The idiot’s guide to building independent kids

Kinderling News & Features

I have been on one channel since my children were born. It’s the ‘they-need-me-to-survive’ channel, and I haven’t switched it since they were breastfeeding, immobile blobs of gorgeousness.

But now they can move. They can talk. There are things they can do, and it’s time I changed channels.

I definitely could have changed before now, so here’s an idiot’s guide for those of you who (like me) need a bit of help.

Step One: understand that children are naturally independent

Best-selling author and parenting expert, Justin Coulson, says it’s helpful to remember that children don’t need their independence encouraged.

It's part of their biology. They want to do things on their own. We actually seem to make it harder for ourselves by taking that independence away quite often, and withdrawing the autonomy that they need.”

Parents can step in when they think their child will hurt themselves, make a mess, or make them late. Justin says we need to take a step back and find more patience. We need to let them try, and guide them in the process of whatever it is they’re trying to do.

Step Two: choose your battles

When a child is doing something new, like putting on their shoes or making their bed, it’s going to take time. They need time to actually complete the task, you need time to guide them and show them how it’s done. Then it’s going to take time in the form of practice.

Trying to do lots of new tasks before you rush out the door in the morning is not the best time to start practicing.

If you want your child to brush their teeth on their own, you might decide that before bed is their chance to do it alone. You might save making beds (to begin with) till the weekend, when you don’t have to get out the door in a hurry.

Kinderling Conversation: Is my kid ready for school?

Step Three: allow them to think for themselves

It’s always tempting to step in when you see your child doing something the ‘wrong’ way. Especially when it’s something you’ve done so many times, you do it unconsciously. But part of allowing your child to be autonomous is allowing them to work it out for themselves.

Justin’s key message for parents is to ask a simple question: “What’s next?”

“Literally just ask that question. If we ask 'what's next' and if we support them, they will naturally respond to that. What we really want to do is let the kids know that we believe in them. We want to encourage them. We want to support them and we want to ultimately see them utilising their own initiative to get things done.”

If they don’t know the next step, you can show them, then ask them to do it themselves. You can guide them through the process, but you also want to allow them time to think of it themselves.

Independence isn’t just good for parents

While having a child that can dress themselves is a major parenting goal, it’s not just making our lives easier as parents.

Justin says, “Independence is related to competence and competence is related to confidence and resilience. Ultimately, we do what parents are supposed to do and that is we make ourselves redundant. That way they don't have to rely on us when they're 18 and off to uni, or when they're 24 and can't pay their credit card bills. They get to figure this stuff out for themselves because we've prepared them for it, by helping them to be independent while they're young.”

Rose Smith is a mum and a jujitsu teacher who has developed a course for kids called Manners for the Modern Warrior.

Here's her list of skills that children can reach at different ages:

Preschool age 2 - 3

  •          Help put toys away
  •          Dress themselves (with some help from you)
  •          Put clothes in the laundry/basket when they undress
  •          Brush teeth and wash face with assistance
  •          Chores could be to tidy up cushions on the lounge, or put shoes in pairs at the front door

Kindergarten age 4 - 6

  •          Be responsible for their belongings
  •          Be able to put toys away with minimal assistance
  •          Go to the toilet unassisted
  •          Help with simple chores such as setting and clearing the table, or putting clothes away

At this age, your child should also learn how to:

  •          Perform simple cleaning chores such as dusting in easy-to-reach places and clearing the table after meals
  •          Feed pets
  •          Help with basic laundry chores such as putting clothes away, and bringing dirty clothes to the laundry area
  •         Choose own appropriate clothes to wear (from a selection put out by parents or caregivers)
  •          Brush teeth, comb hair, and wash face (dentists recommend parental assistance with toothbrushing at least until the age of 8 - how much help you offer can gradually decrease as they grow and learn)

 When I read these lists above, I feel a real sense of motivation - after all, skills like this will make my kids happier and more independent adults. 

And that makes it easier to change my worn-weary "do-it-all-for-them" channel.