No matter how old your child is or how well they’re doing in school, they will be constantly developing their sense of independence. Whether that looks like pouring their own juice, playing alone more often, or shouting that they “can do it” by themselves, asserting their independence is an important part of growing up. However, it can be hard to know how much is too much independence, or not enough. There are several things that you can do to help manage the right amount of independence in your child.
- Offer choices. Whether you allow them to pick their clothes, meals, or even activities for the day, giving your child choices is a big part of helping them become independent. This doesn’t mean you allow your child to run rampant or do inappropriate things (like wear summer dresses in winter or eat gummy bears for breakfast). Instead, offer them choices that are helpful to them. For example, you can ask a preschool-aged child whether they would like an apple or a banana for their snack. That is a choice that is healthy and allows them to exercise independence and control safely. For an older child, you may allow them to plan their outfits for the week, showing them the weather report and allowing them to make the informed choice on how to dress for the weather.
- Be flexible. It’s important to maintain a schedule, not only to give your child’s life structure but also to allow for important things to get done each day. However, you need to have some flexibility within that structure. Sometimes things come up or plans change, and you need to show your child that this is a part of life that can be adjusted for. For example, say there is a rule that your family spends an hour each evening doing quiet “unplugged” activities like reading, writing, or working on a quiet craft. There may come an evening where your child wants to spend time with a friend, instead. Enforcing the rule in this case isn’t helpful and would make your child feel restricted. Allowing them to “break” the rule enables them to be independent from you and the house as a unit, which is the ultimate goal as they grow up into their own person.
- Encourage healthy risks. It’s essential to keep your child safe, but they need to take risks in order to grow. This also doesn’t mean you allow them to run around in the street or play with fire; you allow them to take healthy risks. A healthy risk is something that might make you feel nervous (or makes your child nervous) but supports your child’s growth and development. Risks like this would be things like letting them ride bikes or climb trees after you’ve talked with your child about safety rules and potential dangers. In a healthy risk, you’ve done your part to ensure your child’s safety and your child understands the potential dangers.
- Allow for mistakes. Making mistakes is an integral part of learning in any field, and this is especially true for your child. Make it clear to your child that mistakes are ok and they are allowed to make them. This doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, but those consequences shouldn’t make them afraid to make more mistakes in the future.
- Support their growth. It can be hard to have your child pull away from you, but this is a big part of growing up. As they get older, they will naturally become more independent and want to spend more time with their own interests, activities, and friends. Give them the space and ability to do this, at the same time letting them know you are always there to help them along and catch them if they fall.
Negotiating this balance of independence is an evolving problem as your child grows, and they don’t always need more of it. It’s important to let your child also come back to you and depend on you when they need it, and for you to pull away when they need to learn. It’s hard and can be subtle, but you will be glad when your child grows into a fully independent adult.1