I'm pleased to share a guest post today from Erica on a topic that interests me greatly: encouraging independence in children. I love all of these recommendations and I'm bookmarking this post to reread as Dashiell grows and is ready for more independence. Thank you so much, Erica!
Sometimes allowing kids to do things for themselves, especially at very young ages, is nerve wracking for adults. We know the goal of parenting is to eventually raise independent, responsible adults, but it’s hard to know where to start. It might not seem worth the mess, bother, or chaos to allow kids to give things a try or expect them to be responsible. In my experience as a teacher it is absolutely possible and totally worth it to foster independence and responsibility early on. Here are a few simple ideas to help you encourage independence and let go, while hanging on to your sanity.
Established routines help to set expectations and free you up to let kids take care of certain things themselves. For example, if the bedtime routine is always the same, kids can more easily get ready for bed without help or arguments. They know what to do, and what is expected.
Give kids real choices between things you’re already ok with.
Choices work best when phrased as “Do you want this or this?” as opposed to “What do you want to wear today?” When getting dressed for the morning, give them two or three outfits to choose from that are weather and occasion appropriate.
Make things accessible.
Place books and toys kids can use independently on shelves they can reach. At school and at home, I am a fan of the basket system, with like items stored together. It is easy for even very little ones to take out and put away their belongings on their own.
Let them do it.
Before doing something for your child, stop and ask yourself if they might be able to actually do it for themselves. Especially during the toddler years, kids are craving independence. Use it to your advantage. Sometimes tantrums come from kids actually wanting and being able to do much more than they are allowed to do. Allow them to give new things a try, even if it takes a little longer. If time is a factor, make it a game or a race.
Allow them to be hurt or frustrated.
Sometimes pain and frustration lead to growth. If we’re truly fostering independence there will be bumps and bruises and skinned knees. Of course, do what you can to set safe boundaries, but then allow kids the freedom to fall down once in a while. Likewise, allow them to be frustrated occasionally. Cheer them on while they figure it out or solve a conflict. If they are asking for your help, ask them to try it first, and if they need help after that you can help while showing them how.
Give them unstructured time throughout the day.
While music lessons and play dates are great, everyone needs downtime, and kids are no exception. Parents often feel guilty if every minute of their child’s day is not filled with adult interaction or entertainment. It’s ok for them to play and use their own imagination around the house and yard. Kids learn to entertain themselves and develop independent interests when they are given large chunks of free time.
Allow them to help you in real ways.
Give kids meaningful jobs that they can do independently. Allow them to feed the dog or set the table. Mopping the floor might not be reasonable, but dusting everything with a feather duster might be. Showing them how to do a chore and then setting them loose is a great way to encourage responsibility. Sometimes we jump straight to a formal chore chart, with rewards and consequences for helping around the house. We sometimes skip the very natural, fun ways we could include kids from an early age.
Take them seriously.
Listen to your kids. They don’t have mortgages to pay or errands to run, so things like a lost toy, or a story about their brother or sister are their important things. Talk to them naturally and ask them real questions. You wouldn’t sit around discussing the national debt or the merits of sustainable farming with them. But you should discuss things on their level in meaningful ways. You’d be surprised at how insightful a three year old can be, and you send the message that they are independent people with thoughts and opinions that matter.
Erica is an elementary school teacher and writer. She shares honest thoughts on educating and raising humans at The Candid Teacher, and is writing a book about the things teachers wish parents knew due out this spring.