How do you gradually give your older child independence?

My friend Lainie Ettinger is writing a newspaper article (which I can't wait to read) about how and when to teach kids and teens independence. It occurred to me that you'd have so much more to say on the topic than I ever could, and so I appeal to your collective brilliance: do you have any specific tips or wisdom to share? Post your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to tell TypePad your email address so Lainie can get in touch if she decides to quote you. Or, send your ideas to me ( and I'll forward them to her.

I'm writing a story about how parents can give kids and teens more freedom and control over their lives before they are on their own as they leave for college.

Here's the background: In 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss wrote a book called "Milennials Go to College" about the current generation of college kids (born 1982-2000). These kids are the most structured and driven since the WWII Greatest Generation. But their folks, dubbed "helicopter parents," have hovered over every aspect of the kids' lives and continue to do so while they are in college.

What can today's parents of young children and teens do to gradually give their kids a sense of independence and control over their own lives?

I'd like your specific tips and broad theories. One of my friends lets her 9 yr old shoot baskets at the school if he brings a walkie-talkie to communicate with her. I've also seen kids walking down the street holding a cell phone in front of them like a loaded weapon. What are your thoughts?

[The finished article appeared in the Sunday Oregonian in August 2006. — Ed.]



  1. ESM says

    I have millenial step-kids, and the lack of independence really brings out the rebelliousness and the learned helplessness in them (sometimes all at once!) My hubby and their mom have protected them from everything from bad kids to cleaning toilets – that is, sometimes it makes sense, sometimes not. Now that they live with us, I give them chores, I appoint them tasks like calling other adults (scary at their age), etc. It really takes a lot of the edge off of their rebelliousness and boredom.

    As for the our toddler (18 months), I’m starting by letting her learn to play by herself. It’s very helicopter-parent to direct a child’s playtime. I will usually introduce an activity, like crayons, then go off and do my own thing. She might try to get me to play, and if I can, I do. But if I can’t eventually she sits down near me and plays on her own. When I do my chores, she tries to help. If it’s not hazardous, I allow her to help. Eventually she too will have chores and an allowance. If I live in a place that is safe enough, I’ll let her play out front when she’s older (I’ll also need windows that look out to the street!) I let her make mistakes… how else will she learn consequences? Besides, it’s so much easier to learn these lessons now, when falling on your padded pamper tush comes with a hug and a kiss from mommy. I fear those rebellious moments when the teenager threatens to go off on her own, being that she’s woefully unprepared for the real world. Her tush won’t be padded out there, and her problems won’t melt away with a simple “there, there”.

  2. Pam says

    When I took my daughter to the playground when she was a toddler, I let her try ALL the equipment in whatever way she wanted to play, not the way the equipment was “supposed” to be used. (So she walks up the slide, so what?)

    One time she ended up on TOP of one of the tubes you’re “supposed” to crawl through. I knew she could deal with it physically, and I was right there to catch her if she fell off (the tube was about 5 feet up). The other mothers gasped and held theirs close, like I was a bad mom for letting my kid just PLAY! Their Stepford Obedient Children continued to slide on the slides and crawl – gently – through the tubes, but mine learned about how far her limits were that day. And her limits were a heck of a lot farther out than other kids’.

    She’s still a risk-taker, even though she doesn’t think she is. But compared to other girls her age (10), she’s willing to try or do almost anything once.

  3. Busy Mom says

    Very timely as I am wrestling with when to let an almost 12 year old go to the movies with friends.

  4. Rachel says

    I taught at a high school that could have been the helicopter parents’ landing pad. Upper middle class, mostly college-bound, you know the drill. I always felt *the parents* were the ones who needed instruction–on how to make their kids more independent. Some parents really struck the balance well, while others, well, let’s just say I hope the college of their kid’s choice doesn’t mind parents living in the dorm with them.

    For school-related subjects, I would say monitor grade-reports and be aware of when they come out (mark them on a calendar, etc.), or check online if the school offers that. If the kid is not doing well, then work to have THE KID, not the teacher, remember to get grade reports on a weekly basis, with teacher signatures. If the kid doesn’t come home with said signed reports, then no privileges for the weekend and until a report comes home. For parents who were consistent and followed through, this worked well. If the grades are available online, then students should still be required to check up on the grades themselves every week if they have shown they are struggling in a class. Many students persist in a clueless fog, allowing themselves to coast because “if there was a problem, Mom/Dad would let me know.”

