Fostering Independence: How to Step Aside and Help Kids Thrive

We were having the meltdown of the century. Maya, my seven-year-old daughter, was sitting on the rug, tears of frustration streaming down her face, a wasteland of papers and articles of clothing scattered around her. I was eyeing the clock and taking deep breaths, trying to reassure myself that it was going to be okay. We were already late for school. My instinct was to step in, shove this horrendous mess into her backpack, and bundle her out the door. Couldn’t we just deal with all this later? Sometime in the future when we were both feeling calm and sensible? Some time that was decidedly not right now?

Maya had been dragging her feet all morning, sleepy-eyed and reluctant. I had been nudging her into one task at a time since she’d tumbled out of bed. Nagging her to the breakfast table and then to the bathroom to brush her teeth, trying to ensure she’d get dressed in appropriate clothes for the weather and pack her lunchbox. And somehow, we’d arrived here. With Maya half-dressed on the living room rug, surrounded by the contents of her backpack, frustrated to tears by my raised voice and urgency. It would have been easier to simply do it for her. But I recognized an opportunity not only to address Maya’s engagement with responsibility but also to encourage her confidence and independence. However, I would need to back up. And exercise more patience than I usually do before I’ve reached my second cup of coffee.

I bent at the knees and lowered my face to Maya’s eye level. Instead of reaching for her stuff, I reached for her.

“You can do this,” I murmured into her hair, holding her close. “I’m sorry I yelled. Let’s slow down and help each other, okay?”

“Habitually doing things for your child that she’s capable of doing herself sends an inadvertent message that you don’t have confidence in her abilities.” — Jeanne Williams

Jeanne Williams, a child psychologist in Edmonton, Canada, sees many busy parents employing a “parenting to get through the day” approach. They constantly focus on what needs to be done right now, not about the long-term effects of the choices they make daily. She says, “I’d go so far as to say that all parents do this at some point.”

Even though we’re all guilty of it from time to time, parents are doing more harm than good when they rush in without consideration. The negative effect on the child is called “learned helplessness.” Whether your children believe they are capable of completing certain tasks is deeply rooted in their own confidence in their abilities. And that perception may be skewed by the well-intentioned actions and words of their parents. Unfortunately, if you’re doing too much for your kids, you’re fueling the fire of helplessness and possibly telegraphing that you don’t believe they are capable of managing for themselves.

You end up wallowing in parental guilt, letting that enormous elephant of misgiving sit squarely on your chest. Don’t. Our lives are hectic, made more so by those tiny, beautiful faces that look to us for comfort and stability. It’s natural to want to provide for them. But there’s a line between caring for children and teaching them to care for themselves. We all cross it at times, but awareness of the need to foster independence in your children will hopefully enable you to recognize those teachable moments when they occur. That way you can sit back and allow learning to happen.

I want to stop doing so much for my kids. It’s exhausting. But I’m not sure where to start. Or where to stop.

Here are a few ways to begin fostering independence in your kids on a daily basis.

Ask for Help

Not the kids, silly. You! Ask them for help. Have a little sit-down and explain that you were in a hurry so you rushed, taking away opportunities for them to learn to do new things on their own. Promise them that you’ll slow down and ask for their help in identifying things they are capable of doing for themselves.

Make a List

You can use a chore chart or a good old-fashioned piece of paper, but do it together. Sit down and make a list of things that your child can start to do right now, along with a few items they can learn how to do in the future.

Pick Priorities

If you start off with a list a mile long, little ones will be quickly overwhelmed. Pick one or two things to start with, and add more as they grow. If you’re looking to increase independence in older children, start with something that will be challenging but employs some skills they’ve already exhibited.

Don’t Micromanage

Resist the urge to follow your kids around, looking over their shoulders and jumping in before disaster. They need to fail sometimes to learn from their mistakes. You can set clear expectations for what to do and show them how the first time, but then walk away. And watch the magic unfold.

It’s All about Compromise

There is going to be some reluctance. After all, if you’ve been doing most of the work for a while, kids will probably want you to continue. Who wouldn’t?! Try breaking larger jobs down into smaller tasks. Agree to work together to accomplish something until your kids get the hang of it. Realize that not only are they capable but they also enjoy doing things for themselves.

Throw Perfection Out the Window

Sure, it’s easier to do it yourself. Faster, too. Your kids are going to make a mess of it, leaving a trail of chaos in their wake. But that’s part of the learning process, so take a deep breath and learn to live with a little imperfection for a while. It’ll be worth it in the end.


Provide Praise

Even if their execution is a little flawed, find something to praise. Shirt on backwards? That’s okay! At least they got it on. Shoes on the wrong feet? Hey, as long as they’re comfortable, let’s not complain. But if there’s lots of room for improvement, do provide feedback along with the praise. And suggestions for how to do it better next time.

It’s All about Timing

It’s not always the right time to introduce new responsibilities. If your child is already adjusting to some changes, like moving to a new home or changing schools, his or her plate is already rather full emotionally. Or if the kid is tired and sick, you’re not going to get a heck of a lot of cooperation. Share the load for a while until things settle down again. It’s normal to experience some regression during times of crisis. By offering to help, you demonstrate that everyone needs a hand sometimes. They’ll bounce back quicker than you think without you scolding or criticizing them.

“It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” — Ann Landers

In the end, Maya was late for school. But we both took the time to do something important that morning. I offered to gather her papers while she dressed and brushed her teeth. On the way to school, we made an agreement to sit down that night and figure out what she should be doing each morning and when she should be doing it, to ensure she wouldn’t be rushed. I suggested we make a schedule that she could follow herself, and I reassured her that I believed she could shoulder the responsibility of getting ready for school without my nagging interference.

“But what happens if I forget to do something?” Maya’s voice was almost a whisper from the back seat as she looked out the window and chewed her lip nervously. “Will you be mad?”

Her question clogged my throat with emotion. “No, honey. We’ll just try again. We have plenty of time to get it right.”

The next morning, an excited seven-year-old reported to the living room, fully dressed, backpack in hand, grinning.

“I’m ready, Dad!”

“Wow. I’m impressed, Maya.”  I paused — then I couldn’t resist. “Did you brush your teeth and everything?”

Her face fell a bit, then brightened as she shrugged off her backpack and went running down the hall.

“Nope. But I still have plenty of time to do it. See? Five more minutes.”

“Okay. No hurry. Take your time. I’ll be right here.” And I smiled as I took another sip of coffee.

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