One of the hardest things as a parent is to help your children to grow up and develop independence. But it is also one of the most important: children need to be supported in a gradual process of developing independence as they move from the total dependence of babyhood into adulthood and their own lives.
This page provides some ideas about how you can support the process of developing social, physical and emotional independence, to prepare your children for adulthood.
Finding a Balance
Growing up and away from parents is a natural part of childhood.
Over the course of 18 years or so, we grow from being tiny babies, totally dependent on our parents, into independent, fully-functioning adults.
This Process is Naturally Gradual and Iterative...
Independence does not happen overnight, and nor should it.
The key to managing it effectively, then, is to remember that. You need to manage the process in such a way that children do not become frightened by too much independence, or stifled by too little.
Their independence needs to grow by degrees.
The Process of Developing Independence Starts Early
In other words, it isn’t a matter of reaching the teenage years and then, and only then, starting to encourage independence.
The process of developing independence starts in babyhood. When your child first wants their own spoon to feed themselves, or tries to undo their coat, or pull off their hat when they get too hot, they are starting to develop independence.
Encourage these early steps by, for example:
- Asking questions to help your child to think about how they feel and make suggestions about what they can do about it, such as “Are you too hot? Why don’t you take off your hat?”
- Don’t be too quick to help your child. Let them have a go first, and wait to see if they need help. You can even ask “Would you like me to help you?” and wait for them to decide;
- Encourage children to start dressing themselves by putting their clothes out ready for them to put on; and
- Give them foods that they can eat by themselves. For more on this, see our page on Weaning and Feeding Toddlers.
Developing Physical Independence
Babies naturally go through a process where they start to recognise that they and their mother are not, in fact, the same person.
In other words, there is a distinct moment when they start to understand the idea of physical separateness. This is probably the first step on the road to physical independence.
Teenagers, on the other hand, are desperate for independence. They want to go out with their friends, stay out late, go shopping alone, and all the other marks of ‘growing up’.
Between the two is a gentle and slow process of increasing physical independence. But what is the right age for each step?
Parents often want hard and fast answers to questions like:
- At what age can my children be left at home alone?
- At what age should my children be going to school on their own?
Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers.
- A child whose school is just down the road, without any major roads to cross, may walk to school by themselves at a younger age than another child whose school lies across a busy main road.
- It may be safe to leave younger children at home if, for example, there is a trusted neighbour at home next door who will keep an eye out.
- A child who is mature and sensible, and always looks out for cars turning into driveways, may be trusted to walk up the road alone long before another of the same age who dances along in their own world.
- If you have a garden which is immediately outside your window, so that you can see your child playing, you may be happy to let a toddler outside to play by themselves. If you cannot see the garden easily, you may not let even a much older child out alone.
Age-appropriate physical independence will depend on the child, the location and the parent...
... Only you can determine what is right for you.
It is, however, always worth keeping your views under review, and examining the basis for them. Circumstances may change, especially as your children grow up.
Developing an Independent Mind
How do you develop a child with an independent mind? The answer is to give them opportunities to think and to express their views, while demonstrating to them that adults have views and opinions too.
Ways to do this include:
- Play with them, encouraging them to suggest the play and drive its progression. If, however, it is a game which is very dull for you (for example, if it requires you to watch them doing something for long periods of time), say so, and suggest alternatives, allowing them to choose. This shows them that you are important as well as them, and encourages them to think about others;
- Show your child that you have opinions: express them in response to articles in the newspaper, or on television, and in discussion with other adults;
- Ask your child what they think about things, and wait for them to reply;
- Answer your child’s questions, taking time to make your answers age-appropriate, and to check that your child has understood;
- Don’t rubbish their ideas, but help them to think through the downsides as well as the advantages. You might, for example, say “That’s an interesting idea, but what do you think would happen if everyone did that?”
There is one other aspect of independence: emotional independence.
Contingence vs. Independence
Psychologists have defined two approaches to life: contingent and independent.
Contingent children (and adults) are dependent on others for how they feel about themselves. They can often be recognised by one or more of the following traits:
- They rely on other people (whether parents, peers or, later, managers) to give them an incentive to succeed;
- They rely on other people to make them happy, and often seem not to ‘own’ their own lives;
- They take little or no responsibility for how they think, feel or act;
- They may struggle to make their own decisions, because their parents always make or made decisions for them, believing that they know or knew best.
To avoid creating contingent behaviour, psychologists advise that parents should:
- Help children to develop their own reasons to achieve, perhaps by talking to them about why you do things, and what they might want to achieve;
- Help them to develop their own interests by giving them opportunities to try different activities;
- Use rewards appropriately, within suitable limits, and linked to behaviour;
- Encourage children to take responsibility for both successes and failures. Do not allow them to blame others or ‘things’ when they do not succeed, but ask them what they could have done differently to achieve a different outcome;
- Ask your children for their views, especially on issues that matter to them; and
- Help them to develop and consider options for action, and then, with your support and guidance, start to make their own decisions.
Decision-making skills can be developed by starting very simply.
For example, you might ask young children what they would like in their sandwiches, or where they would like to go for a walk. You can then build this up to more complicated discussions, such as choice of school.
In practice, you need to provide children with the opportunities and means to develop and pursue their own goals.
This includes both psychological means, such as love and guidance, and practical means, such as money or transport.
Fundamentally, this means loving and respecting your children as independent people, showing confidence in their abilities, and teaching them that they have control over their lives.
If you do this, you will raise independent children who will become self-reliant adults.