By Dr Eugene Brink
Most parents can attest to their toddlers and young children – putting it mildly – dawdling when it comes to performing even the simplest and most routine tasks. In fact, even without any scientific polling done, it should rank as one of the most maddening aspects of parenthood.
It is for this very reason that raising independent kids is in all likelihood (albeit arguably) the most important task of a parent. Many parents assume that kids simply “become” independent and reach certain stages of independence, irrespective of what you do.
Although this could be true of many kids, the parents’ role in fostering this independence is of paramount importance – especially with coy or overly dependent children who are not prone to be weaned off their parents’ guidance. Parents may spur on or stunt their kids’ independence through their actions.
“Certainly, in early development, your children count on you. As infants, they rely on you for nourishment, cleaning, and mobility. As your children grow, they become more independent in these basic areas of living, but still depend on you for love, protection, guidance, and support,” says Dr Jim Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco.
“As your children reach adolescence and move toward adulthood, they become less reliant on you and gain greater independence in all aspects of their lives. This process of separation prepares your children for the demands of adulthood. But this progression toward adulthood is not inevitable and is often stymied by well-intentioned, but misguided, parents.”
Hence, what can parents do to gradually lessen their children’s dependence on them so that they can eventually fly the coup, without hampering their confidence and leaving them to feel rudderless? Here are a few tips:
- Identify opportunities and target priorities
“Make a list of things she could be doing herself. Mine had 13 tasks, including brushing her teeth. Ask her which duties she feels she’s big enough to take on — it’s likely to increase her willingness to try,” says Jackie Gillard, contributor at parenting advice website Today’s Parent.
She advises parents to encourage their children to tackle one item at a time, lest you overwhelm them.
“One of your tasks as the parent is to teach your children about responsibility. The best way to ensure that you and your children assume the appropriate responsibilities is for each of you to know what your responsibilities are,” says Taylor.
“If you and your children have a clear understanding of what is expected of each of you, then it will be easier to stay within the confines of those responsibilities.”
First off, make a list of what you will be doing to help your child succeed and then devise a list with your children of what their responsibilities are. “Next, identify other individuals who will have responsibilities (and what they are) in your children’s achievement activities, such as teachers, instructors, or coaches.”
- Demand accountability
Taylor says there should be repercussions to not fulfilling these responsibilities. “There should also be consequences for not fulfilling responsibilities. The best consequences are those that remove something of importance to your children and give them the control to get it back by acting appropriately. This process provides absolute clarity to both you and your children about what your ‘jobs’ are.”
- Compromise and praise
Compromising with your kids is just as important as making deals with your business associates and co-workers. “If she digs in her heels, compromise and inject some fun. For a few days, I took shirt duty, and she did the bottoms. I said that her tree branches (arms) needed their leaves (her shirt) and that she did a great job—and would also be awesome at putting on her own shirt,” says Gillard.
Always remember to forget about perfection. And if she puts on her shoes on the wrong feet, laud the fact that she put her shoes on. She’ll recognise these mistakes on her own anyway.
Some practical advice
Dr Wendy Sue Swanson, a paediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of Mama Doc Medicine, says there are numerous age-appropriate ways in which you could trade fear for freedom.
Younger kids could have a drop-off playdate with a familiar friend or cousin and pre-kindergarten kids could be involved in food preparation. Depending on the circumstances, camping and sleepaways could build their independence and confidence, too. “What’s so independent about camp? No parents! Kids can go to day camp as young as Grade 0, and some kids are ready for sleepaway earlier than others, though many kids feel ready to try it for the first time between the ages of 8 and 12,” says Swanson.
Jacky Gillard, 29 September 2016, “Help yourself! 8 tips for teaching kids to be more independent”, https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/teaching-kids-to-be-more-independent/.
Jim Taylor, 17 November 2010, “Parenting: Raising independent children”, https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/teaching-kids-to-be-more-independent/.
Wendy Swanson, n.d., “An Age-by-Age Guide to Building Independence in Your Kids”, https://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/advice/an-age-by-age-guide-to-building-independence-in-your-kids/.