You’re running late for morning drop-off, and your son yells, “Mom, did you pack my lunch?” No, it slipped your mind when the puppy ran out the front door and darted down the street. A moment of panic, a few figure-skating moves through the kitchen, and that crisis is averted. As you drive, you think he’s 8-years- old now. Should he pack his own lunch? There is a good chance the answer is yes.
We want our children to be independent, right? However, we don’t always set them up for it. Jessica Ontko Freeman, a licensed therapist and Northeast Ohio native, provides some ways to encourage self-direction in our elementary-aged children.
1. Give it time. Creating a more independent child doesn’t happen overnight. There may be some pushback or regression, which is okay—talk it through with them and consider their circumstances. Maybe they are tired or sick or overstimulated. Taking a moment to listen to their concerns can go a long way toward building communication and trust.
2. Set routines and schedules. As adults, we are more productive when we have an agenda—kids are the same. Meals, school, and bedtime routines are great places to start. A child could help by setting up or clearing the table after a meal. This chore will teach them that they are a valued asset to the family while increasing their self-confidence, an essential component on the path to independence.
3. Use checklists and visual aids. Lists keep us parents on track, and no doubt one will help your kiddo, too. If your child is a visual learner, consider a visual schedule with pictures of the task, such as a lunch box for packing lunch. Maybe your child prefers to check a box instead. Either way, incorporate your child in the process by making one together. If that isn’t an option, many free, editable templates are online.
4. Don’t overwhelm them. As parents, we never mean to overload our children, but sometimes we forget they are still learning. Freeman says we can prevent this “by keeping things simple and working our way up to more complex tasks as we meet the child where they are.” Yes, it may take more effort on your part, but you’ll instill habits that last a lifetime while accompanying them on their journey to independence.
5. Model the expected behavior. Routines and schedules are great, but to set our children up for success, we may need to teach them how to complete a task. If you want your seven-year-old to put her laundry away, show her how you do it; it is helpful for our youngsters to see us practicing what we preach. You can turn this into an opportunity for bonding and sharing your childhood experience with the chore.
6. Provide praise. Be your child’s cheerleader. Maybe your son is still struggling to tie his shoes, but he put them on the correct feet today. “Following up with positive words of encouragement is equally as important as picking out the small positives,” Freeman adds. Kind words help our children feel loved and accepted and build their self-esteem and self-efficacy—more foundational stones on the path to independence.