Expert Opinion

How to foster independence in your child

Independence and kids – there’s a lot to discuss! 
I’m often asked, why is independence important for kids? As a psychologist, I’ve seen many families presenting with a child who is clingy, won’t talk to wait staff and retail assistants and refuses to separate from the parents or be cared for by other adults. While these challenges can emerge for many reasons, the best fix is to help build up a child’s confidence in themself. But, how do we do this?

Let me indulge you in an anecdote to help illustrate my point:

I have a somewhat neurotic poodle, who is one of Melbourne’s many ‘iso-puppies’. He consequently lacked the opportunity to attend puppy training because, before we knew it, we were slammed into multiple lockdowns over a two-year period making any sort of momentum-gaining in dog training near-impossible. 

I now find myself puppy-training-cramming, as the dog trainer is coming over tomorrow and I was supposed to have been practicing ‘visitor training’ for the past few weeks (before life got in the way). 

Enter my daughter – who I quickly recruited to help with the cramming. I had to quickly brief her with the hand gestures, reward timing, and correct commands before I stepped out the door and pretended to be a visitor. I had my fingers crossed that she would hopefully remember my instructions and at the very least, not undo the few attempts at practicing I had already done. Standing on the other side of the front door, waiting for my cue to ring the doorbell, I heard her struggling with him. I bit my tongue in offering help. And she persisted with him. Then, as she approached the door to open it for me, she remembered she forgot to reward him for waiting, so back she went to rectify the situation. I silently waited not-so-patiently, exercising restraint, trying not to catastrophise that the dog would be getting confused by my daughter’s attempts at training, and forecasting that, as a result, we’d never have a peaceful dog when visitors come over. But alas, as my daughter opened the door to me, her visitor, I was greeted with a puppy sitting perfectly and listening to her commands. And the pride on my daughter’s face made it all worthwhile.

The moral of the story is that as hard as it was for me to give up the control and let my daughter take ownership of the task (knowing full well that there was a risk of things not going according to plan), the pay-off far outweighed the risk. 
So, we know that encouraging independence in children is important to give them the sense of confidence they need to successfully navigate themselves in the world – but how do we do it?
I suggest putting your kids to work (or follow my lead and get the dog training done)! Giving them small household chores allows kids of all ages to build up their independence in an environment where they already feel safe and secure. However, there are a few things to look out for:

  1. Don’t expect perfection and don’t be critical of their attempts at tasks. If a child is met with critical feedback every time they try something new or tricky, they’ll not only stop trying, but they’ll also lose confidence in themselves more generally, and start talking to themselves in that critical voice.
  2. Set them up for success – give your child tasks that are easy for them to complete. Think of things they can already do, and start there.
  3. Use ‘chaining’ for tricky tasks – Chaining is where we break down a task into steps and then have the child perform the first step, while we perform the rest. You can also do this in reverse, where you do the first steps, and your child gets to do the last step (often this is the fun way of doing it – so they’ll get to push the ‘start’ button on the washing machine, or get the satisfaction of tying a bow by pulling through that last loop). Slowly, the child will perform more and more steps in the chain until they’re doing it all. 
  4. Be patient! Let them take their time and let them fumble without stepping in unless they really need you to.

When children feel inadequate and scared of the big world, they lack the trust in themselves that’s needed to manage age-appropriate situations – such as separating at day care or greeting a teacher. And this can happen if we don’t give them enough opportunities to practice being a ‘big kid’ as we watch over them to keep them safe. Like most things, it gets easier (for them and us), and can be a big step for both parents and kids initially. Trusting the process will make it easier for you, and over time, seeing your child’s confidence and self-esteem flourish will provide the motivation you need.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels