Fostering Independence in Your Child

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., Sunshine House Chief Academic Officer

As parents, it is hard to believe there will come a day when the child that needs you for every aspect of his or her survival, will also clamor for independence. Our ultimate job as caregivers is to prepare our children for that day.

Independence, like many attributes of successful adults, is something that must be cultivated – it does not happen overnight. There are steps you as a parent can take to support the development of independence, even from infancy.

Encourage problem-solving:
Instead of swooping in and “rescuing” your child as he struggles to push his foot through the bent leg of his pants, step back and give him time to figure it out. If he starts to show signs of frustration, offer suggestions and express confidence in his ability to figure out a solution. Even babies can determine the way out from under a chair or how to reach a toy with time and our encouragement. The goal is that children develop a sense of self-efficacy: the belief that they have the ability to figure things out. This sense is key as a child navigates his way in the world.

Give choices
Part of being a competent and independent adult is the ability to make good choices. If a child is going to make good choices, we have to give her practice in making them. Making the choice between the red shirt or the blue shirt, or which book to read before bed sets the foundation for weighing options and living with the result. Older children can be given the choice of which vegetable to serve with dinner, or even what route to drive to school (past the church or past the park).

Expect participation:
A family (no matter the size) functions best when all members take an active role in the work and play of the household. Even very young children can help with chores around the house. Toddlers will love throwing clothing into the washing machine. Most children can clear their plates after dinner. Older children can push the recycling bin to the curb for pick-up or help match those pesky mismatched socks. Children gain a sense of competence when they contribute to the wellbeing of the family.

Develop systems
There are many steps involved in brushing one’s teeth or making sure a child has everything needed for the school day. Create systems that support your child in doing these tasks independently. Post pictures in the bathroom that demonstrate the steps for brushing teeth. Place a checklist on the door that shows everything that needs to be in the backpack before heading out for the day. These tools develop your child’s ability to care for himself.

Provide a solid base
The most important thing you can do is be a solid launching pad and secure landing spot for your child. Create the launching pad by giving your child space and time to figure things out, take appropriate risks, and try new things. Be the landing spot by being there to support her if she fails, picking her up when she falls, and debriefing when things didn’t go quite as planned. Most of all, surround your child with a love that lets her know that you believe in her.

Today, you are the sustaining force that provides for your child’s needs. But, before you know it, that child will step forth into the world. Steps you take now will help you feel assured that you are releasing into the world a young person ready for the independence they so desire.