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Cultivate Your Kid's Independence

Cultivate Your Kid

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Updated on Jan 14, 2008

You’re already running late, hastily gathering children and bags to head out the door, when your 5-year-old decides now is the time to master shoe-tying. Your initial reaction: “We don’t have time for this! Here, let me do that for you...”

Take a deep breath. Although it might not be the perfect timing, it’s a perfect opportunity to reinforce independence, if you can only muster the patience. Put your bags down and let the proverbial meter run as your child works on a new skill.

Teaching independence isn’t always easy. It requires giving kids more choices, information, responsibility, freedom, and time. It also means occasionally gritting your teeth while they make an offbeat choice. But the effort pays back tenfold, in the form of capable children who can make their way around the world with confidence.

Independence starts at home – in your own kitchen and your own backyard. Here’s how to set up your house to allow young children to assert their independence and strengthen new skills:

  • Give them space to play solo. Set up “stations” for playing independently, such as an easy-to-access art cubby beside a kid-sized table. Stock the cubby with supplies for creative projects, such as colored pencils, construction paper, tape, modeling clay, foam shapes, and glue sticks. Some parents recommend putting a Quiet Activity bag in a corner with big cushions or a kid-sized tent. You can stash toys in the bag for your child to turn to during downtime – things like puzzles, sorting games, lacing cards, and activity and coloring books.
  • Make choice-making easy. For example, rather than preparing your child’s midafternoon snack, set up plastic containers full of cheese sticks, carrots, raisins, pretzels, and other healthful goodies on the lowest shelves of your pantry and refrigerator. Then let her choose among prescreened choices. Rather than picking outfits for your son, put clothing in easy-to-open drawers, so he can begin pairing shirts with pants and getting dressed on his own. (And try not to let the garish combinations bother you.)
  • Encourage them to lend a little hand. Designate a low drawer in your kitchen as your children’s dish drawer. Stock it with plastic cups and plates, straws, and a few utensils. Ask them to play “restaurant” and set their own places at the table. As you sort laundry, ask your child to help by matching all the socks. Your kindergartener notices you’re low on bananas? Ask her to write (or draw) it on a fridge-mounted grocery list. Prompting your child to pitch in makes her feel like a valuable, capable contributor to the family. Other age-appropriate tasks for 4- to 5-year-olds: making the bed, feeding the pet, loading dishes in the dishwasher, and picking up toys. You can transform cleaning up into a game by saying, “Hey, let’s see if you can pick up four toys by the time I count to 10. Go!”

Independence doesn’t arrive one day unannounced, it’s cultivated. Have the patience to create a child who has the confidence to navigate the world, and you’ll be setting her up for a lifetime of success.

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