From the day your child takes their first steps, they gradually start gaining independence and moving away from home. A continual movement toward independence is the work of childhood. With each new skill learned or milestone passed, children progress toward a life lived with less input from parents. Then much of the struggle of parenthood is the continual balancing act between fostering this independence while still meeting our innate need to have our children close (both physically and emotionally). Finding just the right balance of these factors can be crucial to our children’s development as well. Let’s delve into the concept of independence and what it really means to raise a child who is ready to face the adult world.

The Strive for Independence

According to psychologists, children’s yearning for independence comes from a deep-seated need for autonomy. Self-determination theory proposes that individuals have an innate psychological need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When we consider children’s movements towards independence, the concept of autonomy primarily comes into play. Autonomy has to do with children’s need to feel as though their actions and choices make a difference, especially to caregivers. Thus, the strive for independence seems to originate in this need for autonomy. 

If our children’s movements towards independence represent an innate need for autonomy, the goal of our parenting strategies, in part, should be to help fulfill this need. The concept of autonomy-supportive parenting has emerged in recent years as a recognition of this need. It simply means that parents strive to ensure their children have opportunities to express their autonomy in the family. In practice, this could mean that parents offer children choices and opportunities to learn new, developmentally-appropriate skills and understand the reasoning behind rules. In meeting children’s need for autonomy, this approach to parenting fosters psychological well-being in children. Research finds that this type of parenting is consistently linked with good outcomes for children, including higher self-esteem, better academic achievement, and psychological well-being.

Ways to Fostering Independence in Children

Many children naturally move towards greater independence as they mature. However, others need a bit of encouragement to do activities and face challenges on their own. Therefore, part of our role as parents is to consider each child’s temperament when it comes to independence and try to meet their needs. Independent children may not need encouragement so much as guard rails to allow for striving without getting into the realm of danger. Whereas children who do not move towards independence naturally need more guidance and motivation to take on challenges and face their fears. Either way, our role is clear: foster independence in a developmentally-appropriate way while still keeping our children safe.

Choices and Decision-Making

One of the first steps in fostering independence and autonomy in children lies within our daily home life. Throughout the course of a day, we make hundreds of decisions for our children, especially when they are young. We usually decide what they will eat, wear, activities for the day, and more. Fostering autonomy means allowing children to have some input in these choices and decisions

When children are very young, it could be as simple as allowing them to choose an outfit from two options or even a choice of lunch options. Research finds that offering children choices not only supports their independence but can also foster executive functioning skills in them. This set of skills include things like planning ahead, organizing, focusing, and working memory that all help children thrive in school and life.

As children mature into adolescence, these simple choices are not enough to really promote their independence and fulfill their need for autonomy. Adolescents have a strong need for autonomy and are at a stage of development where their strive toward independence becomes prominent. In this context, greater input into family decisions can help foster their independence and build responsibility. In the tween and teen years, encouraging children to take on more of the decision-making and responsibilities of the household is the key. They may be able to plan and cook meals, help (but not dictate) decisions about family activities, and even offer input into rules and consequences for misbehavior.

Household Help

Although helping around the house may just seem like a chore to your child, it does help foster autonomy and independence. Young children, in fact, have an innate tendency towards helpfulness, and by encouraging their attempts to assist, we can hopefully help them maintain this helpful attitude. Although young children may complete the task slower or not as effectively, but allowing them to help, we are encouraging them to feel independent and build their confidence.

Sometimes older children may not be as eager to help with household duties. However, we can still promote their helpful behavior by offering them chores that may suit their interests or duties that enable them to learn a new skill. For example, perhaps your child would like to learn how to use adult tools that they do not normally have permission to use. You could teach them to use the tool (saws, drills, or even the lawnmower) and encourage them to use their new skills on a task that needs completion. Similarly, maybe another child enjoys cooking shows on television. You could use that interest to foster a love of cooking for the family.

By encouraging children to help with household duties, we are not only building their basic lifeskills but fostering their sense of independence. They will start feeling that they have the ability to do tasks on their own with confidence.

Foster Social Skills

Perhaps not surprisingly, research suggests that children with strong social skills tend to be more independent. When you consider the development of a young child, this connection makes sense. Children with strong social skills, who are not fearful of talking to adults or peers, will be more likely to engage in activities that foster independence. They might play with a new group of friends, try a new sport, or take on a new skill without fear of social reprisal. 

With this in mind, we can help our children become more independent by encouraging the development of their social skills. Modeling can be a useful key in this endeavor. By modeling for children how to share, take turns in a conversation or make new friends, we can help them learn these crucial social skills. Additionally, we can offer plenty of opportunities for social interaction through playdates, meeting their friends, gatherings with friends and family.

Letting Go

One of the great paradoxes of parenting lies in the tension between wanting to keep our children close and knowing that they need the skills to function independently. At times, it can be difficult to comprehend when to hold on and when to let them go. Ultimately, if we stay attuned to our children’s needs and listen to their feelings, they will let us know when they are ready for the next phase of independent life.

Preview Blurb: When children are toddlers, we often hear their first strives for independence in phrases like, “I do it!” From that moment on, our children are making gradual movements to be more independent. Although we know our children need to be independent, it can be challenging to find the right balance of protection and letting go. So learn the parenting strategies for fostering independence in your child while still keeping them safe and connected to the family.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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