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Encouraging Independence in Your Young Child

As much as we love our children, parents need to have lives of their own, and they cannot spend every waking hour supervising children. Of course, we do not begrudge infants and toddlers their need for constant attention, but growing children need to develop a sense of independence. Not only does it give parents relief, but it also gives the child lots of breathing room to learn, grow, and be creative. In fact, developing a hands-off approach in certain areas is good parenting, as it helps your child develop a degree of independence that will be useful later in life.

The early years
Although children need constant supervision throughout the first two or three years of their lives, there are things parents can do during this time to give children a chance to develop their ability to play independently. For a toddler, it is a good idea to set aside an area of the house that is totally baby-proofed and to give the child at least an hour or two of play time in this area every day. Provide easily accessible toys and child-safe books, and let the child guide his or her own playtime.

As the child approaches preschool age, take the same idea outside. Whether it is in a backyard, a park, or a playground with an area for young children, set your child down and supervise in a hands-off manner. Do not worry if your child gets dirty or wants to wander around. A little dirt never hurt anyone, and there is nothing wrong with wandering, as long as the area is safe.

Pre-school and early school years
As your child ages toward the pre-school and school-age years, there will be many opportunities to allow him or her to tackle tasks independently. Mix fun things with things that are not so fun. For example, one day you might allow your child to browse freely in the children’s section of the library, and the next you might teach her how to pick up her own play area.

Also during these years you can reinforce your child’s independent play abilities by noting the types of activities that interest him or her the most and providing these activities in your household play area. For instance, if your child loves to color, make sure there are art materials readily available.

Growing children
As your child grows toward the preteen and teen years, your job as a parent is to facilitate independence without overstepping your role. Early on, talk to your child often about his or her interests and the things he or she wants to do. Then, make sure your child not only has the resources to accomplish these things but also knows how to go about doing so. Teach about setting goals, making plans, and persisting until things are complete.

There are many ways in which your child can benefit from your hands-on involvement in various activities, but parents also need to learn when to step back and let learning happen. Kids learn partially by watching, which is where you can come in, but they also learn by doing, and sometimes giving a child the room to figure out how to solve a problem or achieve a goal independently is a great gift.

As you’re considering these weighty issues, there will also be plenty of opportunities to give your child independence in tangible ways. For example, someday it will be time to let her walk to a nearby friend’s house or cross the street without your direct guidance. Your child will also have to learn to do homework without being prodded, to stay safe when left home alone, to decide what extracurricular activities to participate in at school, and a thousand other things. If your child tackles these challenges smoothly, you will know you have done well.

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