At every age, children are capable and open to learning. There are plenty of daily opportunities to encourage independence with your child.
“I can’t do that.” My son’s 5-year-old friend was over for lunch and was staring at the ketchup bottle on the table in front of him. He had just asked for some ketchup, and I had passed the bottle to him.
I clarified, “You can’t squirt your own ketchup?”
“No, I don’t know how.”
I quickly recovered from a moment of genuine surprise and said, “Well, you start by flipping open the cap…Great, now turn the bottle over and squeeze some on your plate.”
After some initial hesitation and uncertainty about the outcome of this action, our little friend got the ketchup he needed and went home with a new skill that day. It turns out he had always had his condiments squirted for him and hadn’t the confidence to do it himself when presented with the opportunity.
It made me wonder what kinds of services I might be doing for my kids that they are capable of doing for themselves. In the name of responsive parenting, was I inadvertently enabling my children to be unable to complete basic skills on their own? Was I assuming immaturity or incompetency when neither was true?
As parents, we take care of our kids, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. It becomes easy to develop habits of doing things for them that they are eventually able to do themselves. When we’ve been in the habit of doing them for so long—such as squirting their ketchup—we may not recognize the point at which children are capable of taking over these tasks for themselves.
How to Encourage Your Child’s Independence
The age of autonomy emerges around age 1-2 years old, about the time when a child begins to say things like, “Me do it!” or yells and pushes your hand away when you try to help with her work. Autonomy is a natural part of the developmental process.
It is internally driven—a basic human need. Your job as a parent is to recognize it in your children and encourage its maturity by giving kids plenty of chances to exercise it.
It becomes worthwhile to periodically step back and make a conscious effort to ensure kids are as autonomous and capable as possible—to teach them new skills and establish new expectations.
In short, try not to do things for children that they can do for themselves. Completing their own tasks and skills helps to instill in kids a necessary sense of confidence and pride. Kids are quite capable, and with each new skill acquired they feel it.
Give Your Child Opportunities to Help
When your child is old enough, make a point to ask for their help with household tasks. Toddlers and young children love to do “real” work with mom and dad, and this is a healthy habit to get into. There are many tasks around the house that kids can help you do, and in the process will learn a wide variety of skills.
Here are some great things kids can start doing on their own from an early age:
- Scooping the pet’s food
- Putting on their own coat
- Serving food to others at dinnertime
- Fastening their own seatbelt
- Watering plants
- Clearing and scraping their plate
- Sorting laundry
- Wiping counters and tables
- Shelving books
Don’t Expect Perfection
When it comes to the development of autonomy, process is more important than product. That is, when you give your kids the opportunity to learn new skills, expect and embrace the mistakes that will occur. Though sometimes in opposition to efficiency, cleanliness, or speed, mistakes are a necessary step in a child’s learning process. Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. The inconvenience of a mistake is worth more to your child’s development of autonomy than the order maintained in doing a task yourself.
Celebrate your child’s effort and share your appreciation for their accomplishment with words of encouragement. Thank you! Wow, look at what you can do by yourself! I really appreciate your help! Remember, while it’s important for children to learn new skills, it’s not important how well they “perform” during the early learning process.
Here are some skills to try incorporating independence into your child’s routine (without worrying about perfection):
- Cutting their own food
- Choosing their own clothes
- Getting dressed without help
- Pouring their own cereal
- Wiping their hands and face after
- Helping put away groceries
- Helping wash and prep food
- Making a bed
- Pulling weeds
- Mixing batter
- Washing windows
Trust Your Child’s Ability to Do Things on Their Own
Above all, remember to trust your child. Trust that she is capable. Trust that she can do things that are difficult. Trust that if she can’t do it, she can figure it out. Trust that she’ll ask for help when she needs it. Trust that she can solve problems and recover from mistakes.
See also: Age Appropriate Chores for Kids
A parent’s trust in a child is crucial for the development of confidence and competence.
A few other tasks with which children can be trusted:
- Pouring their own drink
- Transferring food from kitchen to table
- Putting on their own shoes
- Washing their own hair and body
- Preparing their own sandwich
- Packing their own carry-on for trips
- Unloading utensils from dishwasher
- Setting the table
As you look for those opportunities in your daily routine in which your child might be able to take over more responsibility, just keep in mind her age and development. There are always ways to involve young kids in learning new skills at home. At every age, children are capable, they are autonomous, and they are open to learning.
Find the opportunities that work best for your child to build independence and strengthen those attributes each day.