8 Ways to Encourage Your Child’s Independence

How do you raise a capable, well-adjusted child? Encourage their independence! Here are 8 excellent ways to help kids stand on their own two feet.

Cheryl Butler
8-minute read
Episode #536

Today’s families are swamped with so many commitments they’re left feeling stretched to the limit and totally overscheduled. It’s a nonstop balancing act to keep home, family, and work in check. That’s usually because the majority of these obligations fall solely on the parent(s). Exasperated, we search high and low for ways to lighten the load, often overlooking our most valuable asset—our family.

Encouraging independence in your children can lessen some of the burdens you carry to get it all done each day. Let's look at some ways you can explore and adopt a more independent lifestyle for your family.

#1 - Start Early

Although kids crave structure and boundaries, they also love and need to exert their independence. Starting when your child is a toddler, even if they're just learning language skills. You can let your child make decisions like choosing what color cup they want to drink their juice from or which shirt they want to wear to daycare. Everyday tasks are also opportunities to encourage independence. Let your child decide on cereal or eggs for breakfast, or pick the book to read for story time. She can help you choose the best apples in the grocery store, or be in charge of throwing away wrappers after snack time on the playground. Letting your young child make decisions and tackle age-appropriate tasks fosters his budding independence, teaches responsibility, and can even build problem-solving skills. 

Letting your young child make decisions and tackle age-appropriate tasks fosters his budding independence, teaches responsibility, and can even build problem-solving skills.

Pro Tip: Keep in mind that younger children need more time to implement their new decision-making skills. Give yourself an extra ten minutes or so when allowing her to do things like dress herself or brush her own teeth. You’ll be more relaxed and more apt to let her work on some of these independent skills when you’re not harried and feeling rushed because it’s taking her an eternity to decide which pair of leggings to match with her hair bow.

#2 - Let Them Take Charge

As busy parents, we simply can’t do it all. Nor should we have to! Especially when we have family members who can lend a helping hand.

In my experience raising eight kids, one of the most tedious and overwhelming tasks in our household is laundry. As soon as my kids were capable, I started enlisting their help in keeping track of their own dirty laundry with individual hampers in their bedrooms. My pre-school children could pick up their dirty clothes and put them in their own hamper. As they got older (second and third grades) they helped me put their clean clothes away. Eventually, they got the hang of doing it themselves.

By junior high, my kids learned how to wash towels and colors. By the time they reached high school, they were all masters at doing their own laundry. Believe me, this has been a Godsend,  especially with my fashion-savvy kids who don’t want a favorite item shrunk or washed with the wrong colors. It also made tackling their own laundry while living away at college a breeze.

Another time-consuming duty in our household is providing meals. I’ll admit, I much prefer whipping up a nice meal for dinner than washing a load of dirty whites, but making food for eight hungry mouths three times a day is exhausting. Similarly to letting my kids learn their way around the laundry room, they all had early introductions to the kitchen. Younger kids can help set and clear the table while older kids can learn the joys of tossing a salad (sometimes literally!), helping to plan menus, and coming along to do grocery shopping.

Letting your kids take charge where they’re capable can definitely take away some of your everyday stress. It also makes your kids feel like important contributors to the family.

Several of my kids truly loved cooking. (Unfortunately, not so much the clean-up.) A few times a month, I’d let them figure out what they wanted to serve the family for dinner and then have at it!

As much as I thoroughly enjoy their help with laundry and cooking, one of the best acts of independence came about one year that I had six kids playing baseball/softball on six different teams. At the time, only two of them were driving. I had no idea how I was going to coordinate all the various practices, games, and tournaments single-handedly. Thanks to my two drivers, they helped arrange for a few nights of carpooling with other families, which logistically saved my sanity and hours in the car.

Letting your kids take charge where they’re capable can definitely take away some of your everyday stress. It also makes your kids feel like important contributors to the family. 

See also: How to Get Kids to Help Out With Chores

#3 - Allow for Ample Unstructured Time

Another way to aide your child in gaining some independence is to allow him to have pockets of downtime. This may seem like a silly and unproductive way to help your child earn his wings, but many experts would disagree.

In my episode, 4 Great Reasons Boredom Can Benefit Your Child, one of the tips I shared was how boredom helps a child to foster their own interests. “Some studies have found that children who engage in unstructured play are better able to develop their decision-making skills and discover their own areas of interest. They also have more creative freedom.”

Kids need to learn to find things that interest them and to have the opportunity to spend time on the things they like. Parents can encourage kids to be more independent by not overscheduling all their free time after school and on the weekends. Instead, offer up a quiet time where he can tune in to his own feelings. Find ways to nurture his creativity without constant guidance on how to stay busy.

#4 - Don’t Bail Them Out

As parents, we want to protect our kids from harm’s way and from experiencing life’s hurts and disappointments. Not only is that impossible, but it’s also not healthy. Give your child the gift of allowing him to learn from his mistakes.

In Psychology Today’s article, Mistakes Improve Children's Learning, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., writes that society pressures kids to be perfect. In turn, parents feed into this by covering up their children's mistakes. That even includes things like correcting school assignments to help improve their grades!

