We all want our kids to be independent. How do we raise independent kids?
As with most things parenting, our children’s independence is both nature and nurture. Humans are born with an innate drive for independence. AND we also impact how this drive develops. It can be tricky because we want to foster independence without FORCING independence.
Let’s look at some common traps…
Are you guilty of any of these?
Scene: Shopping mall food court. Child wants to carry the tray but we do it instead of letting them (and spotting of course!)
Scene: Kitchen. Child wants to use the vegetable peeler but we are worried it’s too sharp so we say no.
Scene: Bedroom. Toddler wants to put on their own sweater but we don’t want to take the time so we do it for them.
Over and over again we might not let our children do the tasks they are naturally drawn to, because it is “safer” and “easier” if we do it ourselves.
This is where the term “Helicopter Parenting” comes from. We are so worried that our child might suffer or get hurt, that we are always swooping in to rescue and remove any obstacle or danger they encounter so that things are as easy and smooth as possible.
Fostering independence is about letting kids join us and try all the daily tasks they want to so that they can work towards mastery and the pride that comes from working hard at something.
The challenge comes from the fact that we often shut down children’s attempts to help or fail to set up opportunities for them to get involved because it seems like more work.
In the book How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haim lays out an excellent four-step framework for fostering independence in children:
- Do the task for them
- Do the task with them
- Watch them do the task
- Let them do the task their own
When children are little and learning a new skill like brushing teeth, this would look like: brush teeth for them, brush together by letting them brush their teeth in the morning and you do it at night, watch to make sure they are brushing their teeth, and finally you allow them to take care of brushing their teeth themselves.
I recently used this framework when teaching my sons how to drive. I spent years driving them everywhere, then I had them drive with me instructing, then I sat as a passenger and observed, and now I hand the keys over and off they go!
We need to trust and work with children’s strong natural drive for independence. Think about how toddlers are always saying “I do it myself!”
Here’s the other tricky part: Fostering independence is not the same as FORCING independence.
Our job is to provide a nurturing safe base so that children can blossom and step into independence.
A perfect example of this is how toddlers interact at playgroups: Your child starts by sitting in your lap, and when they are ready they venture off to play with the toys a little bit, and every once in a while they check back in with you. That is what makes them feel safe to step out into the world of the playroom- knowing that you (their safe base) is still there.
A very common line in our culture is “You should never do anything for your child that they can do for themselves.”
I do NOT agree with that concept at all.
Relationships are based on love and support.
It is okay to do things for our children that they can do for themselves. You can find a balance of letting your child be as independent as they want to be, setting up opportunities for them to achieve mastery and independence, AND still do things for them that make them feel nurtured.
In fact, sometimes our kids ask us to do things for them that they already know how to do for themselves for that exact reason- they are craving some extra nurturing! (click here to read my whole blog post on babying our big kids)
In order to feel emotionally safe, children need to feel like they can trust that we will meet their needs. If kids don’t feel this way, they can get very anxious and demanding to make sure their needs are getting met.
Developmental Psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufield uses the phrase “inviting dependence” to make sure that kids feel taken care of. Sometimes that means doing things for kids that they can do for themselves and finding ways to nurture them.
For example, if your child asks you to dress them- a task they have already mastered- it’s okay to do it for them! Use this as an opportunity to connect deeply with your child and make them feel loved and taken care of. Make it a game or snuggle them close as you get them dressed.
Worried that you are sending the wrong message about being independent? You can say, “I know you can put your pants on yourself AND I’m happy to help you. Everybody needs a little help sometimes.” This way you are recognizing their competence and that they can do it, while showing them you are there to take care of them.
If you find your child is asking for you to do a lot of things for them that they normally can do for themselves, proactively look for ways to make them feel more nurtured and connected to you. Maybe you need to increase the frequency and duration of Special Time or look for more opportunities to delight in your child throughout the day.
Also, refusing to do anything for a child that they can do for themselves can lead to a lot of power struggles. Do you really want to spend 20 minutes fighting with your child about who is putting on the pants?
I know that it can be hard to trust this process and it can feel like we need to push our kids into independence.
In Alison Gopnik’s book The Gardener and the Carpenter she explains that carpenter parents think that they need to build up their children. Carpenter parents think that they are starting from scratch, that they need to construct everything, and push their children to be a certain way. Whereas gardener parents believe that children are like seeds- they already have everything that they need inside them, to grow into the people that they are meant to be. We just need to provide the right environment for our children to blossom into their independence.
Consider this your ‘permission slip’ to both let your child do something that may be a little bit scary for you or to do something for your child that they can do for themselves.
The balance of both of these approaches will let that sense of independence blossom from a place of deep security. Our children are going to grow into the beautiful, independent, young people that they are born to be.
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com