It’s summer time, the kiddos are out of school, and Independence Day is right around the corner! It is the perfect time to help your children become more self-sufficient and confident by encouraging them to become more independent in their daily routines.
Where Childhood Independence Begins
Typically, children begin to demonstrate their independence by the age of two. They may want to try everything by themselves and even act annoyed if you try to step in to help them. This is perfectly normal and I encourage you to embrace this developmental milestone!
Bedtime should be the first area to be targeted when teaching your child independence. Establishing a consistent bed time routine is a must. Children should be sleeping in their beds independently. They may still need reminders to stay in their room, but there are plenty of ways to work on getting this accomplished. You can try giving them a signal of when they can leave their room (e.g., when the light comes up or when the clock looks like this: 7:00). You can also keep a bin of toys in their room that they are allowed to play with in the morning. It is very important to be aware of your reaction when they do get out of bed. Firmly state the expectations (e.g., “Johnny, you need to stay in bed until the clock reads 7:00”) and guide them back to their room. Do not provide eye contact or attempt to rationalize with them. You may need to bring them back to their room several times over many days. Don’t give up! I promise it will get easier!
Children also need to learn how to play independently at a young age. At least one time per day, implement “quiet time”. Direct your children into their rooms to play quietly for at least 20 minutes. Periodically, check on them to make sure they are playing safely. If your child is unable to stay on task for a long period of time, start off slowly and build up the time (e.g., 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.). You may also need to provide more supervision for children who have difficulty playing safely.
Children should be able to follow general grooming, eating, toileting, and dressing routines by the age of four. Try not to overwhelm them! Pick out one skill to target and focus your teaching there until they master it. If you want your children to learn how to brush their teeth independently, start by making a list of the steps involved. Get creative and make a checklist with pictures to communicate the expectations. Teach the steps one at a time and try teaching them backwards. For example, do everything for your child with the exception of putting the toothpaste and toothbrush away. The next step would be to have your child rinse the toothbrush, put the cap back on the toothpaste, and put the items away. If your child has an aversion to the brush in his/her mouth or the taste of toothpaste, provide practice sessions daily. You can practice on dolls, have your child practice on you, and/or set lower expectations (e.g., lick the toothpaste 3 times and/or brushing 2 times on each side and the top and bottom).
As your child gets older, making friends and building relationships become the main focus of independence. Make sure that your children have the perquisite social skills before putting them into an unstructured social situation. If you are thinking about camps, research and interview! Your child may need more of a structured environment that teaches kiddos to build friendships appropriately. You may also hire a specialist (e.g., behavior therapist) to accompany your child to camp to help teach those important social skills. Typically, camps are extremely open to having outside professionals support children.
Parents can also support their child’s growing need to become socially independent by planning play dates. These play dates should be “coached” by an adult. Coaching means that the adult should provide ideas and materials necessary for activities, but allow the children to independently make decisions, converse, and problem solve. The adult should be in the “background” to facilitate these interactions if necessary.
Promoting independence is extremely important in building self-sufficient children who grow into confident adults. Remember, be patient and don’t expect perfection. Children develop at different ages and have diverse personalities. Use your children’s strengths and motivation when selecting skills and pay attention to behavioral signs when they may be feeling insecure or uncomfortable.