It starts with the little things, like helping scrub potatoes or put their socks in a drawer, and it builds. Soon, your little one is not so little and they’re actually helping with dinner, not just “helping” with dinner. They’re putting away their laundry and then they’re doing their laundry. And they’re doing it on their own! Your baby is growing up and life gets — dare we even say it? — easier! Let’s not pop the champagne just yet, though. If you’re going to have independent, reliable, responsible big kids someday, you’ve got to start today, when they’re not so big. Here are 10 ways to encourage independence in your child at home that will make life easier… a little later on.
1: Wait before helping
Hold your horses! Before you step in to “help” your little one, take a breath and pause for a second. Many a well-meaning parent has crossed the line from helping to hindering without realizing that their good intentions would have negative consequences. Before you help, solve the problem, jump in, or fix it, let your child have a chance to figure it out. Nothing says, “I don’t trust you to do this,” quite like, “Here, let me do it.” So what if the pants aren’t folded perfectly or there’s a few extra Cheerios on the counter? Unless someone’s about to get hurt or something’s about to get broken, let them do it.
2: Think ahead and prepare
Life with independent kids gets easier. But first, there’s a little extra work involved. Think ahead, plan for obstacles, and be prepared. If you want your child to get dressed independently, you’re going to have to spend some time in her bedroom, making sure the closet is organized in a way that makes it possible for her to take control of the process. Don’t spring huge changes on your child. Lay the foundation with careful thought before introducing new expectations.
3: Limit the number of steps
One step at a time, one day at a time. Independence is an on-going process that takes years. It’s kind of the point of the whole parenting gig: we’re in this to raise responsible adults, right? A two year old and a five year old are capable of very different things. A two year old can help carry a grocery bag in from the car and that might be all they’re interested in doing. The five year old can help carry bags and put the food away. An eight year old will actually be helpful and a ten year old is going to make you dinner! Take baby steps and keep going.
4: Give lessons
Don’t assume that your child knows what to do. It’s a recipe for frustration on both sides, so take the time to do it right. Just because they’ve watched you, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do what you do. Break a new task into steps and teach them how to do it. Be clear, concise, and build upon prior experience.
5: Avoid the “yes” or “no” question trap
Never ask a yes or no question, if you don’t want to hear “no” for an answer. For example, “Can I help you with that?” when you’re desperately wanting to step in to avoid a huge mess is not the same as “Let me help you with that,” or “Now it’s my turn to pour.” The same applies to “Do you want to help me put away the laundry?” and “Can you clean your room?” What to say instead? Check out suggestion #6…
6: Offer choices
Independence grows through choices. Offering your child a limited number of choices is one of the best ways to build their confidence and allow them to make safe mistakes. Whenever possible, offer your child two choices, both of which you’d be okay with. For example:
- The laundry’s done! Do you want to help me fold the clothes or put them away?
- It’s time to leave for school. Do you want to carry your backpack or your lunchbag?
- I’m getting ready to make dinner and I need a helper. Would you rather set the table or help make the salad?
- It’s time to clean up. Are you going to put away the blocks first or the books?
7: Let your child problem solve
Independence is more than just doing things on our own, it’s thinking through problems, making choices, and enjoying (or dealing with) the end result. Provided you’ve offered choices (number 6), broken big tasks into smaller steps (number 3), and taken the time to teach your child a new skill (number 4), let them do it! Let them take ownership of a task and expect the best. So what if there’s a little dirt left on the floor or there’s toothpaste on the bathroom counter? Tomorrow is another day and another chance to learn and figure it out.
8: Be flexible
Just because your child wanted to help sweep the floor yesterday doesn’t mean they’re going to want to do it today. Young children are enthusiastic helpers… until they’re not. By the age of 6 or 7, you can expect to start assigning chores or regular responsibilities, like feed the dog or set the table, but until then, take their help when it’s offered and keep offering opportunities to help. Keep your expectations low and don’t pressure your 3 year old with a chore chart that needs to be completed each day. Take each day as it comes and set the expectation that everyone in the family helps in their own way.
9: Be patient
Have you ever noticed how, just when you thought you had this parenting thing figured out, it all seems to change on you? Growth spurts, mood swings, and Life will all work to derail your efforts, but don’t let them. Independence is a two steps forward, one step back kind of deal. Be patient with your child and with yourself. You are both learning.
10: Acknowledge small successes
One day you’ll look around you and notice that your child just did something on their own. Maybe they took it upon themselves to tidy their room or they got their own snack or brought their dishes to the sink without being reminded eighty billion times. Whatever it is, give yourself a pat on the back! You’re doing it! You’re raising small human beings who will go out into the world one day and think and act for themselves. You’re teaching your child to make choices, take responsibility, and solve problems. Today: the breakfast dishes. Tomorrow: the world!
- How to Encourage Independence in Your Child by Katherine Lee
- Divide and Conquer Household Chores by Annie Stuart
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