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Raising Needham: Fostering Independence in Children

We protect them from the moment we know they are coming, but sometimes letting go is the best thing we can do for our children

I was a shy child, which is hard to believe if you know me now, so when I saw the same trait in my daughter I starting working on fostering her independence immediately.

It wasn’t easy, and it took time, but now at age six she is far from shy, and my work is done. Well, not really—not by a long shot. My mom was over the other day and gave my husband and me the gift of sleeping in and started helping the kids get their breakfast. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and wonder what in the world she would make for them. I heard lots of, “we can have chocolate for breakfast” and held my breath. Luckily, four children later my mom still recalls what a healthy weekend breakfast looks like for children and redirected them to eggs, toast and fruit.

But what came next surprised me. My mom had them get the ingredients from the refrigerator, butter their toast and pour their orange juice. Maybe it’s because I am not a morning person or maybe it is because I am inpatient, but when it comes to the morning routine I would rather just do it all myself and be done with it. But that isn’t what my kids need and that isn’t the best way to teach them anything. I came downstairs (much later, though—Mom had things under control and I don’t get to sleep in often) and thanked my mom for the obvious but also for showing me that I needed to allow my kids to be independent more and not stop at what I had already done.

So what had I done? For starters, I took a cue from my father, who was outstanding at fostering independence and really encouraged me to do things for myself. I think part of it was the worry that with three older brothers I might not have to fend for myself much. My dad never missed a moment to encourage me to do whatever I was asking of him by myself. Getting a hot dog at my brother's baseball game on my own, going to the neighbors' for some milk by myself, calling someone on the phone instead of having him do it or introducing a friend’s parent are all things, little things, that helped me gained the confidence needed to be independent.

Something else I did with my kids that helped encourage independence and confidence was asking their opinion: What would you like to wear to school tomorrow? Should we have broccoli or asparagus for tonight’s vegetable? What books are we reading after bath? These are some of the easy questions you can ask your children. I don’t love taking my kids food shopping with me, but that is a great way to not only encourage their thoughts but also get them interested in what they eat. I’ll have my daughter pick out the vegetables and my son the entrée and they really love that. I always ask them how I look when I go out and even show them my outfit choices. This is also a great way to distract them from the notion of being without Mom and Dad for the night. The key is not to allow them too many choices. It’s A or B and never C, D or F. Too many choices can overwhelm and lead to a meltdown.

We happen to have wonderful neighbors, and our side door is directly across from their side door, so after a few ground rules about racing out the door into the driveway I allow them to go over and ask for play dates and drop notes into their mail slot. I also started telling my older child what time I would like her back home in hopes that she will respect the request, remember to check the time and maybe even start to learn to tell time. The first time I did that it didn’t work out so well, but it was a teaching moment.  

It’s little things, really, but they all seem to add up to happy, confident, independent children. It’s not doing things for them even though it is easier if you to do. It’s allowing them to make mistakes and it’s testing the waters to see if they are ready for a new challenge.

I thought when my daughter was no longer shy that my job was done, but I was wrong. As a parent, your job is never done. I see my mom giving advice to her 50-something-year-old son and worrying about us just as she did when we were little. But what she doesn’t have to do anymore is worry about our independence, because that all four of us have down in spades. She put the time in, and we all got something out of it.

So the next time your child asks you to do something for them, see if it is an opportunity to have them do it themselves and gain some self confidence and independence from it. They will thank you for it some day.

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