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Parents: 5 ways to encourage independence

When a child begins to assert his or her independence, it can be a challenging time for parents. But it doesn't have to be.

There's no doubt about it—your baby's growing up. And an important part of your child's growth is a wish to become independent from you.

Developing a sense of independence helps children learn to think for themselves and become better able to head out into the world on their own. That's all part of healthy growing up.

But the transition to independence doesn't always come easily—for kids or their parents.

Your child's desire to do things without help might leave you concerned about safety. It may also leave you frustrated. You may even be a bit sad that he or she is growing up so fast.

Fortunately, there are ways to nurture independence that can help keep your child safe and keep your frustration to a minimum.

How to build self-reliance

Kids may assert independence in a variety of ways. Wanting to comb their own hair, becoming picky eaters or throwing a tantrum when things don't go their way are all examples.

When you recognize a desire for independence, you should encourage it, within reason. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Zero to Three offer these tips:

Consider safety. Your toddler may want to do some things alone that are out of the question.

An example is when a little one wants to cross the street alone. Children aren't capable of crossing the street safely on their own until they're at least 10 years old, according to the AAP. So sometimes you simply have to say no.

Other times, however, you may be able to offer a safe alternative that allows some independence. If your child wants to use a knife to cut food on his or her plate, for example, you could offer a blunt, plastic knife, instead of a sharp one.

Offer choices. Independence is all about choices, so making decisions can give your child a sense of self-determination. This doesn't mean that you let your children decide whether or not to brush their teeth. But it could mean that you let them decide whether to brush before or after reading a bedtime story.

You might also let your toddler decide things such as which shirt to wear or which healthy food to have for a snack. Too many options can overload kids, though. So limit the choices to two or three.

Find middle ground. Say your child wants to dress himself, but you're in a rush. Instead of saying no and setting off a power struggle, or giving in and feeling frustrated by being slowed down, try finding a middle ground.

Perhaps you could say, "I'll put on your pants and shirt. Then you may put on your socks." Your child will get a sense of accomplishment and you'll get on your way.

When it comes to dressing, clothes that are easy to get on and get off are likely best for small children. Think large buttons, elastic waistbands and slip-on or Velcro shoes.

Make time for practice. Children often learn by doing. But sometimes "doing" requires more than one or two tries. It also can require some quiet help.

When your child wants to try something new, give him or her a chance to practice first. For example, if your child wants to pour milk, consider taking the milk and a cup outside, where he or she can try pouring without making a mess, advises Zero to Three. Or you could offer help without seeming to by holding the carton as the child pours.

Invite help. Letting your child take part in your activities can help him or her develop new skills. It also can keep you from having to say no so often. If you're making a salad, maybe your child could help wash the lettuce. If you're putting something together, you could ask your child to hand you each part.

Look to your child's future

When kids want to do things on their own, it means that you're doing the right things as a parent. Recognize their capabilities. And encourage them to test those skills as you think they're ready to.

You may be losing your baby, but you'll be gaining a competent and confident child.

Reviewed 2/18/2023

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