    I found that lots of parents just didn’t want to be bothered with hounding the kid to do the work and so just emailed, or called, or drove up to the school because the son/daughter was “irresponsible.” Then I was having to email directly with a parent on a weekly basis giving reports on a 17 year old (usually male) who would soon be off at college (although, probably not for long).

    While I certainly valued parental involvement, I felt strongly the young adult should be left in the chain of communication as much as possible in order to teach the value of becoming a self-advocate and providing external motivation to do better. It could be extremely frustrating to watch. I know college professors who are now suffering the brunt of this generation of coddled students and their helicoptering parents who call to say, “I’m not paying x-amount of dollars to have my son/daughter made C’s!” Yes, this really happens. Can’t wait until their bosses start getting calls, too.

    Now I’m pregnant with my first child and I can’t wait to try to apply some of the lessons I learned from eight years of watching learned helplessness be taught to one young adult after another. I really think independence is one of the most important qualities a parent has the burden of instilling. Good topic.

  5. lisa says

    As an expectant mom, this is an issue that is on my mind a lot. From what I’ve observed in other families (and from my own upbringing) I do believe it begins very young, with toddlers learning to entertain themselves and take risks, as ESM and Pam mentioned. I also think that being held responsible for chores and money helps teenagers make the adjustment to the adult world. I was the only child of very nurturing and loving parents, but by the time I started high school, I had my own savings and checking account, and I did my own laundry, cleaned the bathrooms, and cooked the family dinner once a week. Years later, when I went away to college, I was amazed at my 18-20 year old friends who couldn’t even feed themselves. I think that it’s important that parents ask kids to do as much as they’re capable of doing, from a young age.

  6. Amberlynn Lane says

    My parents were teachers and had the summer off. They would spend the summers camping, and when we were old enough to have a summer job, we could stay home instead of go camping.
    One summer, my parents were gone on a particularly long trip. My mother sat me down and showed me all the bills, how and when they needed to be paid, gave me a weekly grocery allowance, and put my name on their bank account so I could handle all their financial matters while they were away. I also had to maintain the house, feed the dogs, and mow the lawn while they were gone.
    They trusted me so completely with so much that there’s no way I would have dared misuse their trust.
    They also left college applications (and paying for college) completely in my own hands.
    My mother’s goal was to raise independant adults, not dependant children. She did well with all six of us (born 1968 – 1980).

  7. Simone says

    I grew up in a major city in Germany and walked to school by myself starting in first grade. When I visit my parents I still see elementary school children going home by themselves after school. Now I live in Brooklyn in a fairly suburban community and my daughter will start Kindergarten in the fall. Hover 40-something parent that I am I’ll be surprised if she’ll even walk to her senior prom by herself. (Just kidding, but barely so.) I just wonder how did I ever get myself into this paranoid state where I won’t let my kid go to the corner candy store or leave her by herself in the apartment for five minutes to bring up the laundry from the basement.

  8. Erica says

    It was while I worked at a nursery, that I realised that independence begins at birth. There is no ‘correct’ age, it is a gradual process. I believe in letting this process be ‘child led’. Discipline and independence go hand in hand. Without discipline you cannot afford your child independence, just as if you don’t encourage indpendence you are unlikely to have discipline. You must recognise your child’s requiring of independence and guide them in a manner that is safe but…not too safe. For example if your toddler wants to go on the ‘big’ slide, let him, you are there as a support, if you demonstrate fear, they will pick up on that and grow up to be fearful and lack confidence. Pay no attention to the books, every child is different, you should encourage independence but never force it. Even babies can be independent, sitting with support, ‘helping’ to hold the bottle, these are levels of independence, and when your child gets a taste of it they will want more. You are the nurturer not the controller.

  9. Charisse says

    My kid is 2, but I have a friend who reports shock and horror from the neighborhood because she lets her 10-year-old walk 3 blocks to school by himself. (It’s a nice neighborhood, very.) I think about this a lot.

