How to Loosen the Reins and Help Your Child Learn Independence

From the moment they’re born, your kids depend on you for meeting their every need. You feed them, change them, comfort them, and love them.

While caring for your children is certainly at the root of the parental job description, it’s only half of the position. If you’re doing your duty as a parent, the goal is to eventually put yourself out of a job. The ultimate objective is for them to go from fully dependent children to fully independent adults.

Like everything else in child development, autonomy comes in stages. There’s a lot you can do before you end up with a college student who can’t do laundry or manage their meal allowance. Here are some strategies to teach your children independence and enable them to navigate the world as successful, self-sufficient adults.

Give Them Age-Appropriate Privileges and Responsibilities

Kids are always pushing for new privileges. It’s tempting to just give in, especially when this saves you time or the effort of an argument. However, the granting of new privileges is a great opportunity to tie freedoms to added responsibilities. This teaches children that a privilege is earned by acting responsibly, not an automatic entitlement.

Discuss the limits and behavioral expectations that will coincide with any new privileges you introduce. Don’t be afraid to ask your kids for their input on setting expectations. Most children understand reasonable limits. They will be much more willing to adhere to those limits if they’ve participated in setting them for themselves.

Say your child wants to go to the park; you can tie that new freedom with a requirement to be home by dinnertime. If the new privilege is their first cell phone, you can help your child self-monitor their screen time. If you’re uncomfortable giving your child unfettered access to the internet, consider getting a phone for kids. You can stay connected while your child is out exploring without worrying they’ll be exposed to inappropriate content.

Let Them Help

Kids love helping! It gives them a sense of agency over their environment and makes them feel like their contributions have value. Letting kids help provides a chance to teach valuable new skills and builds their confidence in their ability to complete tasks.

From sorting laundry to helping to prepare meals, kids can offer an additional set of capable hands around the house if you let them. This is sometimes difficult to practice with consistency because, initially, it tends to take more time and generate additional work. While teaching children to help around the house can sometimes feel like more trouble than it’s worth, make the effort. Even young children have a desire to pitch in, and if this inclination is encouraged early on, you will have lifelong helpers.

Start by allowing young children to help with the simplest portions of their routines. They can throw away the apple core after you make them a snack or pick up toys after playtime. As children get older, you can continue to add new ways for them to help around the house. As they assume cleaning and cooking tasks, you’ll watch them grow into contributing members of the family.

Give Them Choices

Every day brings hundreds of opportunities for even the youngest family members to make their own choices. Would they like to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt? Would they like an apple or an orange with their lunch today? Would they like to do their homework before or after dinner? Choices give children a sense of control over what they do and what happens in their life.

Especially with younger children, limit the number of options, as too many can overwhelm them. Remember, too, that these choices do not need to be important to feel important to your child. Allowing them input will give them a sense of self-determination and encourage them to think through their decisions. They will learn to weigh the pros and cons as well as to accept the outcomes of their choices.

Providing choices is especially helpful when your child wants to do something that you can’t let them do. For example, if your two-year-old insists on crossing the street alone, you’ll have to say no. But you can redirect them by giving them the choice of being carried or holding your hand.

Create Routines

Daily routines give organization and structure to common daily processes. Developing routines gives your child a sense of security and the ability to anticipate what to do and when to do it. This allows them to engage more actively in their day-to-day tasks.

It is important to differentiate a routine from a schedule. A schedule is strictly tied to time, while a routine is doing a series of tasks in a preset order. Your dinnertime routine might consist of preparing the meal, setting the table, eating dinner, and then doing the dishes. The structure is there, but there’s no watching the clock.

Almost anything can be made into a routine, but breaking processes down into five or fewer steps is best for younger children. You can also use charts, checklists, and visual schedules if they have difficulty staying on task. For children who don’t yet read, you can draw pictures to illustrate steps rather than writing them out.

Allow Them to Fail

This might be a difficult concept for many parents, who naturally want to see their kids succeed in all they do. While this impulse is well-intentioned, it also deprives children of some of life’s most important lessons.

Allowing kids to fail teaches them to trust in their own resilience. It forces them to think through their decisions and actions and gives them a chance to learn from their mistakes. It also shows them that they can trust you to be there to support them whether or not they succeed. They’ll know that they are safe in taking appropriate risks and that you’ll help them weather any disappointments.

If there is ever a legitimate crisis or a challenge that is above your child’s skills and abilities, by all means, intervene. But in the day-to-day, rescuing children does more harm than good. So instead of swooping in, let them pour the milk on their own. If the (plastic) glass tips over, be ready to hand them a sponge to clean up the spill.

It is always hard to let your children go. Whether it’s their first day of kindergarten or their last summer home before college, they’ll always need you in some capacity. While you can’t shield your kids from everything, you can provide the tools and support they need to face life’s challenges. You’ll know you did your job well when they become independent adults.

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