Among the most important outcomes of our job as parents and educators is to raise children who grow into confident, self-reliant people who know when, and who, to ask for help when they need it. In the age of “helicopter” and “snow-plow” parents, many of us are asking ourselves how to raise children who are on their way to becoming competent and purposeful members of society.
Encouraging and supporting independence, in accord with your child’s age and abilities, fosters confidence in her own ability to accomplish tasks, try new and increasingly difficult things, and participate in the tasks necessary for the day-to-day functioning of your household. This in turn, leads to greater self-reliance and a sense of contribution and extends into the way she interacts with peers, teachers, and other members of the community.
Additionally, there is increasing evidence that not giving kids appropriate levels of independence can actually lead to higher levels of anxiety in children. According to the Wall Street Journal, higher levels of autonomy, defined as “parental encouragement of children’s opinions and choices, acknowledgment of children’s independent perspectives on issues, and solicitation of children’s input on decisions and solutions” was associated with less childhood anxiety. And, as children walk and bike to school less often and spend less time outdoors playing with peers, we are seeing an increase in obesity and physical illnesses such as type 2 diabetes as well.
These are very compelling reasons to find ways to support our children’s independence! We’d like to share a few things we’ve learned along the way. If you have any ideas that are working well for your family or classroom, we’d love to hear about them!
Look for opportunities to promote independence. What tasks can your children take on that will give them a greater sense of pride and make space for parents or teachers to focus on other things that need to be done or that would make life more pleasant for all? Start with just one task and then expand the list as your child masters each new activity. Talk this over with your child to give him or her a sense of participation and control. For example, “Jaime, I know that you would like to have more time to read before we go to bed. And I have lots of dishes to wash every night. Let’s talk about which bedtime activities you can do all by yourself so I will have time to get my chores done and then we can read together for 20 minutes before we turn out the light.”
Show your child that you have confidence in his or her capabilities. As your child shows an interest in helping out, doing tasks on their own, or exploring independently give them the support they need to accomplish the task. Many of us have experienced the sense of reluctance that arises when a child wants to help out with a task that would be easier for us to do without child involvement. Washing the dishes comes to mind. Yet when a child is asking to help, let them help! A great tool to use in this case is, “tell me how you would do that” and then let them walk you through all of the necessary steps to do a good job and minimize messes. When you are satisfied, give it a go. You will be surprised by their diligence!
Give them a sense of control over appropriate aspects of their lives. This can be something as simple as allowing a young child to dress themselves, set the table for dinner, or choose which vegetable they would like with their meal. As your child grows his or her skills, some parameters may need to be set (do you want to wear a blue shirt or a green shirt today?). I recently learned a trick from a parent who wisely placed all of the clothes her daughter could choose to for school in one drawer. Her little girl felt so grown up choosing her clothes and getting dressed for school all by herself, and mom was satisfied that she was dressed appropriately for the situation. Win-win.
Encourage your child to explore and expand their boundaries. When my daughter was about 7 years old, she asked for permission to walk to a local grocery store. My first reaction (kept to myself) was a moderate level of shock, mostly around what people would think if they saw a 7-year-old walking down the street alone! Then, my rational mind caught up and I realized that we had been taking this walk together since she was an infant. She knows the way and has had plenty of experience with appropriate behavior in the grocery store. Not to mention that we needed milk! My cautious, though adventurous child preemptively addressed all of my concerns, including the bend in the road where cars tend to go way too fast and how to handle the questions of concerned adults. The trip was successful (and she didn’t ask to repeat it for well over a year!). Knowing that we trusted her and that she was able to do such an important task on her own increased her confidence and gave her the courage to explore other possibilities. We also knew that she was capable of this adventure. You will know what you feel most comfortable allowing you child to do. Maybe it is a smaller adventure like walking to the end of the street to visit a neighbor.
Also, not all children are able to name all of the possible concerns a parent might have. Asking something like, “do you know what my concerns are?” gives children a chance to prepare for the task ahead. It also allows you to understand how well they are prepared so you can give additional guidance as needed.
Parenting expert Jim Taylor, Ph.D. cautions against promoting a high level of independence without also having a strong caregiver-child connection. A healthy level of parental dependence means that a child knows that they can look to you for support and guidance as they blossom into self-reliant beings. Lacking this connection, children are at risk of over-dependence on peers and popular culture for support and validation, which can have its own unintended consequences.
So, connect with your child to find ways to support their autonomy and foster an appropriate level of independence. You will both be happy you did!
The Overprotected American Child: https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/WSJ%20Petersen%20Article%20June%202018.pdf