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True Independence Has Its Limits

​This information is included in our Guide to Imaginative Play. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

When children go on flights of fancy, they can be masters of their own whimsical worlds, ruling under the seas and reigning above the stars. There are no constraints or consequences. There are no boundaries or rules. They are free to go anywhere and do anything. They answer to no one.   

If only real life were as innocent and carefree.  

When it comes to independence, you’re more likely to see a toddler refuse it (Help ME!), a tween demand it (You’re not the boss of me!) and a teen expect it (I’m taking the car!). And regardless of age, all kids can find ways to abuse it.

As a parent, you want your children to become more independent and self-reliant. But you want them to grow in those areas over time, and not get too far ahead of their age or their abilities. The extremes of a child being too dependent or too independent, or being too reliant on Mom and Dad for too long are as fraught with danger as any plot from a Grimm’s fairy tales.

Connie Schnoes, a parenting expert from Boys Town, says the concepts of independence and responsibility can be introduced to children at an early age, even when they are toddlers. And since toddlers are known to throw a tantrum or two, it gives parents a perfect opportunity to introduce and work on these concepts.    

“It’s very important for young children to learn to calm themselves down,” Schnoes said. “Parents naturally want to soothe their child, but letting your child self-calm encourages independence in a healthy way.” 

With supervision and guidance, you can provide safe ways for your child to demonstrate self-reliance and feel the satisfaction of succeeding on one’s own. It’s a lesson children will carry with them through every stage of life.   

Here are a few tips to help you encourage a spirit of independence in your child… 

  • Start small. There are many responsibilities that are tailor-made for little hands, everything from tying their own shoes to putting their dirty clothes in the hamper. Simple actions like these are a safe way for children to start learning about responsibility while becoming more self-sufficient. As your child matures and proves he or she can be responsible, you can provide even more freedom and choices.       
  • Support the struggle. Don’t rescue your child immediately from every obstacle or challenge that makes him or her want to give up before really trying. Even if children fail in the beginning, they can learn something from the experience. If you refrain from stepping in to “save the day,” your child will learn you won’t always and automatically bail him or her out.  
  • Show encouragement. Praise your children for their efforts, improvements and successes. Use words (You did awesome!) and actions (hugs, kisses and smiles) to reinforce how proud you are when they demonstrate self-reliance and resourcefulness.
  • Stay away from a suffocating parenting style. You need to be available but not hovering; engaged but not overbearing. In other words, don’t be a “helicopter” parent. Give your children the space they need to spread their wings but provide the boundaries and support they need to be safe and confident.

It will take a lot of time and consistent practice and modeling to help your child learn how to become more independent and self-reliant, and how to put those traits to good use. So gradually give your child a little more freedom, keep on teaching and look for opportunities to make every day an “independence day.”

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