How to Teach Your Kids to Be More Independent

Teach kids to do chores on their own.

 Tim Pannell/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images Plus

Imagine how much easier life could be if your kids picked up after themselves, fixed their own snacks, packed their lunches, and pitched in around the house. Teaching them how to be independent won’t just make life easier for you however; it will also put them on the path toward becoming responsible citizens.

Teaching them to be independent can be a bit tricky at times however. Fortunately, these strategies can help them gain freedom and earn more responsibility one small step at a time.

Make Your Expectations Known

Kids usually try to rise to meet expectations from adults, as long as the expectations are clear and reasonable. If you expect too much, they’re likely to give up. But if your expectations are too low, you won’t challenge them to tackle things they’re capable of learning.

So work on creating reasonable expectations while realizing that the process can require a little trial and error.

If you aren’t certain what constitutes a reasonable expectation, establish an expectation that is just slightly higher than what you’re seeing now. And watch your child try to rise to meet your expectation.

Make your expectations clear by saying things like, “I expect you to be able to get yourself dressed in under five minutes,” or “I expect you to put your dishes in the sink when you’re done eating.”

Invest Time Into Teaching

It’s easier to do most tasks yourself rather than teach your child how to do them. And it’s never easy to watch your child struggle to do something that you could easily step in and do yourself.

But think about the time you spend teaching your child how to complete a task independently as an investment. When you put time into showing your child how to clean the kitchen or how to vacuum the living room now, you’ll spend less time doing those tasks yourself down the road.

Establish Routines

Most kids do best when they have routines in place. A good routine will help them know what they need to do in a specific order.

A morning routine, for example, might involve:

  • Getting dressed
  • Combing their hair
  • Washing their face
  • Eating breakfast
  • Brushing their teeth
  • Packing their backpack

An after school routine might involve:

  • Eating a snack
  • Enjoying 30 minutes of screen time
  • Doing homework
  • Doing chores
  • Eating dinner
  • Playing a game
  • Taking a bath
  • Putting on pajamas
  • Brushing their teeth
  • Reading a book
  • Going to sleep

Establish clear routines that will help your child know what to do next. Creating more order and structure eliminates the stress and chaos you might experience when everyone is rushing to get things done.

Create Charts

Saying, “Clean your room,” or “Get ready for school,” is a bit vague. Younger children, kids with short attention spans, or kids who are learning a new skill need specific action steps that explain exactly what they need to do.

Break down those bigger commands into small steps like, “Put your dirty clothes in the hamper. Then, straighten your bookshelves.”

Obviously, you don’t want to stand around and micromanage the task step-by-step however. This could backfire and foster more dependency on you.

Create a chart that explains each step, and you can increase your child’s independence.

Think of a kid-friendly chart being like a to-do list or a checklist. For children who can’t yet read, provide pictures that show them what to do step-by-step.

If you’re artistic, you might draw the pictures. If not, look for images you can cut out and attach to a chart. You might find pictures of how to get dressed independently in a book or online.

Or you can even turn to a website like Fiverr where you can find someone to do custom artwork for little money. Your child might find great joy in seeing cartoon images that look like them walking through each step of a task.

Hang the chart near the place where they’ll perform the task. A chart about cleaning their bedroom could be on the bedroom door. A chart that reminds them what to pack in their backpacks might be hung up next to the coat hooks or by the front door.

You certainly don’t want to create charts for every little task. But pick one or two things you want your child to start doing independently, and create a checklist to guide them.

Then, when they’re struggling, you can tell them to check their chart, rather than remind them of each step. Eventually, they’ll remember to check the chart on their own.

Shape Their Behavior

Whether you want your 6-year-old to learn how to calm down when they’re upset, or you want your teenager to know how to prepare dinner for the family, shape their behavior one step at a time.

Show them what to do. Then, guide them as they try to do it on their own.

Provide positive feedback when they’re on track, and redirect them when they’re headed down the wrong path.

Once they master the first step, teach them the next step in the process.

The key is to reinforce their behavior one small step at a time as they learn a new skill.

Provide Praise

It’s easy to give kids attention when they’re breaking the rules or when they’re not staying on task. But attention (even negative attention) can reinforce misbehavior.

So the key to reinforcing good behavior is to catch them being good. Provide praise when your child is being independent.

Say, “Great job putting your dish away without a reminder,” or “I’m so impressed you sat down and did your homework tonight all on your own.”

Offer Incentives

Reward your kids for being independent. Create a sticker chart with a preschooler who is working on sleeping in their own bed. Earning a sticker every morning might be incentive enough to help motivate them to be like a big kid.

For an older child, offer a weekly reward. You might say, “If you get your room clean and your homework done before dinner every night, you can invite a friend to come over on Saturday.”

If you offer a reward that requires your child to do something a specific number of days in a row, they might mess up on day two and just give up on the whole week. Instead, consider offering the same reward after doing something for non-consecutive days. For example, you might say, “When you get your homework done before dinner, you can use your laptop for an hour in the evenings.”

Other children might respond well to a token economy system where they earn tokens for good behavior. Tokens can then be exchanged for specific privileges. For example, 30 minutes of screen time might be worth two tokens, while dinner at their favorite restaurant might require 50 tokens.

No matter what type of incentive or reward plan you choose, it should mimic the real world. Similarly to the way your boss gives you a paycheck after you complete the work, give your child a reward for meeting their goals.

Create Behavior Contracts

When your child wants more responsibility, like a new smartphone or a social media account, create a behavior contract that outlines your expectations.

A social media contract might include stipulations like:

  • I will give my parents my passwords.
  • I will not accept connection requests from strangers.
  • My parents can access my accounts if they ask.
  • I will tell them if someone sends me inappropriate comments or pictures.
  • I won’t tell anyone my home address or where I go to school.
  • I won’t send private pictures to anyone.
  • I understand if I break any of these rules I will lose access to my social media accounts.

Sign the contract, and request your child sign it as well. Review the rules together, and give your child an opportunity to ask questions.

Make it clear that you will allow for more freedom and independence only if your child follows the rules and that these privileges can be removed if your child doesn’t follow the guidelines.

Don’t Nag or Beg

As tempting as it can feel to give your child reminders to do things, nagging will only foster more dependence on you.

Avoid saying things like, “Don’t forget to clean your room by dinner time if you want to earn your reward.”

If you do, your child won’t create a way to remind themselves. Instead, they may grow more dependent on you for reminders.

So resist the urge to nag or beg your child to be more independent. Instead, give directions once. Then, give your child a chance to show they can be independent.

Allow for Natural Consequences

While there will be times when you need to follow through with logical consequences, like taking away your child’s electronics when they stay up too late using them, there will also be times when natural consequences make the most sense.

For example, if your child forgets to pack their soccer cleats, don’t deliver the forgotten shoes to practice. Instead, allow your child to have to sit on the sidelines during practice or the game. That’s the natural consequence of their choices.

Natural consequences can be excellent teachers. And your child might remember to do better next time.

A Word From Verywell

Every child matures at a slightly different rate. So don’t be too discouraged when one of your kids seems like they should be more independent than they are.

With a little extra support and guidance from you, they can learn the skills and gain the confidence they need to start doing more things on their own.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.