3 Science-Backed Tips for Raising Independent Kids

by Sanya Pelini January 22, 2017

A father repairing bycycle with his daughters

There's an old Mohawk proverb that says your children are not your own but are lent to you by the creator. The proverb means that your responsibility as a parent is to find a way to give your children wings, and then find the courage to watch them spread those wings and fly away.

Teaching kids to be independent has never seemed as urgent as it does today. This particular learning process is about instilling habits that support your kids in their efforts to be self-driven, to trust in their abilities, and to know that they're capable of finding the solution, no matter what.

Ultimately, parenting is about raising adults, not children. In other words, fostering independence in children requires you to think of the big picture. It requires you to envision the kind of adult you would like your child to be, and then parent in that direction. These three parenting habits can help foster independence in your kids.

Give them chores

There is a general consensus among experts that children learn best when doing things by themselves. The quest for independence is innate and occurs quite early. Even kids as young as two can start developing their independence. By age three, most children can choose the clothes they’d like to wear, dress themselves and choose what they’d like to eat, etc.

As they grow older, kids gain greater independence and can do much more than what most parents believe. By providing age-appropriate support, you can nurture the drive towards independence. According to a recent Braun Research study, giving children regular chores may have long-lasting benefits academically, socially, emotionally, and professionally.

Other studies have found that the earlier children are assigned chores (starting at age three), the more self-reliant and independent they become. They also become more responsible and tend to do better in school.

Encourage your child to participate in age-appropriate activities but don’t compare him to other children. If your child seems to have difficulty, be patient. Propose different activities. If your child is resistant and keeps asking you to do tasks she can do by herself, ask for her participation when doing these tasks. For instance, ask her to start a task and tell her you’ll help finish it.

Give your kids fewer toys

The more toys kids have, the less they're able to play by themselves and the more they rely on adults to avoid feelings of anxiety. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the University of Illinois have proven that scarcity, rather than abundance, spurs creativity in children. A previous study came to the same conclusions: too many toys stifle children’s creativity. By giving your child fewer toys, you're helping him develop creativity.

One of the ways to reduce the clutter is by sticking with the 20 Toy Rule. Your kids select 20 toys they'd like to keep, and then get rid of the rest by either donating or selling them. It can be difficult thought for your kids to willfully give up a bunch of toys, so start small. For instance, you can ask your child to select all the toys she doesn’t play with anymore. Or ask him to select all broken toys and put them aside. Another strategy would be to ask your child to select her favorite belongings and be very clear that those will not go away.

Set "great" expectations

Children from whom too little is expected lose confidence in their abilities to achieve their full potential. A 2016 report by Save The Children suggests that underestimating how much children should be learning condemns them to a life of underachievement. The report was informed by a study that found that many parents were expecting far too little from their kids.

Much evidence suggests that children need some form of authoritative guidance. Authoritative parenting is not authoritarian parenting. Authoritative parenting is about finding the right balance between parents’ needs and children’s needs.

While authoritative parents encourage children to express themselves and recognize their need for autonomy, they are also assertive and have high expectations for their children. Many studies have found that parenting styles influence children’s academic performance and future success. One study found that children whose parents had high expectations were less likely to drop out of school. Yet another study came to the conclusion that parents’ high expectations had a buffering effect when teacher expectations were low. In other words, children whose parents had high expectations were more likely to succeed even when teachers had little faith in those children’s abilities.

Raise your expectations gradually. You know your children and you know when they’re not putting in as much effort as they should. Let them know what is expected of them and let them know that they will be required to put in more effort. Set realistic expectations and make sure that your child knows what's expected, and most importantly, that she has the tools to reach those expectations.

Sanya Pelini


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