Learning

I CAN DO IT all by myself!

Your child needs your support every step of the way on the exciting road to independence. Discover more about the pivotal role parents play in the process.

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Parents need to reassure timid children, whilst encouraging patience in impulsive, confident children who want to take over the world now!

Children seek independence as soon as they can move. Watch a child crawl to get a toy or a baby reach for their mother’s finger and you are seeing those first steps on the road to independence.

Getting what you want or need is a strong motivator to do it yourself. Our role as parents is to make sure children succeed, because if they reach for a toy and hurt themselves by falling the first time, they may be reluctant to try next time. The child who experiences success will be more motivated to try again.

The sense of security given by parents is the building block for a child’s independence skills. For instance, if you teach children to soothe themselves from babyhood, they are more likely to develop ways of doing it for themselves. When children need their parents to go back to sleep, they are likely to develop dependency on you for other things too.

During the first year of life babies are totally dependent on you and you will become a fluent interpreter of their needs. But as children learn to move independently, their enthusiasm to become independent grows daily.

But they still need encouragement. Parents need to reassure timid children, whilst encouraging patience in impulsive, confident children who want to take over the world now!

Nature v nurture

Why do parents often find one child is confident in their ability to do things independently, whilst a sibling is timid? Genetics have a lot to answer for. If you compare your confidence level with that of your partner and other family members, you will get some idea of the role genetics can play.

Some parents find it difficult to let their ‘baby’ grow up, particularly if they are the youngest in the family. Middle children are generally more independent than firstborns because parents tend to have less time, and also middle children watch siblings doing things for themselves and copy. But when it comes to pushing for independence, each child is different because personality determines how they respond.

Safety first

A key task for parents is to encourage independence while keeping children safe. Two-year-olds may want to cross the road on their own but it’s simply not safe for them to do so!

You can help children to learn how to make the right decisions by using self-talk (thinking aloud) so they can hear your thinking process). Follow this up by asking your child to participate in the decision: ‘Should I cross the road here where it is really busy, or walk up to the crossing?’

Young children have little understanding of danger so you do need to be vigilant about safety as they struggle for independence. If they do hurt themselves, reassure and use self-talk to help them make better decisions next time: ‘Jenny can climb the bookcase, but will she hurt herself? What do you think Jenny?’

Encourage children to make independent decisions using safe alternatives: ‘ Shall we walk on that nice wide pavement, or shall we walk across the grass?’ Try to make sure that even very young children have ‘jobs’ to do each day so they become confident about their ability to do things. You might suggest your child folds the towels or carries unbreakable things to the table.

Resist the understandable temptation to ‘baby’ your youngest child. The need to be independent is as natural to children as breathing. If you don’t encourage children, you will suffer their increased frustration when you try to do things for them!


Personality plus

Confident children often push for independence sooner and may feel very frustrated when they can’t do what they want or manage an activity on their own. There is little reward for a child who starts a task they can’t finish: the pride comes in finishing the task off.

A technique called backward chaining can help you to help your child avoid this frustration. The idea is to introduce the final part of the task first and work backwards to the earlier stages. For instance you could encourage children to pull the bows on their laces to tighten them long before they are able to tie the actual laces. This allows them the satisfaction of finishing the job and takes away the frustration of failure. Consider each task as a chain of small actions, starting at the end and working backwards – for instance, putting the label on a present when it has been wrapped.

Timid children need praise for attempting to be independent even if they don’t succeed. Parents need to draw the child’s attention to each success during the day: ‘Wow, you climbed the slide without holding my hand’. Make a list of things that your timid child can do and display them. Digital photo frames or paper copies on the fridge are ideal, working as a constant reminder for children of their growing independence skills.

Some children may want to stay ‘babies’ for longer. This isn’t unusual, particularly if there’s a new baby in the house. Encourage baby play but give lots of reassurance and praise when your child takes the initiative. Go slowly, break tasks into small steps so that the activity doesn’t seem as steep or scary. Avoid pushing children too quickly or they may withdraw and lose independence already gained.

Independent thinking

We all want our children to grow up to think for themselves and as parents there are ways we can help to foster self-reliance. When faced with tasks that are too difficult it’s important that your child has some idea what to do. Encourage them to ask for help and share your skills to help solve problems. Let them remain in control: ‘Tell me when you’re ready and I’ll tie the lace, then you can tighten it up so it’s just right’.

Cooking and baking are ideal opportunities for developing independence. With small children, it works well to use photos of them doing each stage of the task as they find it easier to look at a photo to follow the sequence. When they get it right, they’re keen to do it again!

Encourage children to make independent decisions using safe alternatives: ‘ Shall we walk on that nice wide pavement, or shall we walk across the grass?’

THEY DID IT THEIR WAY

  • Encourage children to pick out their own clothes from a small choice of outfits, talking about the weather and where you are going to develop decision-making skills.
  • As a treat, let them choose what they want to wear even if it is awful. They will begin to learn what is comfy and what does not work or look right. Children learn more from their own mistakes than from simply being told by you.
  • Encourage your child to express likes and dislikes. But explain that others will have different choices.
  • Let children feed themselves and don’t worry about the mess – put plastic sheeting down if necessary. Outside in the summer is ideal!
  • Leave your child with someone else on a regular basis and for increasing amounts of time.
  • Don’t fix your child’s mistakes – it takes away their feeling of control and undermines independence. Kids should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Don’t give solutions to problems – encourage and help children to work the solution out for themselves.

AGES AND STAGES

Age

Stage

Encourage them to

1 year old

Watch and copy – they want to have a go too.

Hold their own bottle and drink, re-settle to sleep, help with feeding and simple dressing.

2 year old

Watch and learn – they want to do it on their own.

Help more with dressing, washing, baking, tidying. Copy housework tasks. Initiate play. Complete the last part of a task first so they get the pleasure of finishing.

3 year old

Communicate independently and assert themselves physically.

Spend time with other adults so they learn to cope when you are not there. Play alone in the garden. Make regular choices of their own.

4 year old

Test the limits.

Get involved in planning and rule-making. Respond to detailed requests – such as fetching something from another room.

5 year old +

Personality and identity are clearer – they are learning to control impulses.

Use role play and dressing up games to extend their understanding of how to behave. Make new friends, take turns and play games with rules. Understand about choosing to do the right thing (such as waiting your turn), helping others and being kind.

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