, but she’s also a bit dreamy and not necessarily a go-getter in the morning. She prefers long mornings lost in play and avoids the ticking of the clock as much as possible. This summer, however, independence is her thing. She enjoys the feeling of meeting her own needs and riding off on her own. She feels proud of her ability to cross off her own to-do list, and her confidence is soaring because of it.
I won’t lie, there are times when I feel like my role as the homework checker is the only reason the homework gets done during the school year, and when I find piles of clothes that somehow missed the hamper I wonder if I’m falling short on the concept of responsibility. But when I see my kids take on new chores, track their own summer reading for fun, or when they remind me to cover the basics (“Hey, Mommy, we’re almost out of milk”), I see firsthand that they are internalizing the importance of independence.
There’s no secret formula to raising an independent kid. In fact, personality plays a huge role in how and when kids show signs of independence. Some kids seem ready to fly the moment they enter preschool, while other stick close to home for a while.
There are, however, a few steps parents can take to inspire age appropriate independence as kids grow.
1. Focus on intrinsic motivation. Some parents resort to bribery to meet specific goals — say, an ice cream cone in exchange for a clean room — but the problem with external rewards is that they don’t work long-term. Either you’re cornered into rewarding every chore, or your kids will seek different (and sometimes bigger) rewards as they get bored of the initial incentive. Instead, you want to rely on intrinsic motivation to building independence. Thank your child for her help. Talk to her about the difference she makes in the family when she pitches in with the household chores. Don’t stop with chores, however. Allow your kid to make decisions about the activities she’s enrolled in and what she does with her free time. When kids are motivated and making important choices, independence soars.
2. Don’t push. We all want our kid to spread their wings and fly, but some kids need more time and emotional support than others. That’s perfectly normal. Give your kids the gift of time and be present when you’re together to show unconditional love. When kids feel safe and secure, they move toward independence.
3. Embrace failure. When kids are afraid to fail, they avoid taking healthy risks. They might not try a new sport or paint a picture they’ve been thinking about because they don’t want to feel embarrassed. Problem is, failure teaches kids about their strengths and weaknesses. In this house, we embrace failure. Sometimes we even bake cookies to celebrate! When kids learn to reframe failure as opportunity, they take big strides toward independence.
4. Teach problem solving skills. Kids don’t enter this world with a kit full of problem solving skills; it’s up to us to teach them. Sure, kids learn as they work through difficult tasks, but sometimes they become dependent on parent intervention. I always ask my kids to “try three”. They work together and try three of their own strategies first; then we’ll work together. More often than not, they solve their own problems. When that doesn’t work, whiteboards come in handy. Teach your kids to brainstorm using these three prompts: State the problem. Identify the barriers to fixing the problem. List three possible solutions. Breaking down problems and brainstorming a fix helps kids take control.
5. Use visuals to help them stay on track. I always use visuals to keep myself on track (taping lists to the front door, for example, to remember to sign field trip permission forms), and I’ve taught my kids to do the same. My 7-year-old son often writes checklists to make sure he gets his morning jobs done, and my daughter uses visuals to pack her dance bag and stay on top of her homework. For young children, a “morning jobs” and “nighttime jobs” list can be instrumental in teaching them to take responsibility for self-care (put on pajamas, brush teeth, wash hands, etc.) Use charts to help older kids pack athletic bags, track assignments, and complete household tasks.
6. Create an independent environment. A few years ago it hit me that my kitchen wasn’t really set up for my kids to operate on their own. They couldn’t reach glasses or plates and the fruit was on the highest shelf of the fridge. I looked at my kitchen through a child’s eyes, and rearranged accordingly. They loved it. Make sure that your physical environment encourages independence. If the kids can find and gather what they need without assistance, they will learn to take control of meeting their own needs.
7. Deal with your own fears. It’s hard to let go. Sometimes I watch my daughter ride off on her bike and those pesky “what ifs” creep in. What if she falls and gets hurt? What if she left without her inhaler? What if she needs help and can’t find it? As much as we want our kids to gain independence, it can be hard to let them actually be independent. Find the courage to let go. Know that you’ve given your child the skills to take steps toward independence and trust your child to make good choices. When we show our kids that we trust their instincts, they answer the call to act responsibly. Whether you’re leaving your child for the first sleepover or heading off for that dreaded first preschool drop, show your child that you have confidence in his ability to succeed by focusing on the positive and cheering him on.
More Parenting Advice:
- When Should You Stop Letting Your Kids See You Naked?
- 7 Signs Your Child Should See a Therapist
- 4 Secrets to Letting Your Kids Be Who They Are (Instead of Who You Want Them to Be)