We get a special warm and fuzzy feeling when our toddlers see us as super heroes and turn to us for help and protection in EVERYTHING! But this period of dependency is, and should be short lived. Children need to begin developing a sense of autonomy from a very young age in order to develop a healthy sense of independence and responsibility.
1. Let your child choose. Set limits where necessary, but give your child choices as often as possible so they have many chances to develop their level of judgment, increase their independence, learn how to be more responsible and learn from their own experience.
2. Offer your child many opportunities to experiment. If you teach your child at home, include time for exploration and experimentation in their school day on a regular basis. If your child goes to school, make sure you give them opportunities to experiment and explore after they get home and on weekends. When you child is doing an experiment, ask them to develop a hypothesis before beginning, and then evaluate both their hypothesis and the process they followed at the end. If your child is just exploring, ask them to share what they discovered and why they think it’s significant or interesting.
3. Give your child the means to develop their creativity. This could involve getting supplies for them to use, providing new books for them to stretch their imagination, or arranging for them to participate in activities that foster creativity, or simply giving an assignment that lets them be creative with things you already have or are available for free in nature! A child’s creativity is something 100% unique to them; experiencing their own talents will increase their self-confidence and awareness of their own autonomy.
4. Let your child to challenge themselves. Don’t push them past their limits, but push them to their limits, or they will never learn how far they can go.
5. Encourage your child to try new things. Discovering new capabilities will increase their sense of autonomy, and give them the courage they need to start trying new things on their own.
6. Give praise and feedback. Be realistic, but encouraging. Show your child where they have room to grow, but make sure they know that you are proud of how much they have already grown. Focus on praising them for their effort and the process of growth they grow through, rather than on the outcome. This encourages them to continue actively participating in their own growth and development even when they make mistakes (see #13 below).
7. Allow your child to work independently. Give them the goal or objective and some parameters or directions if needed, and then take a step back. Even if you see them doing something differently than you would or making a mistake, let them. Experience is the only way for them to learn for themselves and develop their proper autonomy. Parents definitely need to step in sometimes, but stepping in too often can lead your child to be too dependent and rely on guidance in situations they would otherwise be capable of handling on their own.
9. Focus on what IS allowed. When you want your child to change a behavior, such as hitting or lying, show them what to do instead. Telling them not to do “x” isn’t enough. To be autonomous, they need healthy, balanced alternatives that they may do.
10. Foster open ended discussions. Give your child the opportunity to explore their ideas and practice communicating what they think. Instead of asking fact based questions that only have one answer, ask conceptual questions that require your child to analyze and present an opinion. For example, if your child is studying history, instead of asking “Which civilization is your favorite?” which only requires a statement, you might ask “What ancient culture do you think has had the largest influence on our society?”. This second question requires your child to do more than give a one word answer; it helps them develop their judgment level by requiring them to formulate and justify their opinion.
11. Tell and show your child that you trust him. Ask their opinion. Give them responsibilities. Children naturally turn to their parents for guidance. Seeing that you trust them will help them trust themselves, which is necessary for them to develop a healthy autonomy.
12. Encourage your child to do things independently. Set up your home, or at least areas in your home to help your child do as many things on their own as they can. This could involve getting supplies appropriate for their developmental level, like dull knives, or leaving things undone that you would normally do to give them the opportunity to try. If you’re a perfectionist, this will sometimes mean overlooking your desire for the perfectly wiped table, for example, to enable your child to develop their skills and independence.
13. Let your child make mistakes. This is a natural part of the learning process. Your child needs to know that it’s OK to make mistakes to have confidence in their learning process.
14. Abide by the 3-solution rule. When your child turns to you to help them solve a problem, ask them to try to come up with three possible solutions that you then discuss with them. This helps them develop critical thinking skills and discover their own ability to help themselves.
15. Give your child space. Allow them to be outside of your presence for a reasonable amount of time. This gives them the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be on their own. They face different challenges and different opportunities. They make different mistakes. Experiencing this and learning from it while they’re still young prepares them for a healthy, autonomous life.
16. Talk about values with your child. When you make an important decision, talk through your thought process and the principles guiding your decision with your child. Invite them to talk through decisions they make and the reasoning behind it.
Let your child grow and enjoy watching them. Encouraging our kids to develop a healthy autonomy doesn’t require us to sever our closeness with them, but to let our relationship with them mature. Instead of being the super hero that does everything for them, we become a source of strength and guidance, empowering them to be the protagonist in their life and grow into an idependent responsible, well-balanced individual.