As adults, it's easy to get tied up in the fact that we are the ones in charge. We easily forget that children have a desire and a need to make choices and help solve problems in their environment. It's important to recognize the importance of providing young children with an active participation in our relationships with them by giving them control, and providing small challenges for them to overcome. In doing so, parents can create a positive environment that fosters responsibility, rather than a primarily negative environment that produces frustration.

Preschoolers are at an age where they are ready to apply many of the skills that will help them become successful in school. To help children develop potential for success, give children small jobs or “chores” from a young age. Here are some ideas for how to get started:

Give job assignments.
Most children enjoy being given simple jobs. This can be especially helpful for children who are active and tend to get bored easily. Jobs help instill a sense of accomplishment and also help teach responsibility.

  • Toddlers are capable of bringing unbreakable items to and from the dining room at meals, putting clothes in a hamper, picking up and putting away toys, unloading grocery items from bags, helping put on and take off clothing, and carrying a nap mat or small bag to a nursery or day care program.
  • Preschoolers are generally able to help put clothes into the right drawer, pick out clothes to wear according to the type of weather that day, brush their teeth independently, wash during bath time, and hold the hands of younger siblings and friends when out in the community.
  • Allow your child to choose tasks he or she likes and adapt the jobs as needed for the child’s age and ability.

Take advantage of interests and strengths.
Some children are full of bounding energy, while others are better at sitting still and focusing. Make sure that your tasks are appropriate to your child's unique strengths, and you'll be giving your child a chance to succeed.

  • The child who enjoys being the errand-runner is an excellent candidate for gathering needed items from around the house before leaving, helping pack a backpack for a trip, and bringing in items from the car.
  • If a child loves to climb, look for age-appropriate opportunities for him to do this with adult supervision: going up and down stairs, pulling himself up and out of a swimming pool, pulling up on playground bars and kid friendly climbing walls.
  • Children who enjoy being “in charge” might enjoy giving input to errands being run that day, or the daily schedule. Questions such as, “Which of these activities you would like to do today?” are appropriate for younger children. Lorna Cheifetz, Psy.D., a psychologist with a private practice in Phoenix, Arizona, emphasizes the importance of giving a young child two choices, rather than an open-ended question. “It’s better to ask where he would like to go first, the dry cleaners or the grocery store. If you just ask a young child where he would like to go, he might give you an answer that is not an option for you,” she says.

Sneak in learning.
Use experiences as a means to help them to generalize and apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways.

  • When your child is learning to draw and color, encourage him or her to draw a picture of a gift they would like for their birthday or other special occasion.
  • When he is learning about colors, have him help match and put together socks.
  • When she is learning about taking turns and helping others, look for opportunities for her do to this at playgrounds, with siblings, and on play dates. Be specific about teaching her things she can do to assist others: standing behind a friend climbing the ladder, going down a slide with a younger child, assisting a child who has special needs.
  • When your child is learning to count and read numbers, have him help pick up and count out items and put them in the grocery cart, or count out the number of crackers or pieces of fruit into a bowl for a snack.
  • When your child is learning alphabet sounds and letters, have her gather items and toys from around the house that begin with a certain letter and put them in a large zip lock bag. Hang the bag with a magnet on the refrigerator or put up with a clothespin and review the letter-specific objects.

While independence in children can be fostered as they are given plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their abilities, it is most important that they are participants in healthy relationships. Don’t forget to use common sense when deciding how much freedom and responsibility they should be given. Dr. Cheifetz cautions about what she refers to as “pseudo-independence.” She says that “Parents shouldn’t feel they have to follow an exact list of rules in order ensure independence in their children. Independence has to come from a place of feeling so incredibly secure that children can go out into the world without feeling they are going to lose you.”