To a 4-year-old, independence may mean putting on their own shoes and picking out what clothes to wear. For school-age children, it could be assuming responsibility for household chores or deciding how they’ll spend their allowance. And for teenagers, it may translate to taking on a part-time job or cooking a family meal once or twice a week.
However your child wishes to exert their autonomy, what’s most important is that you let them. Independence breeds self-reliance, a crucial step in development from a very young age. Small triumphs grow out of situations where children feel safe and are given the freedom to assert their independence, knowing at the same time that their parents will be there for them should they falter. But creating an environment in which children feel free to make their own age-appropriate choices is sometimes difficult.
Doing so requires high levels of patience for parents, because it is always tempting to perform tasks for our children ourselves, especially when we’re in a rush to get out the door, cross off that last line in a to-do list or put dinner on the table. But when kids do things like get dressed on their own, open the car door and make their own decisions, they feel more independent.
As parents and caregivers, our natural inclination is to protect our children and make their lives easier. Overdoing that, inadvertently and no matter how kind and loving our intentions, squelches kids’ confidence and hinders their ability to care for themselves — and that’s not a precedent you want to set!
AGES & STAGES
Crucial to encouraging independence in children is understanding when they are intellectually and physically ready to handle tasks on their own. Comprehending human development and managing situations is key. Twentieth-century psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development lay out these critical steps. In infancy, babies develop trust. Autonomy begins to take shape in early childhood. In the preschool or play age, initiative is front and center. School-age children develop competency. And ego identity gets fine-tuned during adolescence.
Erikson maintained that personality develops in a predetermined order, and builds upon each previous stage. Parents can encourage independence age by age by being aware of those psychosocial foundations to set kids up for lifelong success.
QUICK TIPS FOR BIG STEPS
▪ Talk to children about the things they can do independently. Think about what you’re doing for them now that they could be doing for themselves. Identify small tasks and acts that they’re capable of completing without your help.
▪ Identify opportunities where your child can exert their independence. Visualize that with a rotating work wheel or chore chart. Be prepared to negotiate compromise and consider circumstances where you may be rushed — or have more leisure time — to accomplish tasks.
▪ Make time to show your kids how to accomplish the tasks they are ready for. School-age children can help cook by cutting vegetables for dinner, for example; demonstrate how they can do that safely. If going to a nearby store on their own is your child’s goal for independence, practice crossing the street with them beforehand.
▪ Forget perfection when your children are on their road to independence. They may spill the milk while pouring it into their cereal bowl — that’s OK. Just teach them how to clean it up. If your preschooler puts on their shirt inside out or chooses to wear polka dots with plaid, don’t sweat it. The quality of the end result isn’t important; their achievement is.
▪ Praise each step your kids take. Hold back on the criticism and instead laud the positives of their abilities. Provide approval and admiration for their every attempt, whether it hits the bull’s-eye or falls far short.
Making the decision to let go and allow your children to take on more responsibility can be nerve-wracking. But keep in mind that in the long run, their moves toward independence are positive, necessary steps to develop maturity.
Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.