Encouraging Independence in Young Children

How to gently nudge your kids out of their comfort zone.

Posted Jun 28, 2016

A tsunami of cartoons mocking 25-year-olds for living with their parents has arrived on our screens. Simultaneously, there are many four-year-olds who can operate a smartphone just fine but can’t/won’t get the milk from the fridge for their morning cereal. Are these phenomena related? Maybe causal? Well-meaning parents, especially the really busy ones, struggle with the desire to prove their love and devotion to their kids’ success in life without undermining their children’s sense of achievement and pride. How are parents supposed to nudge their kids toward the edge of their comfort zones (the place where most growth actually occurs) and allow them to fail just enough for them to know that they are not losers and will be able to handle what life will deal them?

Most parents are wise enough to know this dilemma is not so much about them as it is about how to support and appreciate their child. What comforts or bothers the child, what does the child fear, what is challenging to pry the child away from? Once parents have some idea about who their child is, it becomes easier to figure out how to gently nudge him or her out of his or her comfort zone. If the child is bold, he or she might periodically need a governor, but if the child is shy, he or she might periodically need a loving nudge, which should be done from the sidelines. It is your child’s game (party, sleepover, friendship, etc.) to win or lose, and learn from, in the process. This is hard for many parents because it means they are not in control of the outcome. 

The outcomes and the lessons learned belong to the child, not the parents. The child who figures out, with parental encouragement, how to have a good time at the party of the kid he doesn’t really like is unlikely to fear the next party invitation. Parents can encourage autonomy in their kids by managing their own anxieties first, then consciously expecting, while supporting, children to figure out how to do things themselves, messy as it may be at the start. Here are some tasks children can help with that encourage independence.

  • Three-year-olds should be able to dress themselves (with some supervision), help set and clear the table, stow the toys after play and the clothes after wearing, wash their hands and face and brush their teeth. It helps to make these routine and reinforce them with humor.
  • Five-year-olds should be able to pick out their clothes (and later get them to the laundry), brush or comb their hair, handle simple chores like dusting and filling pet food dishes, memorize their contact info and make an urgent phone call.
  • Seven-year-olds should be able to help prepare meals, make their own beds and sandwiches, stow groceries, understand where money comes from and where it goes and why.

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School, an early childhood education franchise and leading preschool teaching learning through play (www.goddardschool.com).