    I’m basically trying to start early by:

    -when I need to do something, offering my daughter a choice of “helping” or playing by herself (little things since she’s only two–she puts her own clothes in the hamper, unloads silverware from the dishwasher and passes it to us, takes a turn at scrambling her egg, flipping her quesadilla, mashing her guacamole; opens the dryer door while I move the clothes; “finds” stuff in the fridge or the local grocery store, etc.)

    -having her out of her stroller and walking with us unless we really have a ton to carry. (It’s more work to supervise her, but she’s learning things–she knows the sidewalk isn’t a free play area, which some of her friends who only travel by stroller or car have no idea of.)

    -taking her on public transit and explaining how it works–I’m hoping to send her to this cool preschool that takes the kids out on buses every day for outings

    -on weekends, giving her a mix of kid-focused outings and just coming along on errands, so she can learn to occupy herself in short-term boring situations and/or learn something interesting

    -reacting calmly when she reports minor conflicts with other kids (oh, Zoe pushed you?–well, she shouldn’t have. It sounds like you were OK, though. Did she say sorry? Good. What did you have for lunch?) –I know that’s going to get harder as they get bigger.

    Basically, I try to treat her as a person and a full member of the family who has a contribution to make that we both expect and value.

  10. Leah Meredith says

    My son is four, legally blind, and pretty much entirely nonverbal. (Not autistic, before you ask – I get that question a lot – just an unrelated speech delay.) The helicopter parents would – and do – have a field day with pretty much any child with special needs; I’ve run into visually impaired people who were blind since birth who couldn’t make a piece of toast – no real reason other than incredibly hyperprotective parents.
    I am starting my son with orientation skills early. He is learning to use a white cane and that skill will be something my husband and I are very strict about. He is learning to travel properly in the city, paying attention to parallel traffic patterns and performing some of his own adjustments to external stimuli (finding the edge of steps with his feet, finding the handrail to properly board a bus, etc.) The verbal delays make things interesting (he still uses a walking harness in crowded areas, for example) but it’s something I think a lot about.

  11. Rob O'Daniel says

    In prep for our upcoming adopted little one, my wife & I recently attended an 8-week “Love and Logic” course locally. We were so charged up by the ideas raised in that class, I’ve since begun reading the book, “Parenting with Love and Logic” that the course was based upon.

    The Love and Logic philosphy is that kids best learn lessons when they’re allowed to make choices when the price of failure is still small. Kinda like ESM and her “padded Pamper” reasoning.

    This may be just another clear sign of my naiveté since I’m not yet a parent but I’m really drawn to the L&L style. It fits closely with the way that my brother and I were raised. We helped with houekeeping and learned to help prepare meals and do laundry out of sheer necessity, but in doing so learned very early on how to be self-sufficient and because we knew how much our help meant to mom, tasks rarely felt like “chores.”

    The greatest compliment I hope to give my mom is to try to live up to some of her parenting examples. Certainly, she wasn’t perfect, but she always seemed mindful that she was rearing little people, not babies.

  12. Jill says

    Making good choices is another part of this early education. When my five year old gets in a conflict with something (younger brother, two legs in the same underpants leg… :)) I don’t jump in to help him. Instead I ask, “what is something you could do?” He’s learning that there are often several choices- unlimited really. With his brother he suggests hitting him (he’s honest at least) and telling me to put his brother in time-out as his first options. When reminded “What else could you do?” he’ll start coming up with good ideas such as “I could distract him”, “I could take turns with him”, “I could ignore him”. Instead of choosing for him, I agree that those are all good solutions, and ask him which one he’s going to try. Sometimes I discuss the possible ramifications of his choices (such as the slugging of the brother). I hope that this will help him everywhere from on the playground to at his future jobs.

    I once had a boss (an elementary principal) tell me never to question authority (and write me up for it). My son is welcome to question authority. There are multiple good answers to every issue and I want him to look for them every time.

  13. Soni Pitts says

    When we were in our early teens (me) and somewhat younger (my sisters), Mom got tired of hearing us whine about her food choices and started dividing up the family grocery money and giving us our “share” to buy our own.

