Encouraging Independence

Written by Laurie Lafortune

Most parents have felt frustrated by their preschool child saying, (often in a whiny voice),
“I can’t do it!” when we know they are perfectly able to do the task of putting a toy away, placing their shoes by the door, or hanging a jacket on a hook -all reasonable requests of a three or four year old.  Then, you’ll see the same child at preschool easily and cooperatively doing all those things.

One of the keys to encouraging independence is expectations. If a child is capable of the task, and you expect this, then it will be much more likely to occur. The independence that parents observe at preschool is because of these clear expectations, and also because the entire group is doing the same things. Children copy others, as all parents know, and they copy their peers in the group.

An example of independence that always makes me smile can be seen at an airport. Families travelling with small children can be seen walking long distances in an airport, each pulling a rolling suitcase, including small children who look as young as three years old. What are the reasons for this ability to walk so far, being responsible for their suitcase, and showing so much independence? There are a few reasons. Everyone in the family and most others in the airport is pulling or carrying a bag. Children observe that this is what people do and that this is the expectation. They observe what adults are doing, and try to copy their behaviour, feeling a proud sense of independence.

They also have a sense of ownership. Typically they have a bag that is clearly theirs, with a superhero or movie character or bright colour that they like. Likely they have packed favourite toys, clothes or books and they are taking responsibility for their special belongings. A wise parent has allowed them some choices about what to pack and has explained what to expect at the airport and what they will have to do.

To encourage independence at home, ask your child to help you with meaningful tasks that they have seen adults do, such as watering plants, pulling up weeds, setting the table, helping shovel snow, baking. With personal hygiene tasks, allow them to do as much as they can on their own, brushing their hair, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, washing hands and so on.

To develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, copy the ideas of early childhood teachers, designate a certain shelf and hook for your child’s shoes and jacket. Have a bookshelf or bin just for your child’s books to encourage them to use them (and put them away) independently.

Another way to encourage independence and responsibility is to allow your child to have a certain regular household chore that is known to be their job and can be done independently.  This should be a task that really needs to be done, not an invented busy works type of chore. Some examples are checking that the pet has water and refilling as necessary, putting cans and plastic bottles in the recycle bin, taking all the dirty laundry to the washing machine.

The tasks and expectations need to be age appropriate for your child. If your child is capable of putting on his own jacket and boots, then let them do so, even if you are rushed or feeling a bit impatient. If you take over, redo their attempts to help with tasks, and do things that they can do for themselves, you will be sabotaging your goals of independence.