The quest for childhood independence starts just months after our babies are born. It begins with messy attempts to feed themselves and wobbly first steps. Before you know it, they are riding bikes, going on their first date, and waving goodbye as they head off to college.
As moms, we feel the tension between wishing our babies could stay little forever and wanting to raise responsible, self-sufficient adults. Growing up is inevitable; loving our kids means letting them go. Teaching them to be independent is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
Does it require extra patience on our part? Absolutely! The simplest tasks may take twice as long and be three times as messy. The hardest part will be watching your child fail and become discouraged.
But it will all be worth it when you see your child develop:
To help you get started, I compiled a list of fourteen ways you can encourage childhood independence. Whether they are six months or sixteen years old, it’s never too early or too late to start instilling confidence in your children. It’s easier than you might think!
Allowing kids to make their own choices fosters independence by giving them opportunities to develop decision-making skills and take responsibility for their actions. It encourages critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-confidence as they navigate their choices’ successes and failures.
Start small by allowing them to make age-appropriate decisions. Let your three-year-old pick out her snacks for lunch, or let your twelve-year-old plan their after-school routine. This process will give them a sense of self-control and dominion over their day.
Carrying their backpack, clearing the dishes, and packing lunch help to break the habit of relying on mom and dad to do everything. When we take the time to teach our children to complete basic tasks, we will not unintentionally instill helplessness.
Slowing down and creating margin for the added time it takes our children to do things independently may be one of the hardest things for parents. By making extra time for transitions, we will be more likely to resist the urge to help, thus encouraging independence and self-sufficiency.
Use words wisely by clarifying what your child can and can’t do. If it’s raining outside and your child wants to wear sandals, ask, “Do you want to wear the red rain boots or the yellow ones?” You’re saying sandals are not an option by phrasing it in such a way.
If it’s ninety degrees outside and wearing sunscreen is necessary, ask, “Do you want to put your sunscreen on in the bathroom or the kitchen?” Wearing sunscreen is not an option, but where they decide to put it on is.
This strategy puts parameters in place while also fostering childhood independence through decision-making. It reduces frustrations and is a win-win for everyone.
Routines seem counterintuitive, but children who know what to expect are better prepared to take on responsibilities. For example, the routine for coming home after school may look like the following:
At first, younger children may require some assistance in completing their routine. But soon, after repeating the same routine repeatedly, they will need less and less help as they gain a sense of childhood independence and empowerment.
Most tantrums and power struggles happen during moments of transition. This is why explaining what’s happening next and when is essential, allowing kids to maintain a sense of independence.
“After breakfast, we’re going to get ready for school. Which of these two outfits would you like to wear?” Cue them up for when things are about to change. “In five minutes, we’ll put our shoes on and get in the car.”
Giving our children a heads-up diminishes potential surprises and a perceived loss of control.
In my house, there are unpaid responsibilities that we all partake in as members of a functioning family. They are mandatory contributions that do not earn a reward. Completing these tasks demonstrates that we respect ourselves and each other and are responsible for our bodies and belongings.
Age-appropriate responsibilities (or chores) can look like the following:
Teaching our children how to complete these types of tasks at an early age will prepare our kids to be independent, self-sufficient, and responsible adults. Once they’re no longer under our roof, we can be confident they can care for themselves and their homes.
Opportunities to earn money differ from household responsibilities because they are not mandatory. These are tasks above and beyond the daily contributions that all family members make.
Financial stewardship is one of the most crucial aspects of adulthood. Sadly, many kids don’t learn this skill until they’re on their own. We must foster an environment that teaches our children how to make, manage, and respect money.
Saving money will promote patience and delayed gratification. Spending money will show them how quickly it goes! Some examples of money-making tasks could include:
Creating such opportunities fosters self-motivation, responsibility, problem-solving skills, and confidence in their abilities. But you should also be prepared for them to develop debate and negotiation skills!
Dave Ramsey has created a helpful toolkit to help parents raise money-smart kids.
If you have teenagers, be prepared for battle as they get older. Chores and money-making opportunities are less important to them at this age. For tips on how to deal with this new phase, check out my friend Jon Acuff’s book Your New Playlist. He collaborated with his two daughters to write about mindset’s important role in our lives.
Single-focused projects like crafts and puzzles are an excellent way for kids to concentrate on one thing for an extended period. It’s important to praise their effort along the way. When you do this, you communicate your belief in their ability to complete the task.
