By Elizabeth Hardin
Modern parents get labeled free-range, helicopter, lawnmower. But all parents have one goal in common: raising resilient, confident adults. To get there, we must first raise capable, independent children. Children can only become problem-solvers if parents let them solve problems.
Parents’ fear and lack of trust harm children’s independence. Alice Brown, early childhood education professor from Queensland, Australia, claimed that parents are too fearful and don’t trust their communities or their children. Their fear drives them to be overprotective and restrict their children’s independence. However, statistics show that children are safer than ever. According to the Washington Post, reports of missing children are down 40 percent from 1997. Since 1993, the number of children hit by cars has fallen by more than two thirds. It is actually a very safe time to be a child.
Researchers in Finland have studied children’s independence from the 1990s to the 2000s, and concluded that independence is declining. This is a problem, because giving children independence in their mobility and other activities “helps them build competencies needed in other spheres of life.” Social scientists often equate free mobility—walking to school by themselves, playing outside unsupervised—with the kind of independence that results in capable children, but there are also other ways to build independence in children.
Building independence can begin at a young age. Two- to 5-year-olds should be able to play independently some of the time. Instead of constantly engaging them in interactive play, set up their toys and then do your own thing nearby. Elementary-age children can prepare their own lunches. Start by letting them put sliced apples in lunchbox containers, and as they get older, let them move up to more complicated tasks like making sandwiches. Even everyday activities like shopping for groceries can be an exercise in independence. Let your 7-year-old walk over a few aisles in the store to pick out a loaf of bread and bring it back to the cart.
Middle schoolers can start to have even more independence. They can stay home alone for short periods of time. Arm them with emergency contact numbers, and they will savor the responsibility and learn from it. High schoolers, aged 15 to 18, can handle even more responsibility. Let them earn your trust and reward them with more independence as they follow curfew and driving rules.
Children crave independence. You see it when a preschooler insists on buttoning their own coat or pouring their own cup of milk. Even these moments can be learning experiences in independence, problem solving and trust. Before you know it, they’ll be a trustworthy young adult—independent, resilient and capable.
Children crave independence. Building independence can begin as early as 2 years old.