Encouraging Independence in Children: How We Roll

My Day in the Life post inspired a lot of comments, and a lot of questions. So, I'm starting an occasional series called How We Roll to answer them.

I would say that my children are very independent, compared with the general population of two to twelve-year-olds. (Lulu I would categorize as "not at all" independent.) Some of it is because there are a lot of them, so, just to get through the day, they have to be able to look after themselves and each other.

But independence is also just a quality that my husband and I really value.

So, even if we had had a smaller family, we would have worked to make it a part of our family culture.

There are two categories of independence, as I see it, and they require two different approaches.

The first category is independence at home: being able to accomplish regular tasks or not do things that are against family rules without direct, immediate supervision.

My children get themselves up in the morning at a set time, before the baby and I are usually up. (Or, once the baby is sleeping in a crib, while I'm out for a morning run and going to Mass.) They do their morning chores and make breakfast for themselves and for the two year old. My school aged kids are expected to entertain themselves and keep out of trouble during afternoon nap time.

I don't "childproof" anything. I expect my one and two year olds to stay out of pantries, toilets, and electrical outlets without the aid of contraptions. (Because I think one-year-olds can be bossed.) I also expect them not to go out the front door unsupervised. Jack, eleven, and/or Betty, ten, often babysit for the rest of their siblings.

The second category is independence away from home: being able to go places and do things away from our house, without a parent, or without any adult present.

My kids are allowed to walk or ride bikes or scooters around the neighborhood or to the park that's about a mile away. They sometimes get themselves to their sports practices. They sometimes go to a fast food restaurant for lunch, or to the movies. Jack often goes grocery shopping on his bike for our family.

Independence at home requires trusting my kids, setting reasonable expectations, reminding them what those expectations are, and following through on consequences if they do not meet the expectations.

I want my kids to have the virtue of confidence, avoiding the extremes of both recklessness and cowardice. I have different kids who tend towards different extremes. So, I encourage my naturally prudent kids to attempt things that are outside their comfort zones, and I require my naturally bold kids to exercise more caution that they might otherwise.

We have very consistent, oft-repeated rules for what is expected of our kids in the morning and during naptime. But it started small. Before I did anything else, I first had to Always Mean What I Say. After that, I could move on to explaining that, if it's light out, you're allowed to get up and get yourself breakfast, and exactly what you're allowed to get yourself for breakfast, and what should happen to the milk when you're done pouring it, etc.

We didn't start this with our oldest until he was maybe seven or eight, but my now four-year-old can handle it just fine.

Then, we just addressed particular issues as they arose. Kids keep heading for the playroom without eating breakfast? We put a sign up on the playroom door. Milk kept getting left out? Water only to drink for the rest of the day if you leave the milk out.

Then there's letting your children out of your sight.

I think there is GREAT benefit to letting children have the independence to go places and do things on their own (or on their own together). They learn self-reliance and problem solving. They learn time management. They learn that I really do trust them and their judgment.

The problem, of course, is that all kids always get kidnapped.

Except that they don't.

Really, really, they don't.

In 1999, there were 72 million children in the US. One thousand three hundred were killed in car accidents. One thousand were killed by family members. One hundred fifteen were kidnapped by strangers.

My kids are statistically ten times more likely to be killed IN MY CAR on the way to the park than they are to be kidnapped by a stranger while at the park on their own.

I can tell my kids that I trust them, but unless I show them that I trust them by actually allowing them to do things without my direct supervision, at home and away from home, then those are just empty words. Nothing builds true self-confidence like really actually accomplishing things yourself.

And that's . . .

Have you entered the Mother's Day Giveaway yet? The winners will be announced Tuesday at 10pm. There are some really great prizes from some really talented artists. You don't want to miss out. Your mom does not want you to miss out.