5 Steps to Raising Independent School-Age Children
Parents will eventually have to step aside to help kids become the independent young person we want them to be. It's going to be hard... but here's how to ease the idea in as soon as they hit school age.
The idea of letting children go and watching them from a distance is frightening to me. Many times when he was younger, I’ve witnessed my older son getting pushed, shoved, and hurt in football matches. And while I’ve learned to bite my tongue and watch from the sidelines, at times I still find myself struggling outside the pitch.
That changed, though, with the whole family staying home for the past year and a half. I found myself wishing my children were more independent as I tackled multiple responsibilities at home.
My husband and I acknowledged the need to train our kids to be more self-sufficient, not for our own benefit, but ultimately theirs. As we hopped from one Zoom call to another while doing chores in between, even the children realized we could not be physically available to them 24/7.
I’d like to share with you some ideas that we’ve picked up on, or are currently working on, for the kids to become more independent.
1. Give age-appropriate, bite-sized tasks
Children are naturally curious and always learning, so try to catch teaching moments throughout the day.
Let the kids take on tasks that are age-appropriate when opportunities arise - for example: sorting dirty laundry into piles of whites vs. coloreds can be done by a 4 year-old, but you can leave folding clean clothes to an older child.
When cooking or baking, I let our younger son help mix ingredients in a bowl, but I would only entrust his 12-year-old brother to help me with frying, microwaving, or handling hot pans out of the oven.
For kids to feel a sense of accomplishment, it’s important not to overwhelm them. Give them small tasks that they can succeed in at a time, so they can feel confident and see themselves as capable.
2. Allow them to become contributors in your home
In many homes, chores are rewarded by parents either monetarily, or via any other prize deemed attractive by the child (example: gadget use, sweets, toys). There’s nothing wrong with this, and we employ this technique at times. But if done consistently, children become wired to think that their efforts should always be followed by rewards.
Allow your home to be a training ground for society. Let them see how their individual actions benefit them and the entire family. These actions don’t need to be complicated - simple things such as feeding the family pet, or looking after younger siblings teach them compassion, care, and responsibility as well - values that they will need as they integrate themselves in the big world.
Acknowledge their effort by verbalizing it. Say thank you. For example, you could say something like, “Thank you for helping clear and wash the dishes. I’m less tired because of your help! Care to play a board game with me this afternoon?” In this example, there is still a reward system, but the reward benefits the entire family, and not one individual.
3. Stop offering help
This advice may seem counterproductive - as parents, we need to be present to provide assistance to our kids. But often, we underestimate our children’s capabilities and deprive them of acquiring life skills such as problem-solving. Everytime we step in, we rob our children the opportunity to grow, and navigate the world on their own terms.
I still cringe when I see my child not having pulled up his shorts properly after going through the bathroom by himself. Sometimes, I just want to do it for him so it’s done correctly and quickly. But I know it won’t be helpful in the long run. I also know that every time he does this independently, his motor skills improve, readying him for his return to school.
We need to give children space to do things and learn on their own, at their own time, in a safe environment.
4. Give them the freedom to make decisions
For our children to have a voice, we need to let them know that their opinions matter; that their lives are not dictated by us parents.
But how do we teach kids to form an opinion?
The first step involves them being comfortable enough to think for themselves. To encourage this, we need to make room for them to be heard.
Ask simple questions - “What would you like to have for dinner, chicken or fish?” and then invite them to join in meal preparation. Have them choose what they’d like to wear by presenting just two to three options and laying them out.
On weekends, we allow our kids to select a family-friendly movie to watch. We make a shortlist and vote on it.
Present several options instead of deluging them with too many.
5. Make room for mistakes
Here’s a department I myself need assistance with. There will be mistakes as kids learn to exercise independence.
It can be tempting to just give the kids a rundown on what needs to get done and how to go about it, but they often learn through experimenting and experience.
Try to remember that perfection is not the end goal, but the openness for the kids to learn.
As parents, it is our duty to create a learning environment where mistakes are welcome. So if your child makes his or her own bed, but it still looks messy after, celebrate the effort instead of getting upset that it was not done properly. Or if the child accidentally spills water as he or she learns to pour from a cup, just clean the mess together, instead of losing your temper.
And in case you do lose your temper, as can happen from time to time, let that be a teaching and learning moment for you as well. Apologize and move forward. Treat the mistakes as lessons from which all family members can learn.
It’s a big, scary world out there. But the real danger lies in having children grow up as lost, inadequate adults, unable to thrive in the real world.
Children will always need us parents for guidance and support. It is not our job to make life too comfortable that they’re unable to function on their own. Our job entails raising self-sufficient children who become positive contributors to society. Hopefully in turn, the kids we raise to be independent become our greatest contributions to the world.
About The Writer
Trina is a wife, a full-time mom to two boys, and a Vinyasa, Prenatal, and Postpartum Yoga teacher. A yoga student since 2003, she is a believer of mindfulness and a consistent “off-the-mat” yoga practice. Before becoming a yoga teacher and a full-time mom, Trina enjoyed a 14-year career in broadcast media. When she’s not on her mat or doing chores, you’ll likely find her experimenting in the kitchen.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and do not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.