Jan 30, 2019, 2:59:35 PM CST Jan 30, 2023, 11:40:25 AM CST

How to raise an independent child

The importance of choices, chores and letting your child make mistakes

Little boy painting his wooden airplane by himself Little boy painting his wooden airplane by himself

While parenting goals may vary, most parents can agree that one of their most important roles is to keep children safe while teaching them the skills they need to grow into fully capable teens and adults.

But did you know that keeping kids too safe may actually hinder important development?

"When you allow children – beginning at a young age – to make mistakes, and teach them to learn from those mistakes, you help provide the confidence they need to make their own choices," says Alexis Clyde, Ph.D., ABPP, Board Certified Licensed Psychologist at Children's Health℠. "This is a key element in raising a child to be independent."

Yet trends show that some parents are tightening the reigns and limiting their children's autonomy, often referred to as "helicopter parenting" or "lawnmower parenting." Dr. Clyde explains the negative effects of that behavior and offers tips for raising an independent child.

The effects of overprotective parenting

The ingredients for effective parenting typically include warmth and support, and structure and control.

  • Support includes acceptance and involvement
  • Behavior control involves limit setting and supervision

Parenting that reflects a healthy blend of support and behavior control is linked to a child's positive functioning and social, emotional and cognitive well-being.

Overprotective parenting is defined as the unnecessary micromanagement of children's activity, combined with giving strong affection, even when your children say they don't need it. Parents often micromanage because of a strong concern for the well-being of their child, but the result may be counterproductive. In fact, one study found that the more parents let their children make their own choices, the less childhood anxiety develops.

"Involvement, protection and affection are good strategies, but there can be too much of a good thing," says Dr. Clyde.

Teach resiliency, avoid perfectionism

Society, and sometimes parents, can place too much emphasis on perfectionism when resilience is a more appropriate goal, explains Dr. Clyde.

Children need space to learn on their own – while also knowing they can go to their parents for help. One of the best ways to do this is to build a foundation of trust and connectedness when your kids are young.

"When children feel they are not alone, it's easier for them to be independent and feel more confident," says Dr. Clyde. Parents can teach their children resiliency by following a few simple strategies:

  • Provide choices at a young age
  • Reinforce that making mistakes is a good way to learn
  • Collaborate on how to solve a problem:
    • Show children how they can fix a problem, then let them lead
    • Teach children to ask for help

There are common mistakes kids make. Allowing your child to take risks allows you as a parent to practice distress tolerance skills. "It can be hard to watch your child fail," says Dr. Clyde. "Parents have to learn to tolerate that distress."

Start household chores from a young age

"Chores are important for learning new skills and taking individual responsibility as part of a connected family," says Dr. Clyde.

Parents who teach children to share in chores set up their household to work as a team, where all members contribute. "This builds independence and connectedness," says Dr. Clyde.

Children can start helping with household tasks at a very young age. For example:

  • Set up a toy kitchen in the regular kitchen:
    • Let your child mix ingredients in a bowl with a spoon
  • Allow your child to help in small ways, such as:
    • Sweeping the floor
    • Setting the table for dinner
    • Wiping down the table

"Kids love to show what they can do," says Dr. Clyde. "Maybe the first time the floor is swept it's not done well. That's okay, it's not about the destination – it's about the journey, learning the task and contributing as part of a team."

Other age-appropriate ways parents can foster independence

"Teaching independence is much easier to start at a younger age," says Dr. Clyde. Practice with your child the task you want him or her to do independently. If you want your child to share during a play date, pick up clothes and place them in a hamper or put toys away on shelves, you can role-play those skills.

Use the "ask, say, do" model:

  • Ask your child what the first step is
  • If they do not know, tell them
  • If the child has trouble doing the task on his or her own, give as much help as is needed
  • Once the task is started, let your child finish it on his or her own
  • Praise your child's cooperation and success along the way
  • Repeat these steps until the task is mastered

Parents can also use a step-wise approach to gradually allow more independence as a child gets older. The idea is to start with a brief independent activity and raise the stakes after each success.

  • Allow your preschooler to play alone in a secure area while you check-in periodically
  • Let your pre-teen child go into a drug store and make a purchase while you wait in the car
  • Making sure that any rules and guidelines are clear and agreed-upon, grant your teen more independence when going out with friends

Learn more

If you have questions about raising an independent child or anxiety issues, the psychology specialists at Children's Health can work with your pediatrician to identify, diagnose and treat emotional and behavioral concerns. Learn more about our psychology program and services.

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