Parents often come to me concerned that their children are, in their minds, too clingy or have no desire to do things on their own or for themselves. They worry their children will never learn to become independent doers and thinkers. They question their own actions and parenting styles; wanting desperately to find the magic approach to raising independent sons and daughters.
In my experience, I have found that many parents and caregivers spend too much time thinking of ways to teach their kids how to be independent, rather than focusing on how they can provide the right environment for them to safely and confidently try independent behaviors. The world is an amazing place, especially for a young child. Their natural instinct is to want to explore everything around them and to test boundaries of independence. In other words, all children will show their independence through their own natural curiosities and can begin to do so at a very young age.
So how can parents support this independent behavior, while still maintaining strong connections with their children? Even though the tactics vary based on the age of the child, parents may find the following ideas helpful as they try to manage this delicate balancing act. Safety runs throughout all of these recommendations. Parents need to child-proof their homes by taking away sharp objects and valuables to ensure that children of all ages can freely and safely play and grow.
Infants / Young Toddlers
Talk: The voice of a parent or caregiver is an incredible source of comfort for any small child. When you are not in the same room with your child, make sure you are constantly talking to them – reminding them where you are so they know they are not really alone. Also, use your voice when your child gets into a bit of a bind that they could get out of on their own. Rather than jumping to their aid and helping, talk them through what they can do to resolve the problem first on their own.
Give a Heads Up: Many parents choose to give their little one a heads up when they are leaving a room, the house, for work, etc. Some infants find this reassuring for they know what is to come and they are not surprised when all of a sudden the parent is gone. Since children do not understand the concept of time, you may want to say something such as, “Daddy has to go after three more hugs.”
Play: Sometimes playing simple games like hide-and-seek with your infant can give them their first feelings of independence. They get a taste for life not in sight of their parents and what being “alone” feels like.
Foster Adult Relationships: Exposing children to other adults such as grandparents, family friends, and caregivers can help them learn at an early age to get help from individuals other than their parents. This is an important realization for children to learn and a key ingredient to helping them to become less reliant on their parents.
Older Toddlers / Preschoolers
Identify Tasks: Young children thrive on being able to do basic tasks on their own. Work with your child and come up with a list of things that they can be responsible for doing on their own, i.e. brushing teeth, making their bed, picking up their toys, etc. Accept the fact that these tasks may not be done perfectly, but the fact that the child is taking responsibility for their own actions will reap positive benefits down the road.
Teach: Children are eager to learn new tasks, especially when they see adults doing them. Teach your child how to do things that they might not know how to do without some initial guidance. This could include putting their socks on or pouring their cereal into a bowl. Help them become more independent just by teaching them how to accomplish certain tasks properly.
Make Time: As any parent knows, it can take children much longer to do basic tasks such as getting dressed. To encourage their independence and support them in trying to do these such things on their own, build more time into your daily routines. Perhaps this means getting up 20 minutes earlier in the morning so that your child can dress themselves and get out the door on time. Even small changes to the schedule can dramatically help and make for a smoother transition for all.
Accept Help: As you go about doing simple tasks at home, let your children help if possible. Whether it be cleaning or baking, there is usually something that a child can do to help you. Even if it might make the process a bit clumsier, involve your child. This shows that you have belief in their abilities and increases their self-confidence.
Praise: Be sure to praise your child when they do or even attempt to do a task on their own. Continually reiterate to them that you are proud of them. It is often less about the outcome, but praising them for their courage and drive to do something for themselves, by themselves.
It is never easy watching your child grow up and venture out into the world on their own. There will naturally be bumps in the road as a child gets more comfortable with their own independence and that is why it is so important to remain involved and physically close to a degree. Even the most independent children needs love and encouragement. Without these two things, no child can build and test their own wings – wings they will need to successfully fly out into the world on their own.
About the Author:
Gladys Ruiz is the Director of Little Children Schoolhouse in Brookline, MA. After more than 10 years working in Early Childhood Education, Gladys opened the Little Children Schoolhouse to provide a nurturing, loving environment—an extension of her student’s home and family life—in Brookline. Pre-K, Preschool and Daycare programs for toddlers and infants include extra activities, such as weekly music, yoga, cooking, science activities, and field trips. Both full day and part-time enrollment are available.