9 Ways to Encourage Independence in Your Child

How to instill self-confidence and self-reliance in kids

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Helping younger siblings is a great way for kids to be more independent.. Getty Images/Henglein and Streets

Gaining more independence and increasingly doing more things without parents is an important and natural part of growing up. But what can parents do to make sure their kids are getting the support--and if it's necessary, some nudging--that they need to become confident and self-reliant individuals?

One of the things that the "free range kids" debate has been missing is the fact that kids can be encouraged to be more independent and responsible through many different experiences and situations.

Going to play at a public park or walking to school by themselves at age 6, which may be what some parents want to encourage in their kids but not something advocated by all parents, is by no means the only way you can teach kids to be more independent. (It isn't fair to label parents who want to, say, walk an 8-year-old to school "helicopter parents"--that particular family may live near busy streets, that child may not be ready to navigate those streets on his own, or those parents may simply want to wait till their child is a little older before he walks alone.) Regardless of how they feel about kids being on their own outdoors at a young age, here are some of the many ways parents can encourage independence in school-age children.

1. Be responsible for certain household chores

Depending on what age your child is and how dependable and focused she can be, she should be able to handle any number of age-appropriate household chores, from sweeping floors to washing dishes.

Even young children can help set the table and straighten up their rooms. Chores can not only give kids a sense of responsibility but can help boost their self-confidence as they see that their work makes a valuable contribution to their family.

2. Help with planning menus and shopping for groceries

One of the best things you can do for your child is to teach him how to be comfortable in the kitchen and eventually, prepare simple meals.

Not only are shopping and cooking together great ways to teach kids healthy eating habits, but they are also wonderful opportunities for families to spend time together. Kids often share things about themselves and what's going on in their lives while you're doing ordinary activities like shopping, cooking, or eating together. (That's probably one of the reasons why simply eating dinner together has been linked to so many benefits for kids, including better academic performance, lower risk of obesity, and lower rates of substance abuse and depression.) Letting your child help--and eventually even occasionally take charge of--family meals and snacks is an important way to teach him to be more independent.

3. Help take care of younger siblings, cousins, neighborhood kids

Taking care of younger children is one of the best ways to teach kids how to be responsible and mature. Look around you at the best babysitters in the neighborhood: Chances are, those teen boys and girls will be reliable, grounded, and caring young people.

Each family can decide what "babysitting" means for a school-age child: One family might want their 9-year-old to be in charge of reading or playing games with a younger sibling while a grown-up is nearby, while another family might decide it's okay to leave 10-year-old with a 7-year-old sibling while the parent runs to the store for a few minutes. Whatever the details, the bottom line is that trusting an older child to care for little ones is a great way to teach children not only to be independent, but more responsible, too.

4. Spend more time on play dates or at parties without mom or dad

As kids get older, they naturally spend more time away from home doing things on their own. School-age kids will be invited to more birthday parties where parents do not tag along. They will go to friends' houses to play by themselves with less close parental supervision, and increasingly decide what games they'll play and work through any conflicts themselves. If your child is ready, arrange for play dates at your house and let her choose what activities she might wanna suggest to her friends. Let her know that going to friends' houses without you is something that will be fun, and that you'll be able to share and talk about your day when you pick her up. (But be sure to ask questions before you drop off your child at a friend's house to make sure safety questions are answered to your satisfaction.) And if your child feels shy and isn't ready, be supportive--not judgmental--and keep trying again.

5. Volunteer at a local church or nursing home, help a neighbor

For very young children, everything is naturally about their own needs and wants. When kids help others, they learn to think about things outside themselves, which is an important step toward maturity. An added benefit to having kids volunteer, whether it's to help an elderly neighbor or make sandwiches for needy families at their church, is that your kids will be less likely to be spoiled or suffer from affluenza and be more likely to be kind and empathetic people as they grow.

6. Keep track of own homework, tests

It's one thing to help your first grader organize his homework and get him into the habit of keeping track of when he'll need to study for tests. It's quite another story if a typically-developing child in middle school or high school needs his parents to help him keep track of his schoolwork. Set good work habits early so that your child learns how to handle his own responsibilities independently as he gets older, and isn't relying on his parents to constantly tell him what schoolwork he should be doing and when.

7. Organize own schedule

Give your child a calendar and get him into the habit of writing down important dates and appointments. As he gets older, he'll need to keep track of things like doctors' appointments, play dates, friends' birthday parties, games or recitals, and more. An independent child will rely on himself, not on his parents, to know what he needs to do and where he needs to be.

8. Learn to be independent thinkers

Get your child into the habit of thinking about things and forming her own opinions on everything from current news events to historical milestones to fictional stories. Talk about news events over dinner or while in the car. Encourage her to tell you what she thinks about issues. When you really listen to your child, you are showing her that her opinions matter to you and that her ideas and thoughts are valuable and worthwhile. And when you disagree about something, it's a great opportunity for kids to learn how to debate and speak their opinions respectfully, while learning how to see the positive aspects of other people's opinions.

9. Find ways to entertain himself

It's important for kids to know that not every single moment of their lives has to be filled with scheduled activities. Kids need to learn to find things that interest them and to have the opportunity to spend time on the things they like. Parents can encourage kids to be more independent by doing things like setting up some time to read side by side every day (which is also a great way to get kids reading more by themselves) or having kids work on their own activity or just play by themselves while they finish making dinner. When parents show kids that they have their own interests, such as doing yoga, going for a walk with friends, knitting, or catching up on work, they are making it clear that parents, like kids, have their own independent needs and interests, and that it's okay for parents and kids to do things apart from one another.

By showing your child that independence is a positive thing for both you and for her, and by supporting her when she feels clingy or feels like she needs more space to do things on her own, you are setting the stage for your child to move toward independence at her own pace, with confidence and self-assurance.

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