By not bailing out your child when he does something wrong, you offer him a big step forward in attaining more independence.

Price-Mitchell recommends that parents avoid rescuing children from their mistakes. Instead, she suggests helping them focus on finding a solution. She also says that kids should be encouraged to take responsibility for their errors rather than blaming others.

By not bailing out your child when he does something wrong, you offer him a big step forward in attaining more independence. You teach him that he has to own his wrongdoing. For example, one of my high school sons recently misplaced his chemistry textbook. Let me rephrase: He chose to go to the local ice cream shop after final exams and, instead of putting the book in his locker or his backpack, he left it on a table in the cafeteria. The reason? He didn’t want to take the time to put it away. Then, rather than returning to the cafeteria after the ice cream run to fetch the book, he took off to play basketball. He figured he could get the book in the morning.

When he returned the following day, the book was gone. He searched high and low, but to no avail. When it came time to turn in the book, he had to fess up that he couldn’t find it. The school’s policy is “no book, no final grade.” The cost of the book is $80. When he finally admitted to me what had happened, I praised him for admitting his mistake but told him he would have to figure out how to pay for it on his own. He'll pay for the book out of his first summer paycheck or he’ll have to repeat Chemistry next year.

That brings me to my next tip.

#5 - Let Them Pay Their Way

As soon as your kids start earning an allowance or working a part-time job, you can begin teaching them how to save and budget their money. My colleague, Laura Adams, aka Money Girl, has some great advice for helping your child learn this crucial skill. If your kids learn about money management while they're young, they'll have a good chance of becoming fiscally responsible as adults. Learning money management definitely fosters an critical, lifelong piece of your child’s independent foundation.

#6 - Teach Self-Help

In Psychology Today’s Teaching Your Adolescent Independence, Carl E Pickhardt, Ph.D., writes that there are at least four components parents can use when teaching independence:

  • Responsibility
  • Accountability
  • Work
  • Self-help

Self-help can be a challenge sometimes because we as parents are so ready, willing, and able to jump in and solve our child’s problems for them. Dr. Pickhardt’s advice is to delay assisting your child, so she has a chance to come up with a solution on her own. This might mean waiting it out when your 3-year old daughter can’t get her jacket unzippered because she still has her mittens on. Giver her a couple of minutes to see how she tackles the problem on her own.

In my recent episode, 5 Ways to Excel at Parenting When You’re Discouraged, I explained the benefit of creating a mind map to problem solve. List the goal you would like to achieve in the center of a large piece of blank paper. Next, surround the goal with as many ideas and plans of action that you can think of that will help you attain it. You can teach your child to problem-solve with mind mapping, too.

#7 - Create a “Yes” Space

Years ago, I learned a wonderful way to encourage my own children’s independence and love of exploring by creating a "Yes" space in our home. This stemmed from a friend's recommendation. Her children attended a Montessori school. Montessori is a teaching method created in the early 20th century by Maria Montessori, an Italian educator, and physician.

The Montessori classroom is designed to offer children opportunities to explore their own capabilities in a developmentally appropriate environment that encourages them to interact with specific learning materials and work cooperatively with others.

The Montessori method encourages children to think outside the box when problem-solving and to indulge their creative side without the worries of getting messy and having to tidy up quickly. Rather than constantly telling a child “no” he can’t paint a mural on the wall or practice bouncing a ball in the house, instead, you create a “yes” space that serves as a haven where your child can play independently and safely.

Our “yes” space was a corner of the dining room (lined with plastic shower curtain liners) where I had an easel and paints set up as well as a chalkboard, poster board, markers,  playdough (which somehow never managed to stay in that particular space!) and other artsy items that my kids could create with to their hearts content.  

See also: 6 Ways to Raise an Innovative Child

#8 - Catch Them Trying

I’ve long been an advocate for catching your child doing something right and giving them positive feedback about it. This all stemmed from a program my kid’s schools implemented years ago. It was called “Caught Ya.” The program focused on catching a child in the act of doing something good. This could’ve been something like sharing a toy during free play, or listening and raising his hand during circle time.

Consistent positive reinforcement encourages a growth mindset, which inspires kids to handle more independence and responsibility.

When you see that your child is trying to exert his independence by getting his own bowl of cereal ready for breakfast and then grabbing his backpack without you having to remind him several times, you can reinforce these positive steps by praising him for a job well done. “Michael, I am really happy to see how you made your own breakfast this morning and then remembered to get your backpack ready so we wouldn’t be late for school. That was a big help—thank you!”

When our kids are praised for something they’ve done, and we take the time to let them know we’ve noticed, this builds self-esteem. Consistent positive reinforcement also encourages a growth mindset, which inspires kids to handle more independence and responsibility.

See also: 5 Ways to Speak Positively to Children


How do you allow for independent moments with your kids? Please share your thoughts in the comments section at quickanddirtytips.com/mighty-mommy, post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page or email me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com. Visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT. Subscribe to the QDT newsletter to get parenting tips and more delivered directly to your inbox.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.