How to Cultivate Independence in Kids

Back away from the Kleenex box. Drop that shoe. Hand that hairbrush back to your child. Your kids’ future independence may depend on it.

It’s amazing how much we infantilize our growing children. We zip their coats instead of letting them fumble. We cut their meat for them instead of letting them take their own sweet time. We “help” on their school projects so they’ll get parent-assisted A’s, not independently-earned C’s.

But guess what: That C-level project does more for a child’s growing competency and self-esteem than a parent-earned A. And a kid who takes forever to cut his own chicken at age 7 is more likely to be cooking dinner for the family a few years down the road.

Nurture, Don’t Baby

Independence is a quality parents want our kids to develop. But whenever we baby them and jump in to “save” them from a task they can do themselves (albeit imperfectly), we stomp on that nascent wherewithal.

“We have to find other ways of showing our love,” says parenting exert Alyson Schafer, host of TV’s The Parenting Show, and author of Honey I wrecked the Kids (Wiley). “Wiping a child’s nose for them isn’t as productive as watching a child thrive independently,” she says.

So just pass them the Kleenex box. And while you’re at it, get them to make their own bed and help clear the dinner table, too.

Start Them Young

If you want to cultivate independence in a child, you have to sow the seeds early. And be modest in your expectations. Skills should be broken into steps that encourage success and acquisition of further skills.

In other words, says Schafer, don’t expect your 17-year-old to learn to cook the summer before he leaves for university. Make cooking an ongoing project from childhood on, and over time your son will own that kitchen.

Likewise, want a kid who can tackle her own household budget when she goes away to college – rent, utility bills, groceries, and all? Start her on an allowance when she’s in kindergarten.

The Payoff

I was talking with my mommy mentor the other day (everyone has one: it’s the mom you’re most in awe of for her amazing parenting prowess), and she told me the days of her 19-year-old son being her work-in-progress are over.

“Ultimately, I’m pretty sure that if I cut him off entirely – no money, no support – he’d find a way to survive,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about him, but I know he’s a real adult: he’s done. He could take care of himself right now if he had to,” she says.

My friend attributes her son’s independence to the parenting mindset she worked with from day one. “I wasn’t trying to keep him close to me forever,” she says. “They’re only kids and dependent on you for a little while. They have to be adults and independent for much longer, so as a parent, you really need to get that right. From the day he was born, our relationship was about cutting the cord, about creating distance,” she says.

Your visceral response may be: Who is this mom? She wants distance from her kid? She’s actually extremely close to her son, who starts his second year of university in a different city from her, this fall. And he’s everything a parent could want: smart, hardworking, responsible, respectful towards the fairer sex, well-liked by his peers. He’s perfectly comfortable making dinner party conversation with grown-ups, for crying out loud! (Alas, he has a girlfriend, so no: I can’t broker an introduction to your niece.)

In other words, whatever she did: you want some of that too.

Game Plan for Independence

Here are some simple ways to cultivate independence in your kids:

1) Let them do it themselves. Encourage them to sort their own laundry or get that bike chain back into place – solo. “Hey Dad: I did it!”

2) Enroll them in daycare or pre-school programs. Realizing they can thrive without you – and that you always come back – fosters independence in little ones.

3) Encourage sleepovers. Fun and adventurous… without Mom and Dad.

4) Teach them to cook. Besides acquiring a key life skill, kids love the responsibility. “Making meals gives kids an opportunity to contribute to the family, to give back to the group that supports them,” says Schafer.

5) Give them an allowance to manage. Even if it’s just a quarter a week for a five-year-old, and she loses it every time, knowing once it’s lost, it’s lost, is a money-managing lesson in itself, says Schafer. As your child’s financial sophistication increases, she can learn lessons in budgeting, saving, donating and investing.

6) Chores. Everyone can contribute to the care and nurturing of their family, from toddlerhood on (really!). Check out Schafer’s website for a list of home responsibilities by age.