Independence is a life skill that we value as adults, but how do you teach your children to be more independent?
The better question might be “What things do we do every day that teach our children ‘learned helplessness?’” Understanding how we undermine their independence will make teaching it much easier.
Learned helplessness is the opposite of independence and most parents encourage this behavior, often unintentionally. The goal of independence for children is to teach them to do age-appropriate tasks on their own.
Now, imagine you need to leave the house in five minutes and your child is still barefoot, can’t find their coat, and is aimlessly bebopping around.
If you are like most parents, then you are suddenly grabbing the shoes and the missing coat, corralling your child, and getting them ready as fast as you can.
We have all been there, the time crunch is real, and kids are notoriously slow when it is time to be anywhere.
“Besides love, independence of thought is the greatest gift an adult can give a child.” — Bryce Courtenay
Why teaching children to be independent is important
In those moments when you are scrambling to keep all the balls in the air, you might wonder if teaching your young child to be independent right now is even worth it? I mean, maybe it could wait until they are a little older, right?
Wrong. Teaching your children independence (and resisting the urge to do things for them) helps build their self-esteem and problem-solving skills. Even young kids need these skills in school, and they only get more important as your child ages.
Whatever they can learn in their young formative years, typically around age 4-6, will be essential to setting a strong foundation. At this age, they are naturally looking to be independent as they begin making friendships, understanding rules, and start kindergarten.
Understanding how we undermine independence, and knowing how important it is to teach our kids is only half of the equation. These helpful tips will help you make a game plan that will help your little one be a little less dependent on you.
“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
A few things you can do to get back on track
The first thing you need to do is get your child on board. Let them know that you have realized you have been treating them like a little kid and you know they are capable of more big kid tasks. Make this sound as fun and exciting for them as you can, and avoid phrases like “you aren’t a baby anymore.”
Next, sit down with your child and brainstorm the tasks that you have been helping them with. This could be anything from brushing her teeth to making her bed. Have your child go through the list with you and pick the ones that she wants to try and do all on her own.
Fighting the time crunch is critical to your success. If you know it’s going to take her 10 minutes to make her bed in the morning, then start your morning 15 minutes earlier, just to be on the safe side.
Our busy lives are the number one reason we end up accidentally teaching our children learned helplessness. Have your child pick out their outfit and lay it out the night before.
Make sure their shoes, socks, coat, and backpack are all there. That way you don’t need to get up much earlier, and your child is able to take the time to pick out what they want to wear without the pressure of being late.
Keep in mind, that whichever tasks your child takes on are not going to get done in the same manner you would do them. There might be mismatched clothes, spilled milk, and messy hair. It’s ok!
Perfection is not the goal here, independence is. Find something to praise them for, and help with the rest in a way that doesn’t sound critical.
Additional reading: How to Talk to Your Kids About Current Events
Routines are important for kids to learn independence
Your child will develop a morning routine and an evening routine. You guys can set this however it works for you, but doing something like picking out their clothes the night before would be part of this routine.
Children succeed when they know what to expect. A clear routine will go a long way in teaching your child to be more independent because it clearly defines the expectations.
Other things that you might want to consider as parts of routine are daily chores, screen time, and quiet time.
Listen to your child when they talk
Another way to help your child feel independent and gain self-confidence is to pay attention when they speak. Getting them to open up about their day can be challenging, but asking open-ended questions, will keep the conversation flowing.
Instead of asking, “Did you have a good day?” try asking “What was your favorite part of today?” Then ask them “What was the hardest thing you had to do today?”
Listen to their answers and praise them for their independence, while also letting them know you are here to help if they need it. Let them know that even though they are getting bigger, you can still help them when they need it.
There is a fine line between teaching your child to be independent and also letting them know that is ok to ask for help!
Help your child make better decisions
We make decisions almost constantly throughout our day. When our children are more independent they will also make more decisions for themselves.
Instead of you deciding what he will have for breakfast, let him pick between two or three healthy options. If left to his own independent devices my child would opt for Oreos every day. So, I rarely buy them.
Instead, I remind him that things like Oreos and donuts are not the healthiest choices and let him pick from things like oatmeal, eggs, or pancakes instead. If we teach our children to think critically now, it will help them when they are older.
They will understand how to weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. This doesn’t mean that they should have a free for all, but with your guidance related to their options, they can learn to choose.
Inevitably your child will fail and this will also teach them independence
As parents, we want to keep them safe and protected. Sometimes, we feel the need to keep them safe and protected from their own choices. However, this is a bad habit.
Your child will get to the point where are they are officially independent of you. Suddenly, they are going to have to take risks like applying for a job or a college. And they might not get their dream job or into their dream college.
This will be much easier on your child if they were allowed to fail on their own when they were younger. Encourage them to try new things, and help them see opportunities when they don’t succeed.
Praise your child for their efforts and remind them that they are in control of the effort they put into things. Teach them to do their best and accept the outcomes.
Helping your child be more independent will benefit both of you
I know, this all seems like so much work! To be honest, it will be on the front end. You will have many moments where you know it would be easier if you just did it. It would be quicker if you did it.
However, one thing I have learned about being a parent is that none of it is easy or quick. There is always some kind of challenge. It’s like leveling up in a video game. You think you master something, only to move on to the challenge.
However, this is one of those areas you will want to put in the extra work. You might not appreciate your six-year-old trying to learn to be independent, but will be thankful your sixteen-year-old is!
Your children might not act like they appreciate learning independence, but when they are adults they will be happier and healthier for it.
Good luck! If you have any other tips on how to teach your children to be independent let us know in the comment section below!