Teach Your Kids to Be Self-Reliant


We want our children to develop self-reliance and independence, yet if we are not mindful in our parenting, we can hinder their ability to do so. Frequently we do too much, fail to step aside and become overprotective helicopter parents, hovering in the name of love.

For autonomy to develop, parents must be intentional about providing opportunities. As children gain experience and successfully (or unsuccessfully) practice independence, they learn personal responsibility. They figure out how to negotiate bumps in the road, bullies, stressful circumstances and everyday frustrations. They make mistakes. They grow up to be self-reliant, better equipped to tackle grownup life.

Preschool self-reliance checklist

Parenting coach Shelly Birger Phillips believes autonomy building begins simply with a speedy home inventory. Take stock of your space to see if your preschooler can navigate your home independently. If you answer “no” to any of the following questions, revamping a room with kids’ self-reliance in mind is a relatively quick and inexpensive prospect.

Hallway or foyer

Are You a Helicopter Parent?

“Parents often tend to do things for their children in order to help them, to hurry things up or because they are under the misconception that their child will not be able to accomplish the task alone,” writes author Nadine Descheaux, identifying the following "helicopter parent" attitudes and behaviors that may be detrimental to the development of autonomy:

  • Overprotecting your child
  • Constantly repeating instructions
  • Constantly attending your child’s extracurricular activities
  • Constantly supervising your child’s group activities
  • Having difficulty letting your child work in his own fashion
  • Having a tendency to solve problems between your children
  • Worrying when your child is away from you
  • Is there a low hook near the front or back door where he can hang his coat up by himself?
  • What about a kid-sized bench where she can put shoes on and take them off?
Kid’s room
  • Can he access clothes in a closet or chest of drawers solo?
  • Is there a reachable hamper?
  • A full-length mirror hung at kid-height for grooming?
  • Are toys, books, games, art supplies and stuffed animals within his grasp? (Hint: Small bins containing a few items each provide easier access than large, overfilled bins.)
  • Is the room equipped with a reading chair that fits her body?
  • Can he easily access drinking water, snacks, dishes and cups?
  • Is there a stepstool around to encourage cooking help, like measuring, scooping and stirring.
  • Is there another stepstool that makes using the toilet and washing hands safe and easy?
  • Is the towel rack hung low enough for her to reach?

 Independence for older children

Once children start going to school, they become accustomed to doing more for themselves. Keep the independence rolling with these tips to promote self-reliance in elementary- and middle-school kids.

  • Introduce age-appropriate chores and responsibilities, such as caring for a pet.
  • Avoid solving his problems. Instead, help him think up his own solutions and make his own choices.
  • Expect her to rise to small challenges, like making a phone call for herself.
  • Model and teach good skills for coping with stress.

Bear in mind, children make many mistakes on the road to developing autonomy. When they do, Elisa Medhus, author of Raising Children Who Can Think for Themselves, reminds us “to never nag, threaten or label when they don’t come through on their responsibilities.” On the other hand, be sure to remark when they succeed — and before you know it they’ll be the model of a self-reliant do-it-yourself kid.

Michele Ranard has a husband, two children and a Master’s in counseling.


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