Want to Build Independence in Your Older Child? Ask Them to Help You Build It.

The other day I asked my 8-year-old to pick out his clothes for school. But it’s much easier to lay in bed and watch mom dig through the drawers for your underwear, socks, pants and shirt, my son let me know in a not-so-pleasant way. He was mad. There were tears. I’m a real slave-driver. 

I had a similar experience with my 11-year-old. He picks out his own clothes, don’t worry. But when this demanding mom asked him to run into a ramen restaurant to grab the order for which she had pre-ordered and pre-paid, he was aghast, even offended by the request. That’s not a kid job, I was told. Apparently it’s “embarrassing” to go into a restaurant and ask for a to-go order? The one who was really mortified was me though.

My children were not only reluctant, but downright angry about doing regular life activities that were completely within their capabilities.

Lack of Autonomy Linked to Anxiety and Depression in College Students

It’s well known that we as parents should be fostering independence in our kids. But a recent article by parenting journalist Holly Korbey really sounds the alarm[1]. “A growing body of evidence is beginning to suggest that the problems of 'adulting' and mental health in college students may be rooted, at least in part, in modern childhood. Research shows that young people are lacking in emotional resilience and independence compared to previous generations. The problem has been growing in tandem with rising rates of anxiety and depression…” Korbey goes on to quote Dori Hutchinson, executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, “I like to describe it as some kids are growing up developmentally delayed, today’s 18-year-olds are like 12-year-olds from a decade ago. They have very little tolerance for conflict and discomfort, and COVID just exposed it.”

Many psychologists suggest that when kids have fewer opportunities to be independent, they don’t develop that inner “I can do it” voice, which becomes especially problematic when it comes to navigating risky or even just complicated situations.

Remember when your kids were toddlers and they were learning to put on their own sneakers? And it takes so long for their chubby little paws to get their heel in and then Velcro the straps and you were in a rush because aren’t you always in a rush and you just about bite your bottom lip off trying not to scream, Hurry up!! It was easier to swoop in then, and it’s easier to continue swooping in as they grow up. School aged kids, pre-teens and teens can still take longer to do things than we adults and often they’re much sloppier when they do get the job done. 

And yet, that’s part of learning. 

Two Easy Questions To Make Your Child More Independent

One thing parents can do is ask themselves before doing things for their kids, can my child do this for themselves? And if the answer is no, they really can’t do it on their own, the next question is, can you teach them how to do it for themselves?

This will come as no surprise to many of you, readers. It’s amazing how much kids are capable of. And when they don’t know how to do something, they can learn.

But as a society, still we fail to push them. And this fails our children because they are left unprepared for life and lacking in resilience.

Why We Enable Our Kids

There are many speculations as to why we enable and disempower our children. Holly Korbey explains in her article. “While it’s hard to point to a single cause, experts say a confluence of factors — including more time spent on smartphones and social media, less time for free play, a culture that prizes safety at the expense of building other characteristics, a fear of child kidnapping, and more adult-directed activities — together have created a culture that keeps kids far away from the kinds of experiences that build resilience.” 

These are systemic issues. But what if your kids are like mine and they just don’t want to do things for themselves? Call it lazy. Call it spoiled. Don’t we all like to be coddled sometimes? Growing up and taking on the responsibilities of adulthood aren't particularly fun, and yet there is no one that has a bigger stake in being independent than our kids themselves. 

Perhaps if our children understand why it’s so critical that they gain independence they will be less Peter Panny and more accepting of the responsibilities and duties that come with maturing?

Get Your Older Kids On Board

I had the hard conversation. I told my eldest son what the experts are saying. More teens and young adults than ever battle depression and anxiety. And research shows that one reason why is because they struggle with basic everyday life.

Though I most likely wouldn’t have explained this to my younger son in quite the same way, my 11-year-old got it. He stopped complaining and walked into the dang ramen restaurant.

A Partnership Is More Effective 

Maybe it’s not as much our job to instill independence as much as it is our children’s job to learn it. Maybe we should ask our kids to look for opportunities to practice their independence and then we should back off even when it makes us uncomfortable. Maybe when we enlist our children in building their own independence, this in and of itself, gives them a valuable chance to grow their autonomy. Maybe when we explain the reality of why becoming independent is so critical to their development and success in life, we’ll get a willing partner rather than a child we’re yanking along.

That is to say, once again, in large part it's the conversations we have with our children that steer how our children react to the lessons we want to teach them.

Not to mention, it’s much easier to share the responsibility of growing your child’s independence with said child than to shoulder it yourself. Because teaching independence all on your own, independently if you will, is hard. 


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[1] Korbey, H. “Young adults are struggling with their mental health. Is more childhood independence the answer?”  https://www.teachervision.com/historic-wars-military-action/talking-with-children-about-war-and-violence-in-the-world