Your three-year-old has swiped your car keys and is heading out the door to start your car. Meanwhile, your six-year-old begs you to help him put on his flip-flops. Somewhere in between these two extremes, there’s a sweet spot of independence for your children.
Self-reliance, or independence, is part of life’s natural progression. Children should gain more independence from you as they age. Knowing the appropriate amount of independence can be challenging.
While freedom roughly depends on the child’s age, their understanding and maturity level play a big factor, too. Along the road to teaching your children independence, it helps to keep in mind that your job is to teach your children to one day live without you.
We get it– your kid went from a toddler who needed your help with everything to a little adult in the blink of an eye. It can be hard to tell your tiny human that they’ll have to cut the crust off their own sandwiches from now on. You may have even found pride in being able to anticipate their needs.
However, the human spirit naturally craves some independence as a healthy part of maturing. Continuing to anticipate your child’s every need and making them feel the coziest they can feel robs them of self-reliance and puts your relationship with them in jeopardy in three ways:
Building self-reliant children takes time, deliberate practice, and lots of encouragement. We have some helpful tips. As a bonus, you’ll improve your parent-child relationship and gain freedom for yourself.
The first step is to create and maintain routines. You likely have fundamental independence–producing habits in place already. Typically, children learn household routines at a young age, starting with sleep cycles – We wake up and go to sleep at particular times (or range of times).
Morning and bedtime routines are especially great for fostering independence as they create positive habits early on. As soon as they have the motor skills to brush their teeth and dress, they can get ready for the day and night without your help.
For school-aged children, help them establish a routine they should follow when they get home from school. Where do homework, snacks, relaxing, and extracurricular activities fit in? Let them help decide.
Children love to copy adults. At early ages, they start to “play house” and mimic behaviors they’ve seen in adults, chores included.
The sooner you allow your child to help you with chores, the easier it will be to give them responsibilities as they age. They’ll feel successful and proud early in life for a job well done (or just a job done). They’ll more readily accept chores as a part of life and work on their endurance in doing hard things.
Children as young as two can begin to put away their toys. Parents can turn laundry sorting into a throwing game or a chance to learn colors. Setting the table can be a fun game of “Restaurant” with your children.
Children aged four or older can start watering the garden or potted flowers. They can feed the family pet, pick out a snack, and get dressed for bed or school.
Children can also start helping with food preparation in the kitchen at an early age (minus the sharp cutting tools). In fact, children who learn to cook and bake learn patience, empathy, and how to feed themselves.
Let your children help you figure out how to spend their time. Keep the decision-making as simple as possible for really young kids by giving them two options (e.g., “Do you want oranges or apples for your snack?”)
As your child ages, include them in arranging their schedule. If they want to get involved in more extracurricular activities, show them what that looks like on the family calendar. It’s okay to let your kids try and fail with this. They’ll learn that you trust them and that what they think is best doesn’t always turn out as hoped.
Along the same lines, teach them about budgeting and allow them to help with financial decisions. For instance, show them your co-parenting expense tracker and walk them through your income versus expenses. Tie this into letting them select their extracurricular activities. After all, money isn’t infinite; they must decide without spending money they don’t have.
Helping you schedule and make financial decisions helps them learn to prioritize. As with anything, don’t expect them to always make the right decisions, but do allow them some wiggle room to try and fail.
All too often, kids experience punishment for doing something wrong. Even a disapproving look counts.
Show your children positivity and appreciation when they complete a task, even if you wouldn’t call it a job well done. Look beyond the handful of ways they made the bed wrong and praise the effort and the fact they saw the task through to the end.
Your children need your trust to foster their independence. To give them more freedom, they must prove they can be trusted– a real Catch-22.
Start small. Mindfully and purposefully add more opportunities for self-reliance. Praise the effort and achievement, not necessarily the outcome. Don’t hover and micromanage how they do things, or they’ll eventually give up.
Remember, your job as a parent is to teach your children to live without you. As your children gain more independence from you, you’ll improve their confidence and enjoy a little more free time, yourself.
It’s a good idea to keep open lines of communication with your co-parent so you both get on the same page about responsibilities and self-reliance. Use a co-parenting app for easier communication.