Encouraging Independence in Kids: What the Experts Say
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children, but a new Mott Poll shows that many are hesitant to give their kids opportunities to build independence. “There is a gap between what parents believe is good or important and what they are actually doing,” says Sarah Clark, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. This is despite research showing that kids develop a better sense of autonomy, which is linked to improved mental health, when they can engage in activities without constant adult supervision.
The poll found that only a little over half of parents are allowing their kids to engage in simple tasks like deciding how to spend allowance or ordering at a restaurant. These limitations on independence are largely due to fear, with parents being concerned about safety and also worried about others judging them for being neglectful. “We set this unrealistic expectation that parents should be perfect, and we define being perfect as making sure nothing bad ever happens to my kid. That’s a ridiculous standard,” says Clark.
Furthermore, as children have fewer opportunities to develop independence, they can experience a decline in mental well-being. Research by David Bjorklund and his colleagues has found a correlation between kids having fewer opportunities for unsupervised play and an increase in mental disorders. Bjorklund states, “Children [today] are much less free to make their own decisions, and this is correlated with a poor sense of self, poor sense of autonomy and components of anxiety and depression.”
Experts like Lenore Skenazy and Katie Lockwood suggest that independence should be an ongoing learning process throughout childhood. This process can involve simple tasks such as picking up toys and helping in the kitchen during the preschool years, and gradually transitioning to more complex activities like walking to school without adult supervision around the age of 10.
Lockwood also emphasizes that the readiness for independence should be based on a child’s abilities, not just their age. It’s crucial for parents to provide opportunities for children to build confidence and skills, as well as teaching them about safety from an early age. Resources like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offer guidelines and tools to help parents gradually introduce independence to their children in a safe and effective way.
Ultimately, encouraging independence in children can contribute to their personal growth and well-being. It’s not about neglecting children, but rather giving them the freedom and responsibility to navigate certain aspects of their lives and grow into capable, self-sufficient individuals.