How to Encourage Independence in Your Child


One minute your child is determined to prove that she can undress herself without your help. The next she desperately wants you to cuddle her because she’s afraid to go upstairs in the dark. The early years are characterized by these two conflicting trends—your child’s increasing depen­dence on you for love and security, which gives her a strong psychological foundation for later life, and her inborn desire to be independent.

There is no specific age when your child should be inde­pendent, when she should be able to do things without your help. True, some milestones of independence are important for all children, such as walking, talking, and having bladder and bowel control. Apart from these obvious skills, much depends on your own view as a parent.

Encouraging your child to be independent is hard work because of the demands that it makes on you. Don’t leave the development of your child’s independence to chance; take a planned approach. Have specific goals that you want your child to achieve. For instance, putting on a sweater by herself is a clear­er goal than getting dressed by herself. Explain each goal to her. Your child will have more success in increasing her indepen­dence if she takes small steps rather than large jumps. Whatever you want your child to achieve, break it down into small tasks and then tackle them one at a time. Give your child lots of praise when she succeeds, and lots of reassurance when she doesn’t.

Parents sometimes inadvertently instill in their child con­flicting sets of expectations about self-reliance. For instance, a child who learns to tidy her room may want to extend her inde­pendence to choosing what clothes she should wear, and what television program she should watch. During the process of becoming independent, most children have difficulty knowing when to assert their individuality and when not to. Be prepared to explain carefully what is acceptable to you and what is not.

Children often take a step backwards in their stride for inde­pendence precisely at the time when they should move forward. For example, a four-year-old who is learning to eat with a knife and fork may seem awkward all of a sudden. These moments of regression are normal and allow your child to gather the emo­tional strength needed to move on to the next stage of indepen­dence, rather like an athlete who turns away from the high-jump moments before she takes a run at it. When your child does seem to be going backwards instead of forward, be patient with her. Her behavior is natural and happens at all ages and stages.

Developing independence can be inconvenient for the whole family. Your morning household routine is probably hectic, when everyone is rushing to get out to work or to school. A young child struggling valiantly to dress herself may slow down everyone. Temptation to assist her can be strong. So if you are trying to encourage your child’s competence at a particular task, make sure you give her plenty of time. The atmosphere must be relaxed, or her desire for success will evaporate. A balance between overreliance on you and total independence must be struck. Your expectations should be realistic—just as it is inadvisable to “baby” a child, so it is inadvisable to expect too much from her. Don’t push your child to attain a level more advanced than nor­mal for a child her age. There is no advantage in a five-year-old being able to do some things that only eight-year-olds usually do.

Breaking away from a state of total dependence begins early and continues throughout a child’s life. Often a painful process, it is a necessary aspect of every parent-child relationship, and it benefits the child. The confidence that your child gains from controlling her world is a tremendous boost to your child’s self-esteem; that wonderful moment when she bursts into the room, telling you excitedly, “I put my sweater on all by myself; I did it myself,” says it all.

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About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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