Strategies for Raising Independent Kids

By Marcia Brown Rubinstien, MA, CEP

New parents watch with delight as their infant moves from helplessness to agility, applauding each and every accomplishment along the way. Yet somewhere between delivery and daycare, many parents lose their lust for child-related liberty. Convinced that only they can plot the course to independence, they smother their child’s natural initiative toward autonomy. Use the following guidelines to help your child acquire age-appropriate competencies that will lead to the self-reliance you once applauded.

Early Years

The characteristics that support independence and success are formed early in life through the magic of DNA melding with environment—a good deal of the latter having to do with parental influence.

During the early years, you can prepare your child for independence by helping him develop the characteristics that The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families identifies as fundamental to success: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, communications skills, and cooperative behavior. With that as your goal focus on:

  • Keeping the physical environment safe and predictable
  • Maintaining regular routines and rhythms of activity
  • Encouraging exploration and enjoyment of the world
  • Acknowledging and praising mastery and development

While ensuring your child’s physical and emotional health, remember that parents are the first and most important teachers. As you talk, play, and work together, your child will learn by doing and watching.

Preteen Years

By the time your child enters middle school, his unique academic and personal assets and deficits will be apparent. At this developmental stage, you are also likely to notice another important change: the beginning of puberty. While the onset and course of puberty vary widely among early adolescents, most begin to weather the tempestuous passage during the middle school years. You’ll recognize it by the physical changes as well as the emotional ups and downs.

At the same time your child is struggling to harness raging hormones, his relationship with school is beginning to change. Suddenly he is expected to interpret increasingly abstract material on his own. In the classroom, he is required to sustain attention over a lengthy period of time while completing ever more complex tasks. Furthermore, he is expected to accept responsibility for his behavior and actions, interact with a diverse group of children and adults, and resolve personal and academic challenges with reason and logic.

Parents can support their child through this stage by incorporating the following behaviors into family interactions:

  • Provide a quiet and distraction-free environment for doing homework.
  • Monitor and address problems concerning time management, study skills, and organization.
  • Help develop a logical schedule for completing assignments.
  • Praise her for positive behaviors and smart decisions. In a non-judgmental manner, discuss how similar events could have been handled better.
  • Give him the opportunity to make choices, but help him see and experience the consequences of those choices.
  • Discuss events in the news that affect people outside of his immediate environment.
Teen Years

For even the most confident social butterfly or accomplished scholar, high school is a difficult and demanding time. To maintain independence at this stage adolescents must know their own needs and be able to stand up to peer pressure. Along with intense pressure to excel at academic and extra-curricular pursuits, high schoolers must contend with becoming independent of family, learning to form close, personal relationships, becoming comfortable with body and self-image, and developing an individual identity based on realistic life goals.

Many struggle with these development goals long after adolescence, but you can help your child by considering the following guidelines:

  • Know and uphold your values.
  • Provide supervision and insist upon adult supervision at outside events.
  • Know who your child’s friends are, and get to know them in a cordial, non-intrusive manner.
  • Talk to your teens about alcohol, drugs, sex, and peer pressure—even if you think they are not listening.
  • Help your child deal with strong emotions and feelings. If you can’t do that, find someone who can.
  • Give your teenager the technological competency to deal with social and academic needs.
  • Help her understand her learning profile and needs.
  • Discuss goal-oriented, proactive measures for the future.

In essence, stay back, but don’t stay away. Learn to enjoy your child’s budding independence just as you enjoyed his first tentative steps.

The beauty of human development is the recurrent promise that each generation will be protected by the previous one until it is ready to care for the next. By safeguarding your child’s independence, you promise him his rightful position in the cycle of life.