How to Raise Independent Kids

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I have found that many teenagers are being coddled too much by doting parents.  So when it comes time to go to college, they break down because they haven’t been taught independence skills.  I have seen so many kids so sheltered that they have a terrible time with the basics of doing laundry, cleaning, and making a schedule ( that the teenager makes and follows).  I truly believe practicality and common sense are just as important as book knowledge to be able to deal with the pressures of the world.

This was an e-mail that I received right after someone asked me to write a blog on how to make kids more independent. Time and again, I hear the same story from educators: they are seeing a steady decline in basic independence skills. They are struck by how, across the board, children seem less able to problem solve.

Last year, I was at a playground and a little boy dropped his toy and couldn’t reach it. His mom was on the other side of the playground, but I was right beside him. He sat down and screamed for his mother until she came over to pick up the toy for him. It was a perfect opportunity for her to teach him how to solve the problem–how to ask the adult that is right next to him, “Could you please pick up my toy for me.” But the opportunity was missed. The lesson he learned? When I am having trouble, I can cry and my mom will come fix it for me. But what about when mom is not there?

Independence breeds the feeling of competence. When kids feel competent they gain an improved sense of self. Kids need to have opportunities to do things themselves as early as possible. Because I have four children very close in age, I had to teach independence skills early–it was a matter of survival.

We are not doing our kids any favors by doing things for them. Yes, it many ways it is easier to do things yourself. Yes, in many ways it is faster to do things yourself. But, it is better for them if they learn to do it themselves. Here are a few strategies that can help:

1) Create structures and routines that encourage independence

When you provide children with physical structures and routine, they can be very independent. It makes them feel more responsible, and it builds their self-confidence.

You know those cubby spaces and lockers that they have in schools? There is a reason they have them: they give kids a structure to help them organize themselves. There is no way that a teacher can help hang up 20 coats and backpacks–so they teach them to do it themselves. The same should be done at home. Whether you have one or twenty, provide them with a spot to organize and keep track of their own things (for example cubby spaces at the entryway) and a routine for stopping and putting things away.

This can happen throughout the house. In their rooms, get dressers instead of hanging everything. A child as young as three can begin to put his or her laundry away in dressers–which can also help them with sorting, a great brain-building skill. In the kitchen, have cups in a low drawer and water in a place where they can reach, so that when they ask for a drink of water, you can show them how to get it. Keep track of the little requests that drive you nuts and think about a structure that may help them to be able to meet that need–it just might take a little creativity.

2) Teach them how to problem-solve

When your kids call for you, don’t automatically solve the problem. Instead, stop and think, “Is there a way that they could solve this without me?” If there is, take the time and teach them. Our kids have a lot more skills than we give them credit for, but they get into the habit of calling on us because it is easy.

When kids are first learning a new skill, it does take some time to teach them. They need support and often it takes a few times before they get the hang of it. And that takes time. Sometimes we can’t do it–we are running late or we are just in a rush. Sometimes we are just too tired to put in the extra time and effort it takes to support that learning–that is fine. But sometimes, we do have that time, and we need to take the opportunity. In the long run, it is well worth it.

3) Teach them language–Actively

“Use your words!” It doesn’t work. Why? Because usually children do not know what words to use or how to use them. By reading to a child and teaching them the alphabet, we do not expect them to learn to read on their own. We teach them. However, we expect language development to happen through modeling alone. Unfortunately, this is often not enough.

In general, we are not good communicators. It doesn’t come naturally. Think about the last time you tried to confront your coworker, spouse or boss.

If we want our children to become more independent, we need to teach them social language. We need to teach them how to ask another adult for help. We need to give them the words to call a friend and arrange a playdate. We need to teach them how to tell the teacher that they didn’t understand the assignment.

One way that children learn that they can be independent is to learn how to resolve their own conflicts. So often, parents intervene and resolve the conflict for their children. Instead, give them the words to talk to one another–you will be amazed at how well it works.

Here is an example: Marco grabs a toy from Jenna.
Me: Marco, you may not grab. You may say “Jenna, may I have a turn please”
Marco: “Jenna, may I have a turn please?”
Jenna: No
Me: You may not say no, you may say “You can have a turn in a minute” (or when I am through, or any number of reasonable comments)
Jenna: You can have a turn in 25 minutes (my kids are wise guys)
Me: You need to be reasonable. How about 3 minutes? Say, “you can have a turn in three minutes.”
Jenna: “You can have a turn in three minutes.”

Inevitably, after about a minute, she hands over the toy. It’s true. Rarely have I seen the argument continue once the child with the toys has been given control as to when to give it up and the child without the toy knows that he or she will get a turn. Parents are usually stunned to see that it works so well.

What does this interaction teach? That kids have the control to fix their own problems, which in the long run, will not only give us more time, it will give them the confidence that they need to solve the problems that really count.

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