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How to Foster Independence in Kids

It's tempting for parents to jump in and 'do' or 'fix.' But that won't help kids build confidence or self-reliance. Here are six tips to help your kids fly solo. Baby steps!

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3. Let them make mistakes

"Letting kids make mistakes and being there to boost their spirits, so they keep trying is important," says Sue Adair, director of education and quality assurance for The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development, which has four area schools in Michigan. "If a child wants to learn how to make a sandwich, show him or her how; then set up the ingredients and let him or her give it a try."

Adair admits that you're likely in for a bit of a mess, but your child can help clean up, however imperfectly, after he's done crafting his sandwich. Instead of pointing out every dropped crumb or sticky knife-handle, Adair suggests parents "avoid any criticism that could discourage him or her from trying again. If you step in to assist, the child may be discouraged and never try it again."

So go ahead and let your child tie imperfect shoelaces or have lumps in her bed; she needs practice before she'll master certain skills. Learning to keep trying even when faced with failure will help her feel more confident.

4. Let them go alone

Are you the first to volunteer to chaperone the school fieldtrip? After all, what if your daughter forgets her sack lunch? Or your son leaves his favorite ball cap on the bus? Chisholm advises parents sign up for one fieldtrip or a couple of classroom volunteer assignments each school year, but not to go to every activity.

These activities can serve as an opportunity for children to exert their independence while still being under adult supervision.

After the activity, ask your child about the event. You may notice that she enjoyed going on the fieldtrip not just because of the animals at the farm, but also because she felt responsible enough to take care of herself outside of school – and without mom or dad around.

5. Teach them life skills

Start simple with teaching your children day-to-day tasks. This will take some time initially as your children learn new skills, but the payoff will be less work for you later on. For example, have your child help you sort out clothes for the laundry.

After the clothes are dried, give your child a basket with his clothes folded inside. Once he's comfortable and confident putting away his own clothes, let him handle the folding, too. Introducing your child gradually to new skills will help him to feel confident to handle more demanding tasks.

Chisholm recalls allowing her oldest daughter, Anna, to chop fruits and vegetables as part of dinner preparation. Anna went from learning how to peel vegetables to cutting those same veggies. "I stand next to her while she cuts and I remind her about kitchen safety each time," says Chisholm.

Adair agrees. "Supervision is important to ensure that children are safe. But to help them really learn a new skill, it's also important not to hover."

Finding that balance can be tricky. That's why taking simple steps toward acquiring a new skill is vital. Potentially dangerous – or messy tasks – like cutting, vacuuming or working with blenders require supervision.

But make sure that with other tasks, like making beds or fixing simple meals, you step back and let children show off their skills.

6. Give them praise

When your child is trying something new, you can nearly guarantee their success by praising their efforts. Adair points out that at Goddard schools, "teachers encourage persistence."

This persistence requires effort on the part of the child and the teacher, explains Adair. Children can get easily frustrated, but by cheering on their efforts, children "learn that obstacles can be overcome." She believes the same method can translate to parenting. Children need to learn patience as they learn to do something new, and parents need to be patient as they encourage their children.

Adair's words of advice? "Patience, patience, patience," she says. "It may take longer for children to put on their coats by themselves, so give them plenty of time and don't rush them."

In the end, your children will not only learn to do more on their own, but they'll become more self-reliant – and hopefully even grateful that mom and dad had confidence in their abilities.

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