It’s easy for parents to feel like they didn’t get anything done after spending all day at home with the kids. However, the wave of exhaustion that hits once the bedtime routine warps up would indicate otherwise. While nothing got checked off the to-do list, plenty got done by the time everyone was dressed, fed, entertained, and cleaned up after 14 straight hours.
The sweetest dreams of exhausted parents tend to involve their kids doing these things for themselves. And although kids have a seemingly infinite list of needs, a part of them has a deep desire for independence, which they can use to meet those needs. That desire just needs to be fostered and directed.
“We as human beings are constantly looking for ways to collaborate and socialize with other people, but we're also striving toward self-actualization — figuring out what I can do for myself,” says Lauren Starnes, Ed.D., Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer at The Goddard School. “We see the intensity of this desire in little kids who throw tantrums when they’re unable to act independently.”
So what are some things parents do to help their children develop healthy independence? Here are four important
1. They Start Early
Human babies aren’t up running around in a matter of hours like their counterparts in the animal kingdom. And although lions can hunt alone by the time their second birthday rolls around, a toddler can’t be expected to prepare meals independently. But parents can still encourage independence in very young kids even if it will be a while before they’re able to do most things unassisted.
“Even with toddlers or kids as young as 1-year-old, we know that one of the things that young children desire is the ability to complete everyday tasks on their own,” Starnes says. For example, kids learning to eat solid foods will want to try to feed themselves or use utensils, even if most of it ends up on the floor and spread across their faces.”
”It's important that parents begin to give children opportunities to try things themselves so they can feel that sense of self-accomplishment,” she says. “We're helping them develop a framework for days to come when they might encounter frustration and how they can handle that frustration in positive ways.”
So even though small kids will get frustrated with themselves when applesauce keeps falling off the spoon and into their lap — and then get even more frustrated with their parents when they finally step in to help — it’s still important to let them try it on their own.
2. They Celebrate Effort and Small Successes
One habit that can lower a kid’s frustration when their ambition outpaces their development is celebrating effort and even the smallest of successes. It might not be a big deal for you to get your socks on every morning, but for your kid, it can be a monumental achievement that deserves a hooting and hollering celebration. Even if they can’t quite manage to seal the deal on their own, give them a round of applause for trying.
“When we praise kids, they feel a sense of pride,” Starnes says. “Even if the praise is in response to an effort that’s ultimately unsuccessful or a small accomplishment, the self-esteem boost will make the child want to continue to attempt independence.”
Starnes also suggests that when parents are inclined to undo or redo a task that their child has completed independently, they step back and consider the impact of their response. “If a child got himself dressed but the clothes don't match, does it really matter? Maybe it does, or maybe it doesn't. But it's worth considering if I can err on the side of letting them have that feeling of success,” she says.
3. They Defer Opportunities For Independence
Unfortunately, there’s not always time to foster independence. The clock can be particularly unforgiving when trying to get everyone out of the house in the morning for school and work. In those situations, parents have to move as quickly as possible, and kids don’t always accept that help gracefully. But it’s still possible to diffuse frustration and foster self-sufficiency by deferring opportunities for independence or giving the child an alternate task they can do for themselves.
If your daughter is intent on putting her own shoes on, for example, then let her practice in the car on the way to your destination rather than doing it for her or waiting at home until she does it herself. If your son wants to fill his own water bottle to bring to school, offer to let him do it before bed so it’s ready to go the next morning. This takes one potentially messy task off of the morning to-do list while still giving him the chance to accomplish the task on his own.
Starnes emphasizes that for deferral to work, it’s important to give young kids a specific plan so that “later” doesn’t turn into “never.” And children are more likely to accept deferral if it’s presented calmly and without judgment.
“Communicate to kids that we're going to keep trying together. It might feel like a failure in the moment, but it helps to give the child a concrete time or concrete point at which we're going to let them practice again,” she says. “And if possible, give the child another task or focus where we know they can be successful. So if you have to put on their shoes, ask if they can help you by carrying their own backpack instead.”
4. They Recognize Unprovoked Independence
It’s easy to get caught up on what kids aren’t doing for themselves, but try to focus on the positive instead. Stearns suggests paying close attention to the little things kids do to help clean up or their willingness to help younger siblings. This is fertile ground for positive reinforcement. Sure, the child might only put away one of the dozen books they got out, but highlighting the small win tips kids off to the fact that tidiness is valued without the shame of being constantly nagged to clean up after themselves.
“Start by praising anything your child does alone and without prompting,” Starnes says. “Even something as seemingly inconsequential as picking a napkin up off the floor without prompting is an independent action that, when celebrated, can help them dive forward into progressively larger tasks that they can accomplish on their own.”
Though most parents would prefer a faster road to independence, the small step of noticing the moments when your kids do things on their own and without being asked is one of those habits of gratitude that can make parents appreciate how much their kids have grown. Putting the focus on the journey instead of the finish line is one of those parenting hacks that tends to work well for everyone, as it helps parents grow in patience and their kids grow in confidence.