5 Ways to Support Independence as They Grow
“The child’s development follows a path of successive stages of independence, and our knowledge of this must guide us in our behavior towards him. We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself. This is the art of serving the spirit, an art which can be practiced to perfection only when working among children.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
It’s nothing new to hear us advocating for children’s independence. After all, it’s a cornerstone of our Montessori practice, and we believe one of the most important keys to fully educating a child.
It’s also no surprise to consider that independence looks vastly different depending on your child’s developmental stage. When we meet a child where they are and offer them opportunities to do things for themselves, it’s simply amazing to encounter what they are capable of.
Here are a few ideas that parents can consider when aiming to support their child’s independence.
Infants: Freedom of Movement
Our sweet newborn babies don’t ever stay little for long. Before long they are working to roll over, scoot, sit, crawl, stand, and even walk. These milestones are so exciting as they happen, but in hindsight they seem to zip by in a flash.
Figuring out how to move independently is one of your baby’s most important tasks. They are driven to do so instinctually, and as adults we can be there to support this work.
One choice that some parents make (please know we understand it’s not a perfect choice for every family) is to give their infant a floor bed. Rather than being confined to a crib, this allows your growing baby an opportunity to independently explore their environment when they wake in the morning. Using a floor bed means creating a bedroom environment that is completely safe and developmentally appropriate for your baby to explore independently; consider laying soft carpet on the floor and having a low shelf with simple toys they can access. Many parents find that rather than awaiting their child’s cries to be lifted from a crib in the morning, the child instead spends quite a bit of time moving and playing quietly.
Another big tip we have for parents of infants: when your child is learning to walk, they’re not very good at it. The only way for them to get better is to practice, and they have a strong drive to do so as much as possible. Although it may force us as parents to slow down and plan extra time into our schedules, consider relying a little less on carrying and strollers (although they certainly have their place in our routines) and a little more on giving your child time to use their own developing skills.
This section is perhaps the most fun in this entire article. Toddlers learning to dress themselves is not only an important skill, but it is, frankly, adorable.
Start simple and give limited choice. Let your child choose between two different shirts, then show them how to go about putting it on. In the beginning, they will need lots of help, but as time goes on resist the urge to insert their tiny hands into the sleeves and give them a chance to figure it out. They will. It will take some time and many unsuccessful attempts, but each time they try they will get closer to being able to do it themselves.
As time goes on, your child might select their whole outfit. Another practical tip is to choose (or have them help you choose) a week’s worth of outfits ahead of time. Hang enough low hooks on your child’s bedroom wall and allow them to choose their clothing and get dressed each day. As with everything, this will be slow going in the beginning, but in the long run the independence gained will not only save time but instill critical feelings of confidence.
After taking the above mentioned steps, all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy the interestingly paired items of clothing and the smile on your child’s face.
Primary-aged: Helping Tasks
Shocking but true: between the ages of 3 and 6, kids LOVE chores. By helping them learn and engage in important daily tasks while they are young, you are instilling habits that will last a lifetime.
Our children watch us go about our daily lives and they want to be a part of what we do. They want to be like us, so when they see you sweeping the floor, they want to help. From dusting, to laundry, from cooking to caring for pets and plants, your child wants in on the fun. Let them!
There are countless tasks that young children are fully capable of completing (or at the very least, assisting with). Rather than list them here, we share some general guidelines to help the process along.
- Follow your child’s interests. They will let you know, whether by actions or words, what they want to try.
- Carve out time to slow down and let this work happen. Will it take them ten times longer to sweep up their own spill than if you did it for them? Absolutely. But putting the time in now is well worth it in the long run.
- Embrace mistakes. Teach them to embrace mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn.
- Learn to view chores as contributions we all make to our families. By working together (children included), everyone is part of a team. With this mindset, your child will take great pride in their work.
Elementary-aged: Trust Moments
This step varies significantly from child to child and in each family. Your family’s values and comfort level, combined with your child’s individual development and abilities should be carefully considered.
During the elementary years, your child is ready to start setting off on their own in tiny ways. Letting them do so can feel thrilling for them, yet completely nerve-wracking for us. Take it slow and talk a lot about what each added freedom entails.
Basically, you’re finding small ways you can give your child opportunities to be safe, trustworthy, and independent. Some examples:
- Playing alone in the backyard – Discuss clear boundaries and expectations. In the beginning, you may be watching like a hawk from the kitchen window, but in time this will become a great option for your child as well as for you.
- Retrieving items at the grocery store – Start small by asking them to grab something within your line of sight, but gradually ask them to retrieve an item from one or two aisles over. As a bonus, this will speed up your shopping trip!
- Walking the dog/getting the mail – Similar to playing alone in the yard, set clear safety rules and talk about “what ifs”. What will your child do if they hear a car coming? What if the dog tries to chase a squirrel? Ask these questions repeatedly until you feel confident they fully understand.
- Going to a friend’s house – This may not be something new, but as they get older children will want to spend more time with their friends. Again, talk about how they might handle various situations, but also discuss how they might contact you if they need to.
- Babysitting – In the beginning, this might mean your 8-year-old reads to their 4-year-old sibling while you cook dinner. By the end of the elementary years, however, your child might actually be ready to take on some real babysitting jobs.
Adolescents: Exploring Interests
As your child leaves their younger years behind and inches toward adulthood, they will naturally begin to explore different interests as they figure out who they are and what they like. All they really need from us is to support this exploration. This will range significantly, from hobbies to potential careers.
We spend many years caring for our children when they are young and giving them every advantage possible so that they may grow to become successful and happy adults. Nothing can quite prepare us for this eventuality, though. And what we imagine our child blossoming into can be very different from the future they imagine for themselves. In these moments, we like to remind ourselves that we have worked hard to guide our child’s independence. They are individual human beings capable of making hard decisions. They will make mistakes, but they will also surprise us.
Our children often turn to us for guidance and support throughout adulthood. Perhaps the greatest feeling of all is to step back and appreciate that this unique human being, who steps out to make their mark on the world, let us hold their hand for a few years while they figure out how to do it.