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Five ways to teach your child to be independent

Five ways to teach your child to be independent - UK Study Centre blog, educational blog
28 May 2018

In today’s blog post, we’re going to look at 5 ways that parents can help their child to have a greater sense of personal motivation, and discuss why what might seem to be the best for children can end up causing them more harm than good.

Parents all want the best for their children, and that’s why they hire tutors. But parents also know that it will be impossible for their child to be successful without first developing a sense of personal responsibility and independence.

In today’s blog post, we’re going to look at five ways that parents can help their child to have a greater sense of personal motivation, and discuss why what might seem to be the best for children can end up causing them more harm than good.

Don’t do everything for them

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What good parent doesn’t want to help his or her child? It’s only natural when you see your child struggling to want to step in and help, to guide, advise and pass on wisdom, and many parents feel uncomfortable with the idea of not coming to the aid of a loved one in need. The problem is that every time a parent helps a child to complete a task, or to finish some homework, or to prepare for school, or to tidy his or room, certain negative messages are subconsciously being conveyed. The first is that the child is not capable of completing tasks himself and needs reassurance and help. The second is that the child does not have ownership of the things that he or she does, and therefore is not responsible for them. 

Parents that constantly help their children are not preparing them adequately for the time when there is no help available, and the child will have to rely on his own confidence and resourcefulness to manage himself and his problems. Children must do things by themselves, make decisions — and therefore mistakes — by themselves, in order to learn their own power and potential.

Furthermore, a child who is constantly being bailed out by his parents has no incentive to work hard, because he doesn’t fear the consequences of his negligence. But even worse than that, he might even have learned to resent his parents because they haven’t allowed him ownership of his own life. His refusal to work may lie may be a method of communicating that dissatisfaction to his parents.

The solution to all of this is to trust your children, and to let them know that you trust them, and to allow them to solve problems by themselves. In his celebrated bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey marks proactivity as the first and most important habit to achieve success, and discusses how he tried to inculcate a sense of power and effectiveness in his own children. Whenever his son asked him for help, Covey would respond with ‘use your resourcefulness and initiative!’, shortened to ‘use your R and I!’. Eventually his son got the point, and even began to catch himself before asking for help, saying, ‘I know! I’ll use my R and I!’.

Children that know their parents trust them (and, as we’ll see later, expect them) to get on with things by themselves grow up to be confident, hard-working adults, because they believe in themselves and their efforts. If you want your child to be personally responsible, don’t do everything for him.

Don’t helicopter…

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This is very closely related to the first point on this list, but there is a crucial difference. Just as much as it’s important that parents don’t always provide help to their children, it’s also important that they don’t always know where their children are or what they are doing.

Before we elaborate, it’s important to say that very young children shouldn’t be left unattended for long periods of time, and as much as we’re advocating a laisse-faire approach to parenting, parents are also responsible for their child’s safety and well-being. However, for older children, particularly from the age of 8 or 9 onwards, it is very important that they have the freedom to play by themselves and have some say in how they spend their time. Children need time to spend time by themselves or with their friends to develop a healthy sense of independence and competence away from their parents.

Likewise, children don’t need schedules that take up every minute of the day. While it might make sense to fill a child’s time with swimming, chess and the violin, too many activities shouldn’t take precedence over time to relax or to get bored. Play and boredom are both vital for creativity, so parents should be careful to not fill every moment with ‘something worthwhile’.

…but do support your child

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Children should, where possible, be allowed a sense of direction over their lives. The above two points are made in the belief that this means children need time away from their parents, to think, to play, to have adventures and to make their own mistakes.

This third point, however, concerns what you can do to help your child develop a sense of independence beyond just leaving him or her alone. If your child suggests building something, or organising an event, or doing a sponsored walk, they should be supported and encouraged at all points in their endeavours. Again, the aim is for the child to feel a sense of personal volition and responsibility, and to see these things as positive and rewarding, rather than simply irritating tasks that they are being forced to do. Allow children to be the CEOs of their personal endeavours, and help them and support them in what they’re trying to achieve. The aim is for children to feel like they are being listened to, and that they have the potential to achieve if they set their minds to it.

This is also true when it comes to academic work. Parents shouldn’t do their children’s homework for them, but they should be a present and concerned part of the process. It is a parent’s responsibility to check that a child is doing their homework, and parents should be interested — and express this interest — in their child’s academic fortunes at school. The same goes for exam preparation — make sure your child has a study timetable without making it for them, test them on what they know after a day of revision, and reassure them when they worry.

In addition to this, make sure generally that you spend quality time with your children. Have a special evening each week where you go to the cinema together, or out to dinner, or go to a football game — anything. Children need to know that their parents are present to them and enjoy their company, and this will give them a greater sense of confidence and competence when they are by themselves.

Ultimately we could sum up these first three points thus:  try to be present, loving and supportive, but not overbearing and constantly on hand. This can be a difficult balance to find, but remember that being either too solicitous or negligent can be bad for your child’s sense of independence and self-worth.

Give them responsibilities

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Children need to contribute to life at home, since this is the primary way they’ll learn how to manage themselves and their own lives when they eventually leave. With that in mind, they need to be expected to be responsible. As soon as they are old enough, children should be helping with the washing up, laying and clearing the table, taking out the rubbish, helping in the garden (cutting the grass, watering plants), helping with the cooking (this is hugely important), helping with DIY going on in the house (putting up shelves for example), and of course they should be expected to keep their own space  — their room — in a respectable (or, for most teenagers, habitable) condition.

A good rule is for everyone in the family to outline his or her responsibilities. The parents are the ones earning the money, and so shouldn’t be expected to do everything at home. Instead, the children should take on some of the household responsibilities.

These tasks are just as important and worthwhile as academic and extra-curricular pursuits. They teach children about the nuts and bolts of living, as well as about the daily realities of the people around them. Household chores encourage empathy, imagination, and responsibility, and a child who grows up with everything being done for him is being done a severe disservice, since once he leaves home and starts up in an unfamiliar environment — such as university accommodation — where there is no help available, he won’t know where to begin.

Lead by example

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Many parents lament the fact that their children don’t read, despite the fact that they themselves rarely — if ever — pick up a book. Children are imitators in everything that they do; how you as a parent behave, both towards yourself, them and others, will teach them how to behave. Why should a child work hard at an independent pursuit if they’ve never seen their parents do it? Why should a child study hard if their parents don't? And why should a child care about what their parents want them to do if their parents are absorbed in their own lives and don’t seem to care about the child?

As a parent, you have a responsibility to lead by example. Your child is watching you at every moment, and learning about the world from you. If you want your child to be responsible, you must be responsible. If you want your child to take an active interest in culture, you must take an active interest in culture. If you want your child to work hard, you must work hard — but that doesn’t mean at the office, where you are invisible to them; that means being with them and working hard together, at home, on a project, out on the sports field, in the garden, in the shed, at the piano, in the library. Show your child what it means to be a responsible, hard-working adult, and they will grow to be responsible, hard-working adults themselves.

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