6 Tips for Raising Independent Children
It starts when your son rides his balance bike around the block–alone. A few years later, he’s off to his first sleepover.
It continues when your teenage daughter goes out on her first date. Before you know it, you’re waving goodbye as she drives off to college.
The pattern is familiar for all parents, and it never gets any easier.
Loving our children means letting them go.
We don’t always remember this in the thick of things when our children are so dependent on us.
I mean, it’s hard to imagine that little toddler in fire truck pajamas riding his bike to school or leading his cub scouts to their campsite. It’s just as difficult to grasp that your daughter, once in a high chair flinging pasta around the kitchen, is now on that first dinner date.
But 10-20 years from now–if all goes according to plan–we’ll have raised our children to be independent.
But what’s the best way to impart independence? Which tools can we utilize now to help our kids one day succeed outside our domain?
At Positive Parenting Solutions, we are all about tools. My online course has over 36 of them that can help in almost every parenting predicament. We’ll discuss a few of them here, and you can learn even more through our FREE PARENTING CLASS.
But positive parenting is also a philosophy–one that naturally equips kids with the skills needed to grow in their independence.
Even so, ensuring our kids will successfully soar in the soon-to-be real world is easier said than done.
Here are 6 strategies for raising independent kids (as hard as it will one day be to see them go).
1. Don’t Do For Your Kids What They Can Do For Themselves
It begins by simply offering help. Maybe it’s tying their shoes, pouring their milk, or doing their math homework. Then, we keep helping.
Before long, they either expect us to help or don’t believe they can do it themselves.
To a large extent, assisting our kids is part of our job description. We’re supposed to help toddlers zip up their winter coats and guide sleepy kids towards their soft, warm beds. We’re meant to place curfews on teenagers still learning to make wise choices.
But a pattern of regularly doing for kids what they can do for themselves makes them further reliant on us.
According to Adlerian Psychology–the basis of positive parenting–our primary job as caregivers is to move our kids from complete dependence to complete independence. If we don’t, we inhibit their progress (and make our lives harder).
It’s so tempting to do things for our kids, either through generosity or even to get the task done faster. But the best advice I can give you is to resist this urge and encourage self-sufficiency.
“A dependent child is a demanding child. Children become irresponsible only when we fail to give them opportunities to take on responsibility.” – Rudolf Dreikurs and Margaret Goldman.
Take Time for Training
Even still, you may be wondering, “If we aren’t supposed to do things FOR our kids that they’re perfectly capable of doing for themselves, how do we ensure things get done completely and efficiently?”
Instead of unintentionally instilling a sense of helplessness by overly assisting our children, we can Take Time for Training and TEACH them they can do most things for themselves.
Parents often underestimate this simple tool. It can feel burdensome because it does take time. It may even take several repetitions for kids to grasp something–like a toddler carefully cracking an egg into cookie batter or a tween getting ALL the grime off those dishes.
We don’t always have time to interact with our kids face-to-face and calmly teach them what we know. But this is one of a parent’s most crucial jobs. Besides providing for our children, we need to teach them to provide for themselves.
Kids as young as two or three can be encouraged to do as much as possible for themselves. This includes getting dressed, making their beds, and helping themselves to food in the refrigerator.
And naturally, the older kids get, the greater the responsibilities.
The Take Time for Training tool gives our kids the confidence and encouragement to develop the skills so crucial for independence. It also replaces expectation and entitlement with a healthy dose of responsibility.
Which leads me to that never ending quest for help around the house…
2. Focus on Family Contributions
Every member of a family plays an important role in a successfully running household.
If our goal is to raise independent kids, there are basic skills they’ll need as a functioning adult. Learning how to clean a house, cook wholesome meals, and change a baby sister’s diaper now saves kids time and training later.
From folding their laundry to picking up toys, when we expect kids to contribute in age-appropriate ways they realize they are indispensable to the family team. This builds their confidence and encourages them to do even more to help out!
What also helps is to label these tasks as “Family Contributions”–because “chores” is a word more associated with boring, undesirable, and begrudging work. Plus, by switching up our language, we drive home the fact that our children’s contributions have a greater purpose.
Once they’re on their own, kids who are well-rehearsed in completing contributions will be experts in home economics. After all, cleaning a bathroom isn’t something we just know how to do. Nor is cooking a healthy, unpackaged dinner. It’s something that needs to be learned and practiced!
Plus, while we want our kids to be brilliant and great at their future jobs, let’s face it–if their houses are a pig-sty and they can’t cook a pancake, they are at a disadvantage.
The earlier kids share a portion of daily duties, the better for everyone.
Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, be sure to review the “Jobs for Kids by Age” list in your Step 2 Workbook.
3. Maintain a Decision-Rich Environment
Every single day is filled with hundreds of choices. Pizza or pasta? Red skirt or blue? Violin or cello? Four-year college or two?
Allowing our children to make age-appropriate choices throughout the day gives them a sense of control and dominion over their lives. And–you guessed it. Decisions also lead to independent thinking and independent actions.
Kids need practice making choices and weighing pros and cons. Plus, when making their own choices they take ownership of those choices. They learn from their bad decisions and can’t blame anyone else for them.
The key is to make decision-making a normal part of your family’s routine and environment. This could mean anything from stocking a bin in the pantry with healthy snacks for your 4-year-old to letting your 12-year-old plan-out her after-school routine.
It’s not a free-for-all–you’ll set up the choices and get the final say. But by purposefully building decision-making opportunities into each day, your kids will get used to the expectation that they’ll be thinking for themselves–not only now, but once they’re grown and flown.
Also, that pasta tastes SO much better because they picked it!
Provide an Allowance
Another excellent way to flex children’s decision-making muscles is to offer them an allowance. Besides granting some fiscal fun, an allowance can teach kids to budget and manage future incomes.
