7 Things to Consider When Giving Kids More Independence

Is your child ready for more responsibility? How to tell

Taking care of younger siblings is a great way to encourage independence in kids. Getty Images/Anna Pekunova

For parents, trying to figure out when a child is ready to do things on his own and when to encourage kids to be more independent is a constant balancing act. We want to raise confident kids who can handle things on their own, but we also want to make sure they are not pushed to do things they aren't ready for developmentally or emotionally. What's certain is that doing things on their own is good for kids; being more independent is an important part of growing up, whether we're talking about a toddler learning to walk without holding a grownup's hand or a school-age child getting used to going more places and interacting socially with people without mom or dad around.

While some parents believe that letting kids walk to school or other neighborhood destinations like the park by themselves at a young age is a good way to encourage independence, other parents prefer giving kids more responsibility at home, like doing assigned chores or entertaining younger siblings. Whichever methods you think work best for your child and your family, keep these tips in mind as you figure out when and how to give kids more independence.

1. Watch for cues from your child. Remember when your child was a toddler and everything was, "I do it!"? If your school-age kid is asking you if he can do more things on his own (go somewhere without you, walk by himself, decide what activities he wants to try, and so on), weigh each situation carefully and give it every consideration. If you feel like he seems to be in too much of a rush--insisting that he wants to do something that he may not be developmentally ready for--you can talk about ways to modify things to give him his independence but still keep him safe and healthy.

(Allow him to go to the movies with friends but insist that you'll drop him off and pick him up, for instance.) On the other hand, if your child is shy or is simply not yet ready to do things on his own, do not push him to do something he doesn't really want to do.

2. Gauge how focused she'll be. Is she able to pay attention to her surroundings and remember safety tips?

Can she remember to keep track of her own homework and what she needs to practice for Taekwondo or music lessons? Before you expect her to be able to handle situations or be more responsible for things, take a good look at whether or not she can handle any emergencies that may come up and how capable she is of remembering things and being aware of her surroundings. If she isn't ready quite yet, work on those skills so that she can try to do more things on her own a bit later.

3. Trust your own instincts. The old adage about trusting your parental instinct definitely applies here. Don't give in to peer pressure; if your child tells you that all the other parents let their kids do something or other, it doesn't mean that you have to follow the crowd. In fact, by showing your child that you follow your own instincts instead of caving in to what others think and do, you are setting a great example for your child and showing him what it means to be an independent thinker.

4. Never use negative language to try to persuade your child to do one thing or another. If your child is shy or hesitant about doing more things on his own, saying that he's "being a baby" or pointing out that "other kids your age can do this" is not only unlikely to get results, but the language is likely to hurt his feelings and self-esteem.

Stay positive and take shaming or your own embarrassment out of the situation. (I speak from experience--I was the last parent in the kindergarten class in the beginning of the school year who was still there while my child clung to me for dear life.) And if your child is overly eager to try things he may not be yet ready to do, praise his instincts and find ways to gradually give him more room to flex his independence muscles, a little at a time. Never make him afraid of things, even when you're discussing important topics like how to stay safe around strangers and acquaintances who may appear safe and friendly but may have bad intentions.

5. But be firm about trying. Reassure your child that you won't make her do something she absolutely doesn't feel comfortable doing, but make it clear that she must at least try. Ask your child to try to make it to activity time or cake time at a party, for example, and promise her that you'll come to get her early (at which point she may not to want to leave). Do not make a situation more difficult by focusing on the moment instead of on the big picture--namely, that repeated exposure will make your child more comfortable with a new type of situation and that she will eventually want to be more independent on her own. 

6. Remember that what is now may not necessarily be the case later. Keep in mind that kids' preferences and readiness naturally change as they get older. It's perfectly normal for a child who refused to stay at a play date to one day want to give it a try on his own, or for a child who wanted you to stay in his room because he was afraid of the dark to one day declare that he's fine all by himself.

7. Make your child your partner as you figure out what works together. Since the subject at hand is kids' independence, enlist your child's input as you figure out what works best at a given time. Questions like when a child can use a public bathroom by himself or when he can walk alone to school without you can and should be discussed with your child. Talk about the possible reasons why it is or isn't a good idea at a certain age, and what you can do to make sure he's safe. Discuss what other ways your child can work on his independence skills--such as by babysitting a younger sibling or keeping track of his own extracurricular activities--and try out different things to see what works.

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