Nurturing Self-Reliance in Children

Betsy Brown Braun
January 23, 2018

It's a curious thing about having a self-reliant child: You love that he can take care of himself, and you hate that he doesn't need you. Having a child who doesn't require your attention 24/7 might sound pretty darn good to the parent whose child doesn't give her a moment to herself.  But for some parents the thought of their child not needing them is just plain painful.

Self-reliance lives under the umbrella of independence. Truth be told, children are actually programmed to be independent. That one isn't so tough if we let it develop naturally. Moving away from you is part of their development. It is we parents who can encourage or thwart the development of independence. The same is true for self-reliance. Children who are independent can become self reliant. These children are self confident because they know how to think for themselves. They are often resourceful, competent, and spontaneous. Who doesn't want her child to be self reliant?

There are two essential lessons for parents to learn. The first is that you can set up specific areas in your child's life so that he can be self reliant. The second is that in order to cultivate self-reliance in your child, you need to back off. Parents who hover, now known as the helicopter parents, who involve themselves in much of their child's existence both at home and away, are unlikely to encourage the traits that that signal self-reliance. This child will certainly not get the message that you feel he is a capable and trust worthy person.

Here are a few tips for cultivating self-reliance in your children.

  • Develop rituals of his daily life that do not change. Knowing the way things are always done enables the child to do them for himself. I always brush my teeth right after breakfast.
  • Create systems that encourage self-reliance. With your child's help make a chart, a list, a pictograph of the things he needs to do before bed or before school, and hang it in a prominent place. Check your list to make sure you are ready for school. It will become his responsibility and not yours.
  • Facilitate your child's successes by allowing him to do things for himself. Buy a child-size pitcher that you fill with his milk so he can pour for himself instead of "More milk, Mom!" Divide snacks into portion-size containers in a basket in the pantry from which the child can choose for himself.
  • Don't be a saboteur by telling your child what to do. Stop yourself from automatically directing (Don't just sit there; take your tricycle out of the mud), explaining (When you don't watch where you are going, you ride into the mud), rescuing (Bring it to Mommy; I'll fix it; don't worry) and assuming (If you don't keep your eye on the path, your bike will go in the mud). The idea is to encourage your child to think for himself. He will learn from his mistakes.
  • Allow your child to struggle. Refrain from offering a quick fix when your child is having trouble. Sit on your hands and zip up your lips! Instead, support him in his efforts to solve his problems. Wow! You are really working hard to figure that out. You amaze me!

These are just a few of the tips that encourage your child to be self reliant. For an expanded discussion and many more tips on the topic, see You're Not the Boss of Me. 

This article was originally published in 2010. 

From the Parents

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