As I sat across the table from two loving parents at a Parent-Teacher Conference, I was amazed to see the frustration on both of their faces. We were discussing how their son was struggling to complete tasks at home on his own, needing constant reminders to complete his work, and having trouble figuring out how to solve a problem on his own.

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“How can we get him to remember to do his homework, not forget his backpack, work out a problem without getting help from one of us? He is 8 years old and can’t seem to do anything without help,” the discouraged parents lamented. I opened my mouth to give a compassionate response when their 8 year old son came bouncing into the classroom with a shiny, metallic juice pouch that had been mangled and squeezed in one hand and a small, yellow straw in the other hand that had been bent and crumpled. With his little brow furrowed, he asked, “What is wrong with this juice? I can’t get this straw in!” Without even saying a word, the mom gently took the juice pouch and the straw. She then proceeded to poke the straw into the pouch without any trouble. She smiled and handed the juice pouch to her relieved son and said, “I’m sorry, where were we?” In that moment, Dad looked at Mom, and confessed, “I think we may be part of the problem, Dear.”

Maybe you have been in the same situation as these loving parents. How can you encourage your child to be more independent? Why does it seem like your child can’t remember anything you tell them? When should your child be ready to start taking responsibility to do things on his or her own? How much help is too much help to give your child?

One of the best ways to help your child be more independent is to allow them to help you with small tasks or responsibilities. They need to exercise their independence in a safe environment where you can provide support and assistance.  Of course these tasks or responsibilities need to be age appropriate. You can start young. My youngest son began doing small chores at age 4. I know what you are thinking. If I let my child put dishes away, they are going to break every dish or if I let my child help you make dinner in the kitchen, they will make a huge mess that I will have to clean up.

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My suggestion is to think of tasks that your child can do that you don’t mind if they help. Or, allow them to help when you have the time to show them and let things get a little messy. Start small and work up from there. The idea is to give your child safe situations where they can practice being independent, which will serve them well as they get older. Your child did not learn to ride a bike or read a book without practice. You will have to model these tasks several times and allow him or her to practice them several times before mastering them. This is especially true for children who are very visual and need to see how to do something rather than being told how to do it. Here are some things my husband and I did with our kids to help foster independence:

  1. We made a list of things along with pictures they can do on their own to get ready for bed, to get ready for school in the morning, or how to clean their room. Our kids got to draw the pictures and hang them in a place where they could see them! Sometimes kids get bogged down in the task because they have no idea where to start.

  2. We gave each of them choices (all of which we were ok with) in order to help them practice making decisions (Would you like to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt? Do you want to take a shower or a bath?).

  3. We give them a job to do when we are making dinner. They can set the table. When they were very young and had the potential to drop a plate or glass, we let them put out the silverware and napkins only or we used paper plates/plasticware for that evening.

  4. We taught them how to bring their dirty laundry to the washing machine and sort it into lights and darks. After a while (at about age 11) they began to learn how to wash the clothes too.

  5. We don’t have pets, but if you do you can let them feed the pets or take the dog outside to go potty.

  6. We let them pull weeds or water plants in the yard.

As your child begins to be faithful in the little things, you can begin to add jobs that are not so small.  Maybe they can vacuum, take the trash out, mow the lawn, etc.

When your child starts to do some new things independently, there will be moments of frustration when they realize they cannot do something fast or well like an adult can. My husband and I have always believed in allowing our children to get frustrated. We want them to try to figure out a solution on their own rather than always rescuing them from the frustrating tasks. If you rescue them, they will not understand how to deal with frustration. Let’s face it, frustration will come in life, so we are not helping them in the long run if we help them avoid the problem solving process. If they really struggle and can’t solve the issue on their own, we allow the “recruit a sibling” rule. They can ask a sibling for help that might be able to lend a hand. If your child really cannot complete a task even after recruiting a sibling to help, teach them how to skip it and move on. You can lend a hand only when you have a moment to stop whatever you might be doing (i.e. making dinner, washing dishes, paying bills, doing yard work, taking care of your little ones, etc.). This is a real test of patience for your child. If you always stop what you are doing any time your child gets frustrated, you are teaching them to be self-centered, to need instant rescuing, and to be impatient. The last time you had a problem like the internet went out in your house, did the tech support person immediately fix your problem or did you have to wait on the phone listening to wonderful elevator music for 30 minutes while a computer voice kept telling you that your call was very important, only to be passed to a person who attempted to handle your issue, but realized you needed to speak to a person more specialized in this issue, only to make you listen to elevator music again, and wait yet again because your issue can only be handled by the manager on duty who is currently helping another valuable customer? Exactly! So, a lesson in patience never hurt anyone.

When your child is able to deal with frustration and achieve whatever difficult task they were working to solve, it builds their self-confidence. Being able to figure something out all by themselves makes them feel important and ready to tackle something else. I remember when I was 5 years old, my parents took the whole family to the ocean on vacation. I was always told to never go swimming in the ocean without an adult because the waves were so big and powerful. Plus, I had not tackled swimming very well in the swimming pool. One day, my mom gave me a inflatible dolphin so I could “swim” in the pool without sinking. It was a miracle. I could float on top of the water if I just rode my inflatible dolphin.  Since I had tackled “the art of swimming in the pool” in my little mind, I was ready for a new challenge. I tried to convince my parents that I could take my inflatible dolphin and “go to the ocean by myself!” I guess I just thought that I could do the next difficult task because I had “mastered” the first difficult task!

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Besides giving your child tasks or responsibilities to practice independence and allowing your child to wrestle with the problem solving process when a task or responsibility becomes difficult, you can offer encouraging words to your child throughout the process. We can all use someone in our court cheering us on and believing that we can be successful. When I am teaching a difficult concept and I have a student that makes the statement, “I don’t get it,” I look them in the eye and with confidence say, “You are such a bright student and I know that as I explain this you are going to get this!” It is always amazing to me that with someone believing in them, they get that boost of self confidence needed to finally have that “ah-ha” moment.

When we offer encouraging words, it is important to be specific in our praise. If we say “ good job” or “excellent”, this does not give the specific feedback your child needs. Think about your child’s effort and not necessarily how the job was completed. My son at 4 years old did not always do the best work when doing his chores, but I tried to praise him in how hard he worked. In addition to giving specific feedback, try to word your praise in a positive way.

Here are some specific, positive praises my husband and I have used:

  1. I am so proud of how hard you work on cleaning your room.

  2. That was so amazing how you stayed calm even when you got frustrated.

  3. I bet that feel so good cleaning your room all by yourself.

  4. Doesn’t it feel good to finally complete something all by yourself?

  5. You are not too little to do chores by yourself, are you? You are such a hard worker!

  6. You did a great job finishing your homework before bed.

  7. I really liked how you thought of a different way to solve your problem. That was really creative!

Teaching your child to be independent starts with small tasks or responsibilities where they can practice how to be a hard worker on their own. Starting early will pay off in the long run. I know it seems like a daunting task teaching your young children to do things at home on their own, but as they learn to master small tasks, they will be open to tackling larger tasks in the future. You will feel better once they can do things on their own like: clean their room, do their homework, pack up their backpack for school tomorrow, help out with chores, etc. The amazing thing is that they will feel better when they see what they can accomplish as well!

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