How to encourage independence in children

Vulnerable little girl
It can be hard to strike the balance between encouraging your children to be independent and at the same time offering them your advice and support. Penny Palmano takes a look at the how to walk the line.

Just like animals who from day one teach their offspring survival, our task is to bring up our children to be independent. But not all parents find this quite so simple. The loving and nurturing elements can often cloud the issue of helping a child to become independent. However, the over-controlling parent who makes every decision and fights every battle for their child will wonder why at 35, their offspring remain reliant on them for advice on almost every aspect of their lives.

Children very much dictate their spurts of independence and their times of anxiety and as parents you should try to ‘read' your child's needs and act accordingly.

Independence in toddlers

They are called the ‘terrible twos’ because at this age children enter their first battle for independence, running off from you, not wanting to be sat and strapped into their buggies. This is the first time you hear the dreaded ‘no' word and observe the first steely look of defiance. And to avoid both these negative responses, this is the time to start encouraging independence.

Around the home give them small errands to do: dust a table, help lay the table, match up the socks from the washing. Firstly, show them how to do it and then let them get on with it, without standing over them. Praise and thank them for their help and if, for example, they miss an area whilst dusting, show them where they missed, don't simply do it for them.

If they do not want to hold your hand when you're out put reins on them and explain that you know they are old enough but it's just a way of not losing each other.

Ask their opinion on things. Don't imagine that just because they are two or three that they don't have their own opinion – which can be surprisingly perceptive. Take the perennial argument over clothes, for example. You want them to wear the pretty white dress and they want to wear their grubby sweatshirt and shorts. So to overcome this problem put out two outfits and ask them to choose. They will be happy because they feel they are in control.

Independence at primary school

Children can go through periods of separation anxiety, which can happen anytime from when they begin nursery to primary school. But anxiety is a normal emotion needed for survival which is usually manifested as fear or worry. Children can feel anxious about being parted from a parent, but rather than the parent (who may sometimes secretly feel quite flattered) becoming over-protective, they should simply try and allay their child's fears by explaining exactly what will happen at the school or the party that they are worried about. At home time, always make sure that you are there waiting to pick them up, and praise them and talk about what they've done in a positive way.

Encourage your children to have friends to stay and ask what they would like to do – don't always think that you know best and decide for them. Suggest ideas by all means, but also listen to theirs.