Nurturing Independence in Our Children


Those of us who live in the States are anticipating and preparing for the celebration of our nation’s independence on July 4th.  For many it will be a weekend of outdoor cookouts and hometown parades, of family and fireworks, of reflection and gratitude.

No matter where you live, perhaps the next few days could be a time for each of us to reflect on nurturing and encouraging a spirit of independence within the children we are raising.

Encouraging independence within our children can be a tricky endeavor.  The Western culture seems inordinately interested in promoting independence for our children, and if this trend is contrary to your parenting style then the idea of fostering independence may cause you to bristle.  Or perhaps a barrier to an embrace of autonomy in the life of your family is the alarming truths we are faced with in the world outside of the safety of our homes; on some level, we don’t want to release our children to run free for fear of what they may run into.  And sometimes an independent spirit within a child is just plain old inopportune for the adult who is caring for him – any parent of a spirited, naturally independent child can testify to that!

But isn’t the end goal of thoughtful, involved parenting to raise children who have the confidence and life skills required to be happy, healthy, courageous, self-assured adults?

As I reflect on my personal roadblocks on the path to raising independent children, I can see there are three main issues with which I struggle:

1. Inconvenience

One of the first notable situations in which each of my daughters has had a desire to assert her own will is in choosing which clothes to wear.  In the beginning, this means lots of mismatched outfits that grate against my aesthetic sensibilities.  Yet, how will they ever have the confidence to choose that which looks right to them if they aren’t given the opportunities to practice within our home?  Likewise, encouraging my preschooler’s growing desire to help with household chores (a lovely indicator of her desire to be more “grown up”) means the bed will not be made the way I like it and the forks may be need a second, secret scrubbing to fully remove the left-behind bits of broccoli, but in allowing these bits of freedom, I am nurturing a healthy sense of “I can do this!”  The remedy for my attachment to my own convenience is to foster a spirit of acceptance within myself.

2. Fear

I have to confess to you that with my oldest, I was Queen of the Hovering Moms at the playground.  I was fearful that she might go down a slide and face a too-hard landing, I was afraid that the older kids might push past her too roughly, and Iwas basically just apprehensive of what might happen if I took a few steps away.  Eventually I realized that all of that hovering spoke this message to her:  I don’t trust this environment and I don’t trust you to be okay without me.  No wonder she was fearful and clingy in new situations!  When our younger daughter became old enough to join her sister in navigating the playground and I could no longer hover as effectively, it became very clear to me that each of them were capable of much more independence than I had given them credit for.  The antidote for the fear that inhibits independence is trust – trusting my children to be be okay and trusting myself to recognize when they need me and when they need space.

3. Sentimentality

Now don’t get me wrong here.  I am one of the most sentimental people you will ever meet, but left unchecked sentimentality can spawn an unwillingness to embrace the natural evolution that takes place in family life as my children grow from utterly dependent babies into young adults who are equipped and excited to experience life beyond the walls of our home.  I remember when my oldest finally started walking at fourteen months – I was filled with enthusiasm as she achieved that monumental milestone.  When our younger daughter began pulling up and standing at nine months, everything within me wanted to sit her back down because I was fully aware that those first steps mark the beginning of her journey away from me.  Instead of getting caught up in the sadness of watching this healthy and necessary transformation, I must be mindful to celebrate these steps away from us as assurance that we are doing our job well.  The cure for a hindering sense of sentimentality is a joyful remembrance that nurturing independence in my children is one of the highest callings of parenthood.

What does encouraging independence look like in your home? Do you recognize different barriers to promoting freedom and autonomy in your own life? How do you overcome these things?

photo courtesy of melissa rudick photography

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  1. You know, I’m not so sure our culture IS about fostering independence. It seems kind of counter-cultural to me to raise kids who earn their own money, spend time alone or entertain themselves.

    That said, I completely agree with you, and we work hard to foster independence in our kids. I’m raising adults, and I think my job is to prepare them for adulthood (while enjoying them as children, of course!), and I think independence is an important part of that!

    Mandi’s last blog post..5 Lessons I’ve Learned from the Modern Style

    • @Mandi, great point! I guess I was thinking more in terms of how there is so much emphasis on promoting independence for babies (independent sleep and topical areas like that). But you are absolutely right – our culture is at a deficit in the realm of both teaching and modeling healthy, age-appropriate independence. Maybe we can start a movement!

      Megan’s last blog post..Nurturing Independence in Our Children

  2. The twins just learned how to ride their bikes without training wheels. Now they can ride faster and go farther on their bikes which means they are out of my line of sight longer. I know they are okay we live on a very long street with sidewalks. I know they need to know that I trust them to stay on the sidewalk and only go to the end of our street and no farther. This little bit of letting go from me gives them a sense of independence and shows that I trust them.