As we all know, monetary self-sufficiency is one of the most crucial aspects of independence.
Maybe there’s a toy they want to buy, new skinny jeans–even a used car. Having an allowance to work with teaches kids how long it takes to save for things they really want.
On the flip side of the coin, an allowance teaches them how quickly and easily money can be spent.
One day, they’ll likely need a down payment for a house. They’ll also want to take that once-in-a-lifetime vacation–all while also paying their bills.
If we allow some practice with a small budget (even just a little piggy bank), our children will know what kind of hard work and patience these goals require.
Please Note: Be conscious of not tying allowances to Family Contributions. Although the concept can be tricky, allowances given in exchange for ordinary help around the house can be confused with rewards. Ideally, an allowance is for budgeting alone.
Giving our kids real-life choices, whether major, minor, or monetary, helps prepare them for all the other choices that lay ahead.
4. Encourage Effort…and Celebrate Failure!
That perfection thing? It’s overrated and causes kids a LOT of anxiety. Some kids are so locked into the fear of failure, they don’t even try.
Imagine how this might play out in the real world–the place where your child needs to take risks. Whether applying for college, interviewing for jobs, or bidding on their very first home, they’ll need to be prepared for disappointment and poised to learn from it.
To help kids overcome this when they’re independent adults, focus on the quality of their EFFORTS while they’re still under your roof.
If your son studied hard for his biology test and still got a C, it’s the hard work he put in that counts. If your potty-training toddler failed to make it to the toilet in time, her steps (literally) in the right direction are commendable.
We can also focus on efforts by encouraging kids to try new things, get out of their comfort zones, and be creative–all to foster their sense of independence without the pressure to succeed or be perfect. Encouragement is never about the result.
Instead, it embraces the process.
When we laser-focus on our kids’ efforts and bravery–especially through their willingness to take risks–they’ll be less intimidated to work hard and take chances in the future. Ideally, they’ll learn not to fear failure at all, because failure isn’t even the point.
Effort is what will keep them on their own two feet.
5. Promote Problem-Solving
It’s SO hard to curb the parental instinct to jump in and fix our kids’ problems. But when it comes to encouraging them to do things on their own, this includes problem-solving!
We can assist them, instead, by giving them the chance to find good solutions.
One way to inspire this is to ask our kids “How?” questions.
“How could you make your sister feel better (since you took her action figure)?”
“How will you make sure you get up in time to catch the bus?”
Just like in a Decision-Rich Environment, if we want kids to think for themselves one day, we can’t provide all the answers. We can assure them we’re available for suggestions or assistance but that it’s best for them to reach their own conclusions.
Avoiding the tendency to jump in with our answers to their problems helps our kids feel confident in their abilities.
What we DO want to offer, however, is a safety-net that allows kids to problem-solve in a controlled environment. With this structure and support in place, bad solutions won’t face serious consequences.
Let’s say your eleven-year-old left his retainer at his friend’s sleepover last night. If his solution is to walk across the neighborhood at 9 pm to retrieve it, you can respond with, “I appreciate your plan to walk over there, but it’s your bedtime and probably pretty close to your friend’s bedtime, too. Let’s wait until morning when it isn’t dark out and your friend is up and around.”
This way, less-than-ideal solutions can become learning opportunities.
Before long, your child’s problem-solving skills will be prepped and ready for long-term, real-life action.
6. Nourish Your Child’s “Spirit”
It can be shocking how early our kids’ personalities shine through. Maybe your baby fusses easily and loves being the center of attention. Maybe your bubbly toddler is as stubborn as she is talkative.
One of the best things we can do for our kids’ independence–especially if we want them to be confident in their abilities and comfortable in their own skin–is to work with these unique strengths and characteristics without defining them.
This includes abandoning any preconceived notions of what we think our kids are like or what we want them to become.
It helps if we start by not labeling our kids. Even if we notice strengths or weaknesses early on, we don’t want our kids to feel defined by our perceptions.
Extroverted parents might have an introverted 6-year-old that likes to play alone and would rather not talk to other kids. When she refuses to talk to friends and extended family, they tend to call her “shy”–right within earshot.
Even if certain behaviors or characteristics are true, they aren’t necessarily set in stone, especially at such a young age. We don’t want to define our kids, nor do we want them thinking that certain characteristics are bad.
In her alone play, the same introverted daughter could be honing her LEGO engineering skills or developing a wonderful, outside-the-box imagination. Both are skills and strengths that, regardless of any overt social hesitancy, should be embraced.
Even when parents feel the need to explain a child’s characteristics, like, “I’m sorry, my daughter will talk your ear off if you let her,” a better phrase would be, “My daughter is excellent at communication. She’s really open about her experiences and feelings.”
Kids that hear positive feedback spend less time retreating from their traits and more time expanding upon them. And when they’re ultimately out on their own, being well aware of these strengths will help them choose suitable lifestyles, careers–even partners.
All in all, nourishing a child’s spirit makes confident, strong-minded thinking just that much more inherent.
As parents, it feels good–great even–when our kids need us. We love it when they turn to us for guidance, affection–even for that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Don’t worry, your kids will always need you in one way or another.
We do have to remind ourselves, however, that our long-term parenting goal is to guide our kids from being totally dependent on us into becoming independent thinkers and doers. And that’s no overnight task.
Raising kids to take a proactive role in their everyday lives might be a little scary at first. But believe me, encouraging your kids’ independence is a gift that will keep on giving.
I can’t promise you won’t crumble after sending your recruit off to boot camp or cry buckets when your daughter chooses an out-of-state college. You will lose part of your heart when you send your children into the “real world.”
But knowing that you’ve raised them to be independent will give you the confidence and strength to let them go…and conquer.
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