How to Raise an Independent Child

CC BY 2.0. Philippe Put

Life is so much more pleasant for the whole family when a kid does not fear the world and knows how to navigate it with confidence.

This morning I did something that would horrify many people. I left my 8-year-old home alone for 45 minutes and let my 6-year-old walk the two blocks alone to school while I dashed to an appointment with my toddler. Was I worried about them? Nope. I knew they'd be fine, since promoting independence has been a focal point of their upbringing to date and they know their safety rules. In fact, they were thrilled to be given the chance to prove their ability. The only niggling worry at the back of my head had to do with other people's perceptions of it.

It was fitting that, when I got back to my office, a coworker had sent me an article called "The Overprotected American Child." Its core message is that overprotection damages children and parents desperately need to focus on "fading out" their levels of supervision. Children are capable of far more independence than most are granted these days.

There are many great reasons to raise independent kids. Some of the perks include:

A kid who is self-confident because he or she has practical life skills and the tools to navigate the world. A confident kid doesn't think the entire world is out to get them.

A kid who has a better relationship with their parents. When parents block a kid's natural desire to become more independent, that breeds resentment and a propensity to act out in anger down the road.

A kid with mental and emotional fortitude. Anxiety disorders are on the rise and this has serious lifelong implications. From the Wall Street Journal:

"According to a study published this year in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the number of children ages 6 to 17 whose parents said they were currently diagnosed with anxiety grew from 3.5% in 2007 to 4.1% in 2012. And in a 2017 survey of more than 31,000 college students by the American College Health Association, 21.6% reported that they had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the previous year. That is up from 10.4% in a 2008 survey."

A kid who's less likely to make bad choices as an adolescent and young adult. Dr. Adam Sachs, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, explained that allowing kids to make independent decisions are "practice trials" for later in life:

“'It facilitates their self awareness. They automatically start to make better decisions because they are thinking rather than just acting.' This will serve them well when they face decisions about things with more serious consequences, like sex and alcohol."

It's so much easier for the parent. Why, oh why, would you want to encourage a situation where a child falls apart as soon as you're out of sight? It makes it difficult to leave them with a caregiver, to put them to bed early, to have time to yourself, to invest in other relationships.

It all sounds wonderful, you may say, but how does one actually go about achieving this? It's a gradual process but one that I believe anyone can do over time.

Start small. Independence doesn't mean walking to school alone right away. It starts with little responsibility-building skills, such as doing chores around the house, running errands within the store while shopping with parents, answering the door or phone, speaking with strangers.

Talk and listen to them. Praise a child when they show independence and encourage more of it. Listen to what they want. Kids who ask for independence should be granted it, within reasonable bounds.

Determine what it is that you, as a parent, fear the most. For me, it's vehicles. I am terrified that my kids will get hit by a car when they're outside. Because of that, we talk about it a lot and focus on choosing the best routes to walk and bike, which makes me feel better when they're on their own.

Teach by example. It's not really fair to drive a kid to school every day for years, then expect them to feel comfortable walking. You need to walk the route with them for a long time so that doing it independently feels natural and familiar.

Make rules. Prohibit the use of cellphones and headphones while walking or biking because these distract a kid. Have a plan for emergencies. Make sure your kid knows how and who to call if there's an issue.

Manage your own parental anxieties. If someone has to be anxious, it's better the parent than the kid. Keep this in mind:

"Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders in New York, reminds parents that the ultimate goal is to have their children be self-sufficient by the time they leave home for college or the workplace. She and her colleagues have come up with a list of milestones that adolescents should achieve before high-school graduation, including being able to advocate for themselves with teachers and other authority figures, seeing a doctor without a parent and waking themselves up in the morning on their own. 'We have parents who call their college student at Harvard or Michigan and wake them up every morning,' she says. You do not want to be that parent."