Finding time to teach children independence

Independence without the parental freak out.
Independence without the parental freak out. Photo: Getty

I thought I was completely across the whole "teaching children independence" concept. My husband and I foster autonomy in our four children, we encourage them to attempt new things and achieve on their own. In a hectic household, their independence, to some degree, is a necessity. They have chores they must complete (with incessant reminding from me), the older ones sometimes walk to school (but I usually drive the youngest). The three-year-old has undertaken many tasks that are beyond what I expected of my eldest at the same age. She is turfed into a shower with a brother when at the same age he would have idly enjoyed a bath. She carries plates to the table and pours her own milk. I'm certain I was still waiting hand and foot on the now 11-year-old when he was three. My daughter is afforded a lot more freedom than her older brothers were. She'll probably describe it as slavery when she's older.

The flipside of our busy household means that sometimes it's quicker and easier to do certain jobs myself. Then I know it's done and done properly. Maybe that was just some out loud venting? What I mean is, I prefer not to deliver a lunchbox to school after the bell because the six-year-old left it on his bed while he played LEGO in his underpants as the morning chaos swirled around him.

Michael Grose, Parenting Educator and Director of Parenting Ideas Club, describes the ages of five through to ten as "Opportunity Years: a time for parents to build on the independence skills that were initiated in early childhood so that children see themselves as being capable." By building independence we build their self-esteem, an essential component in a happy life.

Fantastic theories – which parent doesn't want independent, happy kids - but how do we actually let our children out into the great, wide world of discovery, of trial and error, of mistakes and journeys to find themselves, without a tracking device to ensure they aren't lost? How do we avoid an absolute parental freak out? How do we practically fit all this independence building into our crazy schedules?

Michael agrees that time is a big issue in modern day life. Mums and dads are very busy just getting through each day so slowing down to give our children the time to learn a new task is difficult. Adult-initiated activities – kids' sports, extra curricular interests, and leisure opportunities – are an integral part of many children's day leaving little time to allow a child to take 45 minutes to tie his own shoelaces. Equally, the parental anxiety surrounding our children's safety stunts our children's independent growth. Roads are busier, communities and neighbourhoods are less "child-friendly" simply because we don't have time to just hang out in the street. Corner milk bars are disappearing, so sending our eldest down to buy a litre of milk is no longer a common task.

To overcome some of these obstacles, Michael suggests "junior versions" of activities, where we modify what we are doing to be kid-friendly so we can model processes and teach our children independence. If walking to school is practical for your children, but the walk is not a simple five-minute stroll along a direct path but involves busy roads to cross, then spend a weekend day walking the route with your child and teach them the self-help skills required to build their independence. Then let them try it on their own.

"Independence involves unpredictability and unpredictability is not bad for kids," says Michael. "It makes good problem-solvers."

Much of the branching out comes down to the letting go – which falls in the domain of parents. Case in point, my eldest wants to ride his bike to school. I'm uneasy about it for no solid reason. Michael reassured me, "When a child asks to do something, it is a signal to parents they are ready." Does my son have the skills, knowledge and common sense to ride safely? Yes. My anxiety is not a valid enough excuse to stop him.

So with that in mind, this weekend we will enjoy a family ride to school and back and come Monday, he'll be tackling the route on his own. And I'll try my best not to follow him at 5kmph in the car. Independence, here we come!

How do you encourage independence? Do you find it difficult to let go? Leave a comment below or join the discussion on the Essenital Kids forums.