Independence builds confidence, and confidence builds independence. Independence opens the door to freedom, and freedom gives more opportunity to develop independence. Independence is a key to childhood development.
To speak in practical terms, a child’s independence makes the task of parenting much easier. As a mom of 3, the simple task of getting onto the car requires each of them to have at least a degree of independence. I need them to take care of themselves.
Now I don’t have much wisdom to share, except through my personal experience. I have also adopted a lot of Montessori thinking. Take what works and leave the rest.
It’s never too early to start fostering independence, neither is it ever too late. First step is to convince yourself that deep down, underneath this toddler body or entitled tweenager, there is a human being hungering self-respect, curiosity, and growth. This may be hidden by a baby’s physical immaturity or an older child’s habit of reliance. But it is true. We all strive to be independent.
Developing a child’s independence involves letting go. And you cannot let go if you do not truly believe that it will work.
Prepare the Environment
Even the youngest children are ready to exercise and grow their independent mindset. An important step to fostering that is to prepare the environment. The world is designed for adults who are 5-6 feet in height to live in. Children have to struggle with not only their developing fine and gross motor skills, but also giant houses, furniture, and cars. Some examples that come to mind are the faucet and the light switch. An easy fix to that is a step stool. What about a child’s clothes; is her closet organized in a way that she can access it? What about tables and chairs; are there child-sized spaces where he can focus on a task, whether that be eating a snack or putting together a puzzle? Are mornings too rushed to allow for time for her to dress herself? Look around you and spot the items that a small person would have difficulty physically handling. Hear the child saying, “Help me to help myself.”
When children reach school age, there are certain things that we want them to achieve: ABC’s, counting, reading, addition, multiplication, history, science, sports, music, art, a foreign language. These being things that we ourselves might think of as “hard work,” we emphasize the external rewards that we, or the teachers or coaches, offer for successful completion. External rewards (such as sticker charts, ice cream, money) aren’t bad per se, but they do require an external being for delivery. For a person to develop independence, to do the hard work even when no one is looking, the person must recognize the intrinsic rewards for putting in the hard work. Intrinsic rewards develop intrinsic motivation.
When recognizing progress, phrase it as a natural reward for the child’s hard work, not as a praise from you. “You can now read words with two syllables, not just one! That means you can read so many additional words!” When looking at a piece of work (whether completed or in progress), admire its beauty. “Your piano playing is music to my ears!” Emphasize the intrinsic value in character traits such as grit and integrity, even in failure.
Let Them Struggle and Even Fail
If you help a child every time he is facing difficulty, you take away opportunities for him to learn independence. The younger they are, the more you can let them fail. A child learning to walk needs to have a scratched knee. Have you ever watched a child try to fit in a puzzle piece? The 15 seconds of struggling may seem like a full minute. But hold back your hand! Remember that confidence develops from independence, not from not failing. “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed,” said Dr. Maria Montessori. This is different from, “Never help a child with a task where he is already successful.”
As they grow, you do need to watch more carefully for truly unsafe situations. Physical and mental health and safety are a priority. But is not getting into a top Ivy League college truly an “unsafe situation”? I don’t know how I will actually react when senior year rolls around, but my hope is that I will be able to say to myself: it’s better to “fail” at college apps than at life as a whole.
Show Them You’re Busy
Everyone should contribute to the family. Yeah… but how do you make a child see that? In the child’s mind, you’re more efficient at everything (you are likely in fact 10x more efficient at toy cleaning than she is), so it makes sense that you do it.
When you are working from home, or doing household chores, explicitly tell the kids that you are working. You aren’t complaining, or angrily making a list of things you do. You are simply sharing about your day, inherently being a role model for being independent. The benefit of having 3 kids is that I can often say, “I’m busy,” or “When I’m finished helping your sister, I will come to you. And while you’re waiting, try it yourself.”
Additionally, you can explicitly tell them that you have already worked hard and would be grateful for them to do their part. If they can help with wiping the dining table, then you can focus on washing the dishes. If they can wake up on time by themselves, then your drive to school won’t be so rushed. Always say “thank you.”
No Pain, No Gain
Remember that fostering independence means that they are not yet independent. Intentionally fostering independence often does mean taking the less efficient way–I am the one who has a hard time holding back my hand, rather than waiting for my child to struggle with the puzzle piece–but it does promise greater gains in the long run.
Daisy Yau, a new SPMC Board Member this year, is the children ministry coordinator at New Life Community Church, Burlingame. She is a mom of three and enjoys going to neighborhood parks.
Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash