How to Encourage Independence in Your Child

handwashing brother and sister
Helping younger siblings is a great way for kids to be more independent.

Getty Images / Henglein and Streets

Gaining more independence and increasingly doing more things without parents is an important and natural part of growing up. But what can parents do to make sure their kids are getting the support—and if necessary, some nudging—that they need to become confident and self-reliant?

The debate over "free-range kids" overlooks the fact that kids can be encouraged to be more independent and responsible in many different situations. Going to play at a public park or walking to school by themselves at age 6 is not the only way you can teach your child to be more independent.

It isn't fair to label parents who want to, say, walk an 8-year-old to school "helicopter parents." That particular family may live near busy streets, that child may not be ready to navigate those streets on their own, or those parents may simply enjoy the quality time they share on that walk to school.

Regardless of how they feel about kids being on their own outdoors at a young age, parents can encourage independence in school-age children in many ways. There are lots of steps you can take to promote self-reliance.

Doing Household Chores

Depending on how dependable and focused your child can be, they should be able to handle age-appropriate household chores, from sweeping floors to washing dishes. Even young children can help set the table and straighten up their rooms. Chores give kids a sense of responsibility and can help boost their self-confidence as they see that their work makes a valuable contribution to their family.

Planning Menus and Shopping for Groceries

One of the best things you can do for your child is to teach them how to be comfortable in the kitchen and eventually, prepare simple meals. Not only are shopping and cooking together great ways to teach kids healthy eating habits, but they are also wonderful opportunities for families to spend time together.

Kids often share things about themselves and what's going on in their lives while you're doing ordinary activities like shopping, cooking, or eating together. Letting your child help—and eventually even occasionally take charge of—family meals and snacks is an important way to teach them to be more independent.

Caring for Younger Siblings and Other Kids

Taking care of younger children is one of the best ways to teach kids how to be responsible and mature. Look around you at the best babysitters in the neighborhood—chances are, those teens will be reliable, grounded, and caring young people.

Each family can decide what "babysitting" means for a school-age child: One family might want their 9-year-old to be in charge of reading or playing games with a younger sibling while a grown-up is nearby, while another family might decide it's okay to leave 10-year-old with a 7-year-old sibling while the parent runs to the store for a few minutes. Trusting an older child to care for little ones is a great way to teach children to be both independent and more responsible.

Having Solo Social Outings

As kids get older, they naturally spend more time away from home doing things on their own. School-age kids will be invited to more birthday parties where parents do not tag along. They will go to friends' houses to play by themselves with less close parental supervision, and increasingly decide what games they'll play and work through any conflicts themselves.

If your child is ready, arrange for play dates at your house and let them choose what activities they might want to suggest to their friends. Let them know that going to friends' houses without you is something that will be fun and that you'll be able to share and talk about your day when you pick them up. (But be sure to ask questions before you drop off your child at a friend's house to make sure safety is a priority.)

If your child feels shy and isn't ready, be supportive—not judgmental—and keep trying.

Volunteering

For very young children, everything is naturally about their own needs and wants. When kids help others, they learn to think outside themselves, which is an important step toward maturity.

An added benefit to having kids volunteer, whether it's to help an older neighbor or make sandwiches for needy families at church, is that your kids will be less likely to be spoiled or suffer from affluenza and be more likely to be kind and empathetic people as they grow.

Keeping Track of Homework and Tests

It's one thing to help your first grader organize their homework and get them into the habit of keeping track of when they'll need to study for tests. It's quite another if a typically developing child in middle or high school needs their parents to help them keep track of schoolwork.

Set good work habits early so that your child learns how to handle their own responsibilities independently as they gets older, and isn't relying on you to constantly tell them what schoolwork they should be doing and when.

Organizing Their Own Schedule

Give your child a calendar and get them into the habit of writing down important dates and appointments. As they get older, they'll need to keep track of things like doctors' appointments, play dates, friends' birthday parties, games or recitals, and more. Independent kids will rely on themselves, not on their parents, to know what they need to do and where they need to be.

Learning to Be Independent Thinkers

Get your child into the habit of forming their own opinions on everything from current news events to historical milestones to fictional stories. Talk about news events over dinner or while in the car. Encourage your child to tell you what they think about issues. When you really listen to them, you are showing them that their opinions matter to you and that their ideas and thoughts are valuable and worthwhile.

When you disagree about an issue, it's a great opportunity for kids to learn how to debate and speak their opinions respectfully, while learning how to see the positive aspects of other people's opinions.

Entertaining Themselves

It's important for kids to know that not every single moment of their lives has to be filled with scheduled activities. Kids need to learn to find things that interest them and to have the opportunity to spend time on them. Parents can encourage kids to be more independent by, for example, setting up time to read side by side every day, or having kids work on their own activity or just play by themselves while parents finish making dinner.

When you show your kids that you have your own interests, such as doing yoga, going for a walk with friends, knitting, or catching up on work, you are making it clear that parents, like kids, have their own independent needs and interests, and that it's OK for parents and kids to do things apart from one another.

A Word From Verywell

By showing your child that independence is a positive for both of you, and by supporting them when they feel clingy or like they need more space to do things on their own, you are setting the stage for your child to move toward independence at their own pace, with confidence and self-assurance.

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