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Helping kids establish independence Dr. Paul Veldhouse, MD, Pediatrician, Children’s Wisconsin Forest View Pediatrics primary care office

Helping kids develop independence

Looking out for the health and wellness of my patients isn’t just limited to their physical health, such as illnesses and making sure kids are meeting age-appropriate milestones. While that is an important part of my job, just as important is looking out for their social and emotional well-being. 

This is a place where I partner with my patients’ parents. One really important thing we need to teach our kids is how to be independent and do things for themselves. Teaching kids, and then allowing them, to manage things on their own is an important and natural part of growing up. This helps them become self-reliant, which will help them build many important skills through life. 

Independence is gradually built as they get older. The pay-off for helping your kids establish independence is they grow into confident, self-reliant kids (who eventually move out!). It helps them develop “grit” and the ability to stick with a task even when it’s hard. Start when they are young and continue this as they get older with adjustments for age and capabilities. 

Here are a few ways I encourage parents to help their kids become more independent. 

For the littles

Create routines: Create simple routines to foster independence. Make it easy enough for young kids to follow so they can get in the swing of things. For young kids, stick to simple things that can be built upon as they get older, such as getting dressed, eating meals, brushing teeth and bathing regularly. 

Getting dressed: Getting dressed independently will take a little time and patience. With toddlers, start small and allow for extra time. You can start by letting them pick an outfit from two or three choices you’ve laid out. Then, as they get older, have them pick out the whole outfit and let them get themselves dressed. As time goes on, set the expectation that they will get themselves dressed. When kids get a little older, teaching them to tie their shoes and zip their jackets will help get you out the door more quickly! Just remember to be patient as they are learning and offer lots of praise and encouragement. 

Meals: When kids are old enough, you can offer them choices. Choices help kids feel in charge of themselves. As they get older, they can start to get food for themselves. With any meal, have kids help prepare in age-appropriate ways. Need an ingredient out of the fridge or cabinet? Ask for help. Making scrambled eggs? Let them mix the eggs. These little steps keep kids involved and teach them independence. My 9-year-old daughter now cooks a full breakfast on Saturdays for the family with very little help!

Personal hygiene: Help kids get into a routine of regularly brushing their teeth and bathing. When they are young, it’s best to have parents lend a hand. Parents can even model this for them by brushing their teeth alongside them to encourage the habit in the morning and at bedtime. With bathing, parents need to be hands on with this for a while to avoid drowning accidents. But even with young kids under supervision, you can have them use soap on their body when they get a little more dexterous. Have them help rub shampoo into their hair. When they get old enough to shower independently, make it part of their daily routine. 

Help around the house: Believe it or not, even toddlers can help out around the house. When young children participate in everyday household tasks, they learn how to contribute at home. With gentle support from parents, tasks will soon be done with few reminders. Tasks need to be suited for their age, but there are things even young kids can do to help. Do you have an area where shoes are collected? They can sort the shoes. When cleaning up a play area, ask kids to put toys in a bin. Older kids can tackle bigger jobs such as setting the table, putting away clean dishes, helping with laundry, feeding pets or taking the dog for a walk. Doing regular chores will help make them more self-sufficient and responsible, and prepare them for life outside your home.  

For the bigger kids

Keeping track of their schedule: With older kids, have them keep track of their schedule. Give them a calendar or add them to the family’s virtual calendar. They can keep track of school deadlines for tests and projects, along with practices and other after-school activities that will require time management. It can be really hard for parents to not micromanage this process, but it’s really important to let kids become more independent through schedule management. 

Kids should do their own school work (and let mom and dad know if they need materials for projects before 9 p.m. the night before it’s due!) and prepare for out-of-school activities by making sure they have what they need, such as shoes, water bottles, instruments, sheet music, etc. Don’t pack their bags. Let them do it. If they are late, they will learn a lesson in time management. Natural consequences are great teachers. Independent kids will learn to rely on themselves and not their parents for what needs to get done and by when. This is a great skill that will be built upon as they get into high school, college and beyond.

Money management: Money discussions start as early as kindergarten. Making sure your kids know the money just “doesn’t come from the machine” is important in helping them realize why work is necessary. As kids get older, especially when they reach the age of having a job, they should open and manage a checking account. Most banks require kids between the ages of 13 to 18 to have a parent on the account, which helps you teach money management at a more detailed level.

Let your kids solve their own problems: Letting your kids solve their problems will really foster independence. Make sure to be a sounding board for them to talk through the issue, but let them come up with how to resolve whatever is troubling them. It’s really hard for many parents to not step in and solve the problem right away, but talking through the issues with them will set them up to be good problem solvers for whatever they face in life. 

  • Identify the problem. Have your child say what the problem is. Sometimes just saying the problem can give your child perspective on what the actual issue is.

  • Develop a few solutions: Talk it out with your kids. Let them tell you a solution or two, and you can offer a way you would solve the problem. Let them see there may be more than one way to solve a problem. Talk through the pros and cons of the solutions so they can understand which one might be best to help them.

  • Choose a solution and test it out. Once your child has decided on a solution, tell them to try it. If it doesn't work out, they can always try another solution from the list that they developed. 

These are just a few ways I encourage parents to help their kids become independent. There are many others. If you have any questions about your child’s health and well-being, always check with your pediatrician.