Parenting may be the greatest balancing act on earth. We want children to become independent, but it’s hard to move past the image we have of them in infancy. With the best intentions, parents may stifle kids’ self-esteem, inner confidence, and self-reliance by continuing to do things for them that they should be doing for themselves.
Children can’t flourish if parents hold on too tight. But they grow by leaps and bounds when they’re allowed to make their own choices and mistakes. The key is to let kids test their skills in developmentally appropriate ways. Here’s how.
Kids who choose their own clothes and dress themselves learn to take responsibility for self-care and take pride in their appearance. Allow your toddler to choose what she’ll wear from two or three outfits you’ve identified. Constrained choices prevent overwhelm and ensure your child will be dressed appropriately.
Preschoolers may need extra time to put on their own clothes. Tweak your morning routine to make time for it. Keep clothing in low drawers kids can reach and designate a shoe bin in the closet or entry area. Let kids practice buttoning shirts and putting on socks. These tasks build fine motor control and spatial skills. Don’t worry if your child’s shoes are on the wrong feet or her shirt is backward. Praise her efforts and encourage another attempt.
Teach school-aged kids how to consult the weather forecast on TV or online and to make situational judgments about what to wear. Choosing weather- and activity-appropriate clothing reinforces decision-making skills and autonomy. Let unconventional style choices slide. No one ever died from dying their hair purple or from wearing polka dots with plaid.
Independent eating builds kids’ eating confidence and helps them tune in to internal cues about hunger, says registered dietician Maryann Jacobsen, MS, co-author of Fearless Feeding. “When parents require kids to take extra bites, force veggies or have children eat past fullness, it decreases confidence and makes eating less fun,” she says.
You don’t have to let kids eat cake to foster independence. “Parents have lots of control in terms of how they stock their kitchens, what food is offered, and when and where it is eaten,” Jacobsen says. At meal time, serve three to five healthy foods in a family-style display, including lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and fats. Let kids choose how much to take of each item. And don’t fret if your child won’t eat a certain food. “Research shows it can take up to 15 exposures for young children to learn to like a food,” Jacobsen says, “and my experience tells me it often takes more than that.”
Encourage kids to help out in the kitchen as well. Preschoolers can toss a green salad, school-age kids can make sandwiches and burritos, and teens can cook dinner once in a while. Kids who have learned basic cooking skills at home are less likely to turn into junk-food junkies when they go away to college.
Educator Deb Moberly, Ph.D., founder of St. Louis, Missouri-based early childhood development consultancy Children 1st, says parents should respect kids’ desires to do things “by themselves.” That means letting them hold their own bubble soap, even if they are likely to spill it all over the back patio. Learning can be a messy process.
“Quality preschool programs support independence by letting the children select their own activities,” Moberly says, and parents can do the same at home. Establish simple ground rules – such as the play dough stays on the play table – then step away. Allow kids to decide when to switch activities, as long as they clean up one activity before moving on to the next. Facilitate kids’ cleanup efforts by designating which toys belong in which places.
Playing with peers builds both self-reliance and social skills. Humanist educator Jen Hancock, author of The Bully Vaccine, worries kids don’t get enough unstructured play time in mixed-age groups because parents don’t trust kids’ peers anymore. This wariness is something we must move past.
Hancock’s 7-year-old son spends most weekends playing with other kids in the neighborhood. “This is possible because all the parents have been introduced to each other and have each other’s phone numbers,” she says. “It is really nice having the trust in the neighborhood and knowing that the kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing: Getting into a little bit of ‘safe’ trouble.”
Mom Tracie Shroyer, co-author of Investing in Your 401k Kid, says today’s kids need the skills to be financially independent, too. “Kids don’t learn much besides coin-counting in school and they look to parents for everything they get. Very few are taught to save their money for larger purchases. In the current economy, this is a scary thought,” Shroyer says. If kids don’t get smart about spending, they’ll be the first generation of kids less affluent than their parents.
Begin giving your child small amounts of money and letting him choose how to spend (or save) it. This means your child won’t be begging you for items from the dollar bin – he’ll be deciding what he can afford and whether items are worth what they cost. Increase his spending power and responsibilities over time.
Giving tweens and teens discretion over buying back-to-school clothes and school lunches teaches them to budget and prioritize. It may feel strange to hand over the cash, but remember: The money you are giving your kids is the money you would spend on them anyway. Don’t add to the budget if your kid blows it. “The only road to financial responsibility is learning from mistakes,” Shroyer says. It’s better to learn from cheap mistakes in childhood than expensive mistakes later on.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and mom whose 3-year-old daughter wears stripes with polka dots and plaid. She is the author of Detachment Parenting.