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Early Child Development

Raising an Independent Kid: 8 Things to Know

Give them choices, let them help out, and more easy ways to help kids grow

Kids gain new skills every day—so quickly it can be hard to keep up! One day, you're feeding her oatmeal bite by bite, and the next, she's grabbing the spoon out of your hand to give feeding herself (or her hair) a try. As your baby grows, she'll need (and want!) to become more independent, which means you need to take a step back—not an easy task! Here's how:

Rethink what she can do

Every so often, consider what you might be doing for your kid that she might be able to do on her own: think tying her shoes, brushing her teeth, or even eating dinner with a fork. “Our children are changing so fast that they may reach a new level of independence or ability without us realizing it,” says Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in California, executive director of The Center for Connection and author of The Whole Brain Child. “When when we give them opportunities to help themselves and others, it can help them feel proud and capable, which leads to independence.”

Set him up for success

While you don’t want to underestimate what your kid can do, you also certainly don’t want to force him to be independent before he is developmentally ready. “We want children to try new things and experience independence successfully so that it builds upon itself,” explains Dr. Bryson. “If they aren’t ready and we push them, it can backfire as they might experience frustration or failure. This, in turn, can make them more dependent on us.” Aim to choose tasks you know your kid is capable of doing, such as picking up toys, making his bed, or packing a snack in his backpack. 

Make everyone a part of the team

Help your kid feel independent and capable by asking her to participate around the house by setting forks on the dinner table or watering plants with a small watering can. “Daily 'family contributions' (not chores!) help kids realize that everyone’s contributions are important, which makes them want to grow in that role,” says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World.   

Schedule time for independence

Kids thrive on structure and schedules, and there’s no exception when it comes to learning independence. Schedule set times during the day to allow your kid to try new contributions—say, folding napkins or wiping down the kitchen table—in a calm environment, says McCready, making sure to praise the effort involved. “When we encourage and emphasize the effort children put into a task rather than the end result, we alleviate anxiety over perfection and encourage a sense of curiosity and willingness to keep trying,” she adds.

Hand over the reins

Depending on your kiddo’s age, you can give him control of certain decisions so he knows you value his opinion. “Every day is filled with hundreds of choices: Apple or banana? Red shoes or blue?” says McCready. “Allowing children to make those small choices gives them a sense of control and dominion over their lives which leads to independent thinking.” Other choices you can delegate: what Friday movie to watch or what to have for lunch.

Provide a safe haven

Helping your child when she's scared, hurt, or having trouble, say, figuring out a toy isn’t going to prevent her from becoming independent. “It may seem surprising, but when children feel safe, soothed, and secure, they will move to independence naturally on their own, when they are ready,” explains Dr. Bryson. “Comfort and care is not the enemy of independence—it’s the path to it.” One caveat: Don’t respond too quickly when your kid gets frustrated at first. By not immediately rushing in to make things perfect, you’ll encourage your kid to find their own solutions, says Dr. Bryson.

Say “Bye” to baby talk

“People live up or down to the way they are spoken to, even little ones, so lift them with smart words, not baby babble,” explains McCready. For instance, instead of saying, “Are you ready for yum yum?” you might want to ask, “Are you hungry?” Or instead of, “Do you want your baba for beddy?” you can ask, “Should Mommy get your blanket so you can go to bed?”

Ask your kid for help

Kids depend on their parents for pretty much everything. “However, you can also ‘need help’ from them solving a problem, fixing something, cleaning something or figuring out how something works,” suggests Dr. Bryson. Saying things such as ‘I’m not sure how to do this.  Do you have any ideas?’ or simply ‘Can you help me?’ can help your kiddo feel important and proud, which are both keys to greater independence.