Raising Independent Children

Most parents report that their primary parenting goal is to teach children skills for succeeding in the real world. People who are most successful in the “real world” are confident, self-reliant and able to communicate effectively with others. In order for children to develop these skills, they need opportunities to practice and experiment with growing independence.

Unfortunately, despite wanting to prepare children for the real world, many parents prevent the development of autonomy by unintentionally “enabling” children. Enabling involves unwittingly allowing and even encouraging irresponsible and self-destructive behavior in children by shielding them from the consequences of their actions. This can be detrimental to child development because research has shown that the more parents take over, the more dependent children become. That is, if we take on our children’s responsibilities, we undermine their developing sense of responsibility and maturity. Thus, we must give our children responsibility and hold them accountable for their actions even if that means that they stumble along the way. [Note: If, as a parent, you have concerns/worries about “letting go”, ask yourself what would happen if you let go in different situations. Think about both the best case scenario and the worst case scenario in order to help you make the best decision for your child.]

To help children build a healthy combination of freedom and responsibility, allow them to do the following: 1) Make choices. Parents can encourage independent decision-making (e.g., choose outfit, give choices for lunch, deciding how much television time he should have, how to deal with a peer problem, etc.), 2) Take responsibility for their choices. Parents can allow children to make mistakes and learn from them and can avoid doing for children what they can do for themselves (e.g., shoe tying, packing backpacks, etc.), and 3) Accept the consequences of their choices. Help children become aware of cause and effect of behaviors (e.g., you study to pass a test) and to experience natural consequences of their actions (e.g., you have to clean up your own spilled milk).

In order for these messages to really “stick” with children, it is strongly recommended that parents agree on their basic approach to parenting and on their specific approach to building independence. In addition, it is important to modify parental expectations and behaviors as children get older.

Getting started on the road to children’s independence can be simple. In addition to the general strategies described above, here are a few basic ideas for promoting independence in children: 1) Have your child participate in household chores, 2) Ask your child to make (or help make) breakfast or lunch, 3) Provide a responsibility chart, 4) Have your child monitor his/her own TV and video game time, 5) Teach your child to use an assignment book, 6) Teach your child how to work through peer disagreements, and 7) Have your child use an alarm clock. Once you start, you’ll soon notice that even daily tasks and routines provide many opportunities for children to become more independent and you will quickly see the benefits of these responsibilities on children’s self-esteem.

Kelly H. Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
September 20, 2010

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