    Rana’s last blog post..Projects!

    • @Rana, I really think that as allow some of that freedom, the message the kids get is TRUST. The truth is, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes maybe a little upsetting to recognize how much older they are getting, but again it’s such a validation of worth of all that time and energy we have been pouring into them since birth.

      Megan’s last blog post..Nurturing Independence in Our Children

  3. I have one child who has a “keen” fashion sense – it is SO important to him to pick out his own clothes! Like a turtleneck in July, for example.

    Great thoughts here, Megan. I think it’s about majoring on what really matters, and minoring on the less essential things. I’m controlling by nature, but all about wanting to allow as much freedom for my little people as I can. That’s how they learn!


    steadymom’s last blog post..Steady Thought for the Day

  4. I agree with Jamie, I tend to be controlling by nature,and it’s usually way faster to do a task myself, but how does this instill confidence in the children? It doesn’t.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Aimee’s last blog post..Summer Rolls and Newsy Bits

    • @Aimee, there are some things about which I am very laid-back, there are definitely things which I get very, very uptight about. It’s a process of recognizing this in myself and seeking to hear the message they are hearing from me. It’s not always a fun process, but well worth the effort.

      Megan’s last blog post..Nurturing Independence in Our Children

  5. I am a “recovering perfectionist.” Your discussion of fear resonated with me. I have learned, at times unwillingly, to trust that everything will be okay and to appreciate who my daughter is, rather than what I might wish her to be. And she’s only 20 months. Can you tell I’m a bit sentimental too?? Oh, somebody get me a tissue! They just grow so fast and I want to hold onto the moments (and not let go).

    I think one way that I foster independence is by using a language that focuses on “you” rather than “I/me”. Encouragement rather than praise. For example, “You’re eating with a fork! Wow! You are proud of yourself for climbing up the stairs. I can tell you like that. You are having fun!” My hope is to raise a confident, competent, compassionate child, someone who at the end of the day will know if she’s been true to herself. That, to me, is what really matters.

    • @turnitupmom, it’s very often that I am also unwillingly choosing to remind myself of the okay-ness of a situation. I have to catch myself in the midst of a response and make myself reflect (see! there’s that reflection thing coming up again!) on what is fueling that response. It’s amazing the things I’ve learned about myself since becoming a parent!

      Megan’s last blog post..Nurturing Independence in Our Children

  6. Great points, Megan. The fear one is a point that really gets me boiling, especially as an expat watching American culture from a bit of a distance. I love that I can let my 4-year-old run a bit freer here without worry, especially worry that someone will notify the authorities because I’m not right by her side.

    There are dangers, to be sure. But not nearly as many as the media would have you think. Free Range Kids talks about these points, as does this week’s book club chapters in Last Child in the Woods.

    Tsh’s last blog post..Thursdays are Book Club day

    • @Tsh, doh! I totally forgot to put in my plug for book club discussion! Maybe it slipped my mind because I’ve fallen behind a bit on my reading. *blush*

      I have Free Range Kids on my Must Read list for after I finish Last Child in the Woods. I am so very, very interested in reading what she has to say about fear and parenting. I admit that a lot of my parenting fears find root in the media.

      Megan’s last blog post..Nurturing Independence in Our Children

  7. Great post, Megan. Such an important topic!

    Marla Taviano’s last blog post..binder park zoo (giraffe central!)

  8. I could’ve written this word for word. I was just thinking about this the other day when my 3 year old decided to dress himself. I was initially horrified when he came out dressed like the clothes hamper but had to take a step back and realize that while it wasn’t what I’d want him to wear he did have every peice of clothing on properly.

    LaToya’s last blog post..Potty Time!!

  9. I agree with Mandi – if the work & lifestyle habits of Gen Y is teaching us nothing, it’s that we aren’t doing enough to foster independence and assumed personal responsibility with our kids.

    One of the tenets of Jim Fay & Foster Cline’s Love & Logic program is to give children the freedom to make choices and discover the consequences of those decisions at as early an age as possible. They emphasize allowing childrens’ mistakes to be a natural teacher so that they’ll be better prepared for decisions and problems they’ll face later in life.

    Of course, the advocate that you control the choices to a degree so that the options only include what you can tolerate. Sensibly, they don’t intend for you to allow your child to truly endanger himself, but he could, for example, opt to not wear a jacket today even though you mentioned that it could be a chilly day. The repercussions of that decision are ones that you can live with, but will also teach your child much more than words alone could.

    Rob O.’s last blog post..Happy 4th of July

  10. Tony Lawlor says:

    Hi – how can I get in touch with some of the chidlren’s authors you mentioned. I have a property I would like them to work on with me. Do you have e-mail addresses or contact numbers for any of them?

    Tony Lawlor


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