“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” -Denis Waitley
At some point in our busy lives, we’ve become adults. Adults with jobs, with bills, and with responsibilities. Some people may have welcomed this transition, thriving with a routine full of deadlines, pressures, and expectations. Some people may still be struggling to figure out how and when that all happened, and where the carefree days of our pasts have gone. You probably don’t remember the exact time in your life when you started doing things on your own. You probably didn’t even realize that it was happening when it was happening, especially if no one ever made you aware of it. When did you start feeding yourself? Dressing yourself? Walk to school on your own? Picking up your toys? You probably practiced, struggled, tried and tried again, and failed before you were successful with doing these simple things by yourself.
And now here you are. Grown up, with grown-up responsibilities, independent and successful, and with kids of your own to support. So where do you start? How do you foster independence in your currently highly dependent children?
Questions we get asked often are “How can I get my child to do this on his own?” or “My son/daughter doesn’t know how to do that. They need my help for everything. When will they start to do it on their own?” You as their parents are the absolute best people to teach them to become independent little humans, and you will be successful. Everyday we get to see brilliant kids taking on new challenges for the first time, and coming out successful at the end. We watch as parents hold their breath while their child tries something for the first time, or even the second time, and not get it just right in the beginning. We see them rushing in to fix it, especially when the child is upset. And all of that is okay! We all know parenting doesn’t come with a manual and everyone is in the same boat the day our kids are handed to us for the first time. We are all trying to figure things out as we go.
After working with kids everyday for the past 8 years, and chatting with hundreds of parents and teachers along the way, there are definitely a few standout things that have proven to be successful when wanting to help our kids build their independence.
Here are our top 3 suggestions for supporting independence in your child:
#1) Recognize! Start acknowledging the things that your child is ALREADY doing on their own. These things might seem super small, super simple, or even quite trivial. Did they just put on one of their socks on their own? AMAZING! (“You tried so hard to put on your socks by yourself and you did it!”) Did they just take 2 bites of their dinner by themselves? AWESOME! (“I am so proud of you for eating those carrots without me asking you to!”) Put their rubbish in the bin? WOW! (“Jimmy, did you see how Charlie just put his rubbish in the bin by himself?! How great is that!?”)
Why do this? You are making it known that you are proud of your child for doing something by themselves, you are putting language to their actions, and you are adding motivation for them to keep doing these kinds of things to get that praise and recognition again. Kids are often on autopilot and they just do things without realizing it. (Who am I kidding. We do this as adults too). But when we stop and tell them how proud we are of something they have done, no matter how small, they start to realize “Hey! Mum gets pretty excited when I do that on my own! I am going to do that again!” Their actions start to go from automatic to much more conscious and deliberate. Not only do they start becoming aware of their own abilities, but you as the parent start to realize just how capable your child is becoming.
#2) Start Building! Now that you have started to pay closer attention to the kinds of things your child is already capable of doing on their own, you will be able to start building on them. Your child puts one sock on by themselves? “Why not try the other?” Your child ate 2 bites of dinner by themselves?
“What else can you take 2 bites of?” Puts their rubbish in the bin? “Can you put your plate in the dishwasher now?” Will they do these things the first time you ask? Probably not. But the more that you recognize what they ARE doing throughout the day, the more likely they will start to want to do more. You know that these requests are easily achievable because they have already demonstrated to you that they can do parts of what you are asking. You are just adding to their actions by small and achievable next steps. And if what you are asking them is new to them, help them out as you normally would! Your child becoming independent doesn’t mean they should know how to do things the first time they try.
#3) Wait! Breath! Count to 10! You want your child to start doing things on their own, so you ask them to do something. When they aren’t immediately successful, challenge yourself to wait. Give them time to process what you have asked, give them time to have a go, and have a go again. It can be challenging to watch your child struggle with something, but if you wait for them to try it first, they might surprise you with how they problem solve and persevere in the midst of something difficult. Take a breath, count to 10 (or 20, or 30) and remind them that you are there if they need any help. Encourage them, support them, and let them have a crack at doing things alone before you jump in to show them.
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Kids are going to figure things out on their own one way or another. They will all become independent at different times and ages, and with more ease or more difficulty, and with different tasks and activities. We have all made it to adulthood (somehow) and are all capable and independent human beings. Don’t stress if you think your child will never be able to do things on their own. They will. Start simple with your expectations and you will quickly see how your brilliant little people are growing and developing into independent and confident superstars.