Each completed project will contribute to the development of your child’s self-esteem. They will also gain a sense of pride and accomplishment when they see the result of their hard work and labor.
Unstructured free play is a great way to foster childhood independence. Giving children space to come up with their activities helps them develop autonomy, creativity, and problem-solving skills.
Parents should intervene as little as possible. Acknowledging what they’re doing, offering encouragement, and making suggestions is all the help they need.
Alone time differs from free play because children are isolated from others for a short period (no longer than an hour.) This can be a natural transition for many families when a child no longer naps during the day. Instead of sleeping, a child can spend time alone in their room.
Solitude has been linked to contentment and creativity in both kids and adults. Playing alone without outside help and input promotes self-control and focus.
In my upcoming book, Remaining You While Raising Them, I discuss what moms need to thrive. For many of us, that can be alone time. The same goes for our kids. Between school, extracurriculars, and siblings, alone time can be refreshing and rejuvenating for them too.
Creating space for a child to help in the kitchen, garden, etc., shows that you value their contributions. You convey that you trust them with tasks and enjoy their company.
They will develop a sense of ownership and pride in their contributions while learning practical skills that will contribute to their independence later in life. When we let them help, we boost their self-esteem and confidence. Participating in shared tasks teaches them teamwork, cooperation, and time management.
Acknowledging effort gives positive attention to the qualities you want to cultivate. Praising their persistence, courage, growth, and decision-making skills will encourage them to continue these behaviors and develop intrinsic motivation. This skill becomes more challenging to teach as children get older.
Encouragement is always about something other than the result. It embraces the process. Children learn to accept challenges and persevere when the going gets tough. Regardless of the outcome, acknowledging their hard work helps children feel motivated to continue exploring and pursuing goals independently. They become more self-driven, confident in their abilities, and willing to take initiative.
Celebrating failure teaches childhood independence by normalizing and reframing it as a valuable learning opportunity. When children understand that failure is a natural part of learning, they become more resilient, adaptable, and willing to take risks.
By celebrating failure, we emphasize the importance of trying, exploring, and experimenting without fearing making mistakes. It encourages children to reflect on their failures, identify areas for improvement, and develop problem-solving skills.
This mindset fosters independence as kids learn to take ownership of their actions, embrace challenges, and persist in the face of setbacks. Ultimately, they will become self-reliant individuals who are not deterred by failure but see it as a stepping stone toward growth and success.
One of the best ways to encourage our kids to be independent is to teach them to be confident in who they are. Honoring their unique strengths and personalities promotes childhood independence by nurturing their self-esteem, fostering self-awareness, and empowering them to embrace their individuality.
Honoring their uniqueness requires us to abandon our preconceived notions of who we want our children to be. For example, calling our introverted child shy can be a negative definition of a quality that isn’t necessarily bad. Often, we feel the need to apologize for our child’s behavior when they haven’t done anything wrong. Instead of making excuses, try saying, “My daughter is very observant and introspective in new environments.”
When children feel valued, they develop a positive self-image that empowers them to embrace their unique personalities, strengths, and passions.
Teaching kids how to care for others fosters childhood independence by instilling empathy, compassion, and a sense of responsibility. When children serve those around them, they better understand different perspectives, emotions, and needs. This practice cultivates their ability to empathize and consider the well-being of others, allowing them to become more attuned to the world beyond themselves.
Simple gestures can go a long way. Baking cookies for new neighbors, picking out a birthday gift for a friend, or making a get-well card for a sick classmate are great places to start. By actively engaging in acts of kindness, children learn to take responsibility for their actions while positively impacting their community.
This sense of responsibility and empathy nurtures their independence as they recognize their ability to contribute to the welfare of others and navigate relationships with kindness, respect, and autonomy.
There are days when we can’t wait for the season of empty nesting, and then there are days when we don’t want our kids to grow up. Either way, they will fly the nest soon, and as parents, we must prepare them well.
Fostering childhood independence lets our children know that we value and trust them. Our potential relationships with our adult children are contingent on the effort we put into the little ones we are raising now. For more tips on how to parent well, check out my conversation with Andy & Sandra Stanley.
The great news is that we don’t have to get it right every single time. According to attachment science, studies show that if we aim for a 50% success rate, our children will enter the world as strong, courageous, competent, and responsible adults. This is great news, moms!
As you encourage your kids to be confident and independent, you invest in who they are now and influence who they will become.