Children between 3-6 years of age are at such a crucial stage in their lives to develop this skill. That is why parents, caregiver’s and teachers play a very important role as their role models. As an adult, your role in fostering independence is to provide lots of love and support, encourage curiosity and exploration, teach skills, and allow the child to make the appropriate choices. Your enthusiasm for a child’s investigation sends a message that the activities that they have chosen are appreciated by you.

One of the main parenting jobs, is to help children leave home one day, knowing important life skills and how to pay bills on time etc. We already know that the skills and behaviours that children develop early in life, lay a strong foundation for adolescence and later adulthood. For this reason, we need to think how we can begin, early on, to promote lifelong independence for our children.

Young children might become frustrated while trying to master a certain task and the desire to make things happen, takes them down paths that require limit setting. It is still appropriate to allow for small doses of frustration and to expect mistakes. The key is to provide an emotional safety net when trial and error results occur. Like other developmental milestones for young children, successful accomplishment of self-care tasks is age specific.

Pre-schoolers can verbally express many feelings, thoughts and needs, and are ready to take bigger steps towards independence. Encourage and support preschool children to be independent in dressing themselves, going to the toilet and personal care.

Persuade them to do things for themselves daily, by allowing them to put away their toys and clothes, helping prepare meals and setting the table, putting their dirty clothes into the wash basket and carrying their own school bag into school. This will help build a sense of competence and teach children how to do things for themselves and others. Make some drawers/shelves in their cupboard accessible to them and make their toothbrush/paste and hairbrush easy to reach.

Although it is necessary to establish limits and maintain firm rules about important issues, it is equally important to respect children’s choices whenever possible. Offer choices and ask your child’s preferences for activities or objects. Ask which of the 2 books they want you to read, do they want to sit next to you or lie down to hear the story?

Provide a personal space for your child’s privacy and comfort e.g., a space where they can safely go, to be alone. Provide a full-length mirror in their bedroom so they can see themselves when getting dressed or brushing their hair/teeth. Create places for your child to see their work or art displayed.

Some tips for parents to instil independence in young children:

  • Having routines and responsibilities will let your child know what to expect.
  • When children do something against the rules, explain simply and clearly, in a few words, what they did was wrong.
  • When a rule is broken, a consequence needs to follow.
  • Consequences need to be meaningful, simple and age appropriate. For example – If your child rides a bike without a helmet, the bike is off limits for the morning.
  • Teach the rules about helping with the daily routines.
  • Children do best when they know what to expect.
  • Children feel important when adults give them focused attention, eye contact and take the time to listen and talk to them. This helps them gain self-confidence.
  • Allocate responsibilities so when young children copy everyday household tasks, they are really learning how to contribute. With encouragement and support, tasks will be done with some reminders. As they become older, they will be more confident and willing to take on more, such as: feeding the pets, packing away their toys, hanging up their towel.
  • Encourage independence in bathing, dressing and using the toilet. (With supervision, depending on their age.) Involve them in getting their clothes ready the night before so the morning routine will only involve getting dressed.
  • Give your child expressive praise for their efforts and successes e.g. “You did a great job getting yourself dressed for school today. I’m proud of you!”

Teaching simple rules about safety with adults:

Keeping your children safe is an important job for parents. You want your child to trust and respect others, but you also need to teach your child to be wary and careful. Relay some simple rules that enable you to start a conversation with your child about different safety issues:

  • “If ever you are not sure about anything, please just ask me.”
  • “If an adult asks you to do something that you are sure is NOT okay, always ask me first.”
  • “Certain body parts are private. No adults or children (except parents, doctors and nurses) should touch you there.”

Helping your child become a good friend:

Guide your child on how to solve their social problems. (This helps build their verbal skills.) It can be very tempting and sometimes a lot easier for parents to try and solve these problems themselves.

Help your child to understand another child’s point of view. “I am sure that Suzie would like to have a turn as well.”

Teach your child to stay calm, not to grab or push and encourage them to verbalise what they are feeling or wanting. Use sentences like:

  • “I feel very sad when you talk to me like that.”
  • “I feel unhappy because you grabbed the ball from me.”

Stand close by and observe the children solving their problems. This is how they begin to develop the skills and confidence to communicate calmly, honestly and politely with others.

Positive Reinforcement.

We are coming to the end of the first term and, even though we are now in lockdown 1 the emotional fatigue and depletion that we are all experiencing is taking its toll. With this in mind I would like to focus on the power of positive praise and direction.

Negative acknowledgments occur when we dwell on the problem or punish our children for their imperfections and, without even realising it, parents fall into this as a default mode particularly when we are tired. I believe that the reason for this is that we want to be good parents and we want to teach our children how to behave in socially acceptable ways.

A suggestion is that we pay attention to our language and coach what we want and need to say with the same end in mind but with a different lens. Consider these examples of directing a child rather than focusing on the problem.

It is well documented that children need boundaries in order to flourish and as such we, as parents, have to correct our children. However, instead of focusing on their behaviour in a negative manner, we can use the opportunity to give them a chance to change. When we address issues in a non-threatening and positive manner, we point the child to a better way.

A fabulous idea is that of making a habit of intentionally catching your child doing something good or right at least once a day. Acknowledge him or her for it by describing the behaviour. Below are some examples of the type of language that encourages this slight shift in the way we do things:

  • That was so kind of you….
  • I enjoy having your help in the kitchen.
  • …. is so lucky that they have you as a friend because you … (let them share your toys, gave them a turn …)
  • I was able to get a quick nap while you played with your sister. Thank you for that.
  • Thank you for using your inside voice: I really appreciate it.
  • You are being so helpful. I know that I can depend on you.
  • Everything is going so smoothly. Your help has made the difference and I now have time to ….
  • It is so much fun playing with you… (you have such creative ideas, are fair, help me to get better at …, I always learn something new when I am with you …)
  • That was a good shot. I can see that you have been practicing.
  • Thank you for listening and not interrupting. I can see that you are learning to self-regulate. (Using language like self-regulation, responsible, organised, environmentally aware, consistent, conscientious is recommended for all ages – it is the topic for another conversation).
  • You followed all of my instructions – good job.
  • You stayed right on track. Well done.
  • This is a wonderful picture … (I like the colours that you used, you have added so much detail, I see that you remembered to add fingers – well done …)
  • I know that you always try your best. I am so proud of you for that.
  • I have noticed that you are remembering your table manners. Thank you.
  • You remembered to use your manners. I am proud that you are my son/daughter.
  • You are being so co-operative. It is such a pleasure. I appreciate you.
  • Thank you for listening even though you really wanted to say something. I can see that you are learning to wait your turn and not to interrupt others.
  • I noticed that you shared your toy; that was very considerate
  • You got dressed all by yourself. Well done.
  • It’s good to ask for help and you came and found me. Good problem solving.
  • You solved that problem all by yourself. Wow!

By pointing out and acknowledging positive things about your children and their behaviour, they will see themselves as successful and good. This positive image of themselves will not only motivate them to co-operate but will also create a positive self-esteem, confidence, and a sense of competence. By describing the behaviour you desire you are teaching your child indirectly. That means that there is likely to be less defensiveness and more opportunity for the child to reflect and connect the positive comment and desired behaviour.

Written by Di Dawes of Crawford International Sandton for