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Nurturing independence at any age

Almost from the time your child is a toddler she craves independence. From the first time she cries, “NO!” to the time she asks to take the car for a solo trip to the mall, a parent wonders how much freedom is too much.

Toddler getting dressed

By laying the groundwork for responsible behavior early, you can find a comfort level in allowing independence as your child grows older.

Helping your toddler become independent

In the beginning, the choices are simple. Fostering independence in a toddler is as easy as:

  • Letting him choose his own clothes in the morning
  • Allowing her to make some of the meal and snack choices
  • Giving him the thumbs up to ride up and down the block on his bike (under supervision, of course)

Helping your school-age child become independent

By the time your child reaches school, there will be other demands for independence. Help her test the waters by:

  • Supplying her with an agenda book to keep track of school work and projects
  • Teaching him how to keep track of time and incorporate that skill in directions, such as coming home on time from a neighbor’s house or self-monitoring television or video game time
  • Providing a chart of household responsibilities and allowing her to keep track of what she has completed
  • Discussing independent thinking, such as what to do about peer pressure

Helping your “tween” become independent

Once your child is a “tween” – between the ages of 9 and 13 – she will begin to develop her own sense of identity and desire more independence. Unfortunately, she might be caught in a world between wanting to be grown up, and still needing the security of being a child.

  • To start your preteen on the path to responsibility and independence discuss new freedoms that will be given, and why they are privileges and not rights.
  • Don’t be afraid to revoke rights should they be mishandled.
  • Start small and build. Give more freedoms in small increments to see if your child handles them responsibly.
  • Be open to compromise. Negotiation helps preteens to think and prepare to make a case for themselves and their beliefs. Compromising lets them know that you respect their point of view and expect them to respect yours.
  • Pick your battles. Your child’s choice in music and taste in clothes may not be the same as yours, but they are usually not harmful. Bigger issues are skipping school, drinking or doing drugs. Flexibility in smaller matters will make your child more likely to come to you – and listen to you – when he is faced with a serious problem.
  • Listen. Be an active listener and offer your complete attention for matters big or small.
  • Offer praise. Sometimes it is easier to find things to criticize about your child than to praise. Instead, tell your child what he is doing right, and commend him for it.
  • Don’t be too quick to offer advice. Ask your child to discuss a situation, then lead her in a discussion to bring her to the logical solution.
  • Don’t do everything for her. Resist the temptation to “fix” everything for your child. Allow her to fail as long as it poses no real physical or emotional danger. Mistakes are a normal part of life, and allowing her to make small mistakes may stop her from making bigger ones.
  • Plan for family time. Yes, as much as they seem to want to be left alone, the preteen needs to spend time with the family. Have dinner together, take walks, volunteer for a community project together – anything that brings the preteen closer to the family.

Balancing independence and responsibility during the teen years

By the time a child reaches high school, milestones abound, including getting the driver’s license. Parents walk a fine line between giving freedoms and pulling in the reins as their children approach adulthood. As your teen asks for more and more rights, consider:

  • Continuing to build on the freedoms she has earned as a preteen, granting more as she shows she can handle them.
  • When he goes out, don’t be afraid to ask for an itinerary. Know where he is and who he is with.
  • Set reasonable curfews.
  • Don’t be afraid to take away privileges if your child mishandles them. But give your child the chance to earn them back slowly with responsible behavior.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “no” when it is necessary; be prepared with an honest and logical reason for saying no.

Provided by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

About The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Today, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is one of the leading pediatric hospitals and research facilities in the world. Our 150 years of innovation and service to our patients, their families and our community reflect an ongoing commitment to exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare providers and pioneering significant research initiatives.

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