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10 Ways to Raise an Independent Child

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Most parents say they want their kids to be independent. But what's that mean and how do you do it? We've got expert tips on helping your little ones build the confidence and skills they need to navigate the world on their own, while knowing you've got their back.

Hold Them Close and Let Them Move

a baby crawling on the floor while looking up

Babies under 6 months need your warm responsiveness and comforting arms to let them know they're safe. This builds the foundation of trust that allows them to be independent later on, according to child development expert Dr. Linda Acredolo, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis. However, even at 2 months old, she says, babies love to make things happen within their capability. Are they able to grasp and kick? Place them on a blanket that makes sounds when they kick or push certain spots. Give them soft toys that chime when they wave them around. "Babies love being in charge," notes Dr. Acredolo. "It gives them an early sense of agency. "Babies love being in charge," notes Acredolo. "It gives them an early sense of self-efficacy."

Include Your Baby in the Conversation

a mom talking to her baby

From early infancy, talk to your baby while you're doing something to or with her—changing her diaper, getting her dressed. This lets her know she's not just a passive blob, but an active participant in her own care. You can go a step further by teaching your baby to talk to you using baby sign language. Acredolo, also the co-author of the ground-breaking book Baby Signs, says, "Encouraging babies and toddlers to use signs gives them a feeling of confidence and competence, the basis of independence. By providing a way for children to let you know what they need, they feel able to do other things. They can be agents in the world." Your baby is ready to learn signs when he starts to wave bye-bye, usually around 9 or 10 months.

Create a Routine

a mom reading her book with her baby

When young children know what's coming next, they can anticipate change and feel that they have some control over their world, says Amy Borak, founder and director of the Montessori Community School of Rhode Island. Articulating a simple everyday routine—"After breakfast we'll get dressed and go for a walk, then we'll come back and have lunch"—helps young children feel trust in their environment. Babies come to associate things like reading a book and singing a lullaby with going to sleep, which helps them soothe themselves when it's time for bed. Toddlers may even initiate expected activities, like washing hands before lunch and or bringing you a book to read before naptime.

Set Up an Easy-access Environment

a young childs bedroom

A prepared environment is a hallmark of Montessori preschools, where the aim is to encourage freedom and self-motivation. Borak suggests placing some low shelves with books and toys within reach, a cozy cushioned area where kids can go if they feel like a rest. "Less is more," says Borak. "You want it to be simple and uncluttered." Put out a few baskets—one with soft objects for teething, another with things to explore like shape sorters and puzzles, another with musical toys, another with a set of blocks. Change the contents now and then to stimulate interest. For toddlers, "Have a small table and chair where they might have a snack, play with objects, or draw and paint," she says. Allowing kids to choose their activities builds their sense of independence.

Don't Fence Them In

a young boy lying on his back smiling

As much as possible, allow children free movement to explore rather than placing them for long periods in bouncers or in front of the TV. Before they can walk, place a few interesting toys just out of reach so that they are enticed to start moving toward them. Make sure the environment is safe for them to venture out once they're crawling and walking. "Kids who navigate their environment independently are developing problem-solving skills, which instills a sense of confidence," says Borak.

Let the Self-feeding Begin

a baby holding her hands in front of her face with food all over her

When kids can chew--around 8 or 9 months--put soft bits of food on their tray, like pieces of potato, banana, or cooked carrots. Never mind the mess, says Dr. Acredolo. "Parents have to be patient and understand the triumph that a child experiences by getting food to his mouth." Give your child a child-size spoon to handle while you're feeding him with another spoon. "We're not making children completely responsible for feeding themselves," notes Borak, "but we're giving them the experience of trying. When I'm feeding a child, I'll say, 'OK, you have a turn, then I'll have a turn." Later on, you can involve toddlers by allowing them some choice at lunch. "Would you like a cheese or hummus sandwich?" Keep a low drawer in the kitchen where kids can access their own plates, spoons and cups so they can participate as much as possible.

Try, Try Again

a young girl putting on a shoe

It's hard to keep from swooping in when your toddler 's struggling to put on his sneakers or trying to squeeze the blocks into the shape sorter. But kids really want and need to learn to do things for themselves. So ease the way by making sure their shoes are opened and ready to slip on, or by putting the shapes close to the right opening. Most important, encourage them to try, try again. "When kids are learning to walk and keep falling down," says Dr. Acredolo, "you don't stop them from walking—you let them know you have confidence they can do it. You might say, 'Oh, that's too bad. If you just try again, I'll be here.' It's the same with any independent activity. Give them the message if they can't do something, it's not because they're bad at it—they just need to try again."

Support Their "Do it Myself!" Drive

a woman looking confused with question marks showing around her

18 to 24 months is the prime "do it myself" age. Support kids' efforts by adjusting the environment--provide low pegs so they can hang up their coat, a step stool for them to reach the sink or potty, a child-size broom so they can help you with chores. Give them age-appropriate responsibilities, but be flexible about the outcome--it's more important that they try than that they do it perfectly. "Be a cheerleader, not a director," says Acredolo. "Research shows that parents who are over-involved in an activity that a child is doing, who take over, those kids don't develop a sense of pride, adventure and willingness to try new things. They are always looking at Mom to make sure they did it right."

Allow Enough Time

a young girl trying to dress herself

Naturally it takes much more time for your toddler to do something for himself than if you do it for him. Corinne Buckland, a mother of two and mental health counselor in Alexandria, Va. , tries to build in a cushion of 20 minutes in the morning to give her kids the opportunity to "do it myself" before she has to herd both of them into the car to get her older child to preschool. "My four-year-old is very capable by now. She does almost everything herself with a few reminders, " says Buckland, "but I might say to my 20-month-old 'Go get your shoes' 30 times before he actually goes to get the shoes. And whenever he does something on his own, I make a big deal about it. You need time, though—you can't be rushing out the door."

Know your child's temperament

a young playing with some toys by himself

From early childhood, some kids seems more independent, even impulsive. They're active explorers, and nothing seems to deter them. "You might have to corral them so they don't get hurt," says Acredolo. Other babies are more wary and sensitive, become easily frustrated, and are reluctant to try new things. "For those kids you have to use strategies to ensure that they feel OK about being independent, " she says. 

Corinne Buckland finds it useful to pause and observe her kids' different ways of approaching independence. "I try to be mindful of their temperaments and stages of development," she says. "I notice that Zach gets frustrated doing a puzzle. Emma doesn't. So I sit with him and model how to do it, and eventually he tries it." Now that Zach can say some words, she's been teaching him to say, "Help, please" if he can't do something himself. "That way he's being proactive when he needs help."

 
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