    She would buy “grown up” food like staples, rice, beans, greens…you know, toxic waste that no kid wants to eat. Then the rest of the money would be divvied out between us and we got to buy our own ‘real food’ groceries for the week. Whatever we wanted – candy, cookies, chips, it was up to us. The catch was, when we ran out we had to live the rest of the week on grown up food, no whining.

    We learned pretty fast that snack food doesn’t go far, meal-wise or tummy-wise, but it sure costs a lot relative to ‘real food.’ Within weeks, we all went from buying junk food to buying meat (cheap cuts that we had to learn to make the best of), canned goods, veggies, fruit and other good stuff. But we all got to have our favorite treats when we wanted them, without having the rest of the group veto the purchase, as long as we realized that we would have to cut back elsewhere to afford it.

    I learned to bargain shop the banged and dented racks. I learned about coupons and sales. I learned to buy generic and in bulk. I learned to get creative with my cooking, since the rule was ‘you buy it, you cook it.’ (That would be adapted, of course, for younger kids, but we were all old enough and had enough practice cooking to make it work. This took a big load of mom, btw, who often worked long hours and wasn’t always home by dinnertime.)

    By the time I “graduated” from the family, I could feed hubs and myself on $20 a week and eat damned well. To this day, I still remember that decision as the single most important and freeing lesson Mom ever taught us, since in one fell swoop it taught us of how to survive, let us feel independent and make our own decisions based on our own needs and tastes, taught us how to prioritize, taught the value of cash and the value of restraint, plus the difficulty in creating balanced meals on limited income, as well as how to handle money and who knows what other lessons snuck in there in the process.

    As a single mom of three, she may not have had time for anything but the most basic child-raising tasks, but this activity sure made up for and corrected any number of previous lapses.

  14. Sara in Austin says

    Wow, what an incredible thread.

    My husband and I have this made up word we use to describe what we’re aiming for in raising J.: “Independable” — independent, and dependable. You need both to be able to trust your children enough to let them go.

    Here are some of my plans, and things my parents did for me:

    Teach your babies to sleep in their own beds and put themselves to sleep.

    Have your children negotiate with their teachers on their own (although you can coach and role play).

    Have regular assigned chores. (Even young kids can put the silverware away. And mowing the lawn is hard work for anyone!)

    Give your children allowances (starting around age 5, or whenever they start wanting things). Have them split their allowances into spending/saving/donating and deposit/donate themselves.

    Take your children with you to the bank (or, in these days, let them watch when you bank online?). I remember my mother paying off their mortgage in person the summer before I went to college — and boy did it have a big impact on me.

    Take your children to work with you. Talk about business and work in front of them. Work is interesting, challenging, and fun — and if you can convince your kids of that hopefully they won’t move home after college! :)

    Enable your children to help — if you are worried about them breaking plates/glasses, switch to plastic for a year or two. Or make it easy for them to make up their own beds.

    Let them travel alone. I think my first “solo” airplane flight was when I was 7 or so, and my sister and I took a 4 hour bus ride on our own around 12 and 7 (at our own instigation!). I still remember how it felt to be on my own, responsible for myself.

    Tie responsibilities in to privileges. For instance, I had to learn to change oil and rotate tires before I got my first car.

    Brag on their independent skills — being a 16 year old girl who *could* change oil and rotate tires made me extremely proud.

    Don’t censor their reading. (You can hide books, but don’t tell your children they *can’t* read something.) Yes, they might read something in appropriate, but it’s a sign you trust them and their judgement.

    Let them go to summer camp — and tell them not to call! (My parents did this for our 1-2 week camp stays — “write us, but only call if it’s an emergency.”)

    Make it clear that they aren’t moving home after they’ve “launched.” (You can do this by saying it out loud, but also by commenting on cousins/acquaintances who still live at home despite being grown ups with jobs.) Done subtly, this attitude tells them “I’ve got to figure out how to make it on my own.” I did it with a CS degree and a nice cushy high tech job. My sister did it by joining the peace corps and then teaching. My parents are proud of both of us — and we’re both happy with the choices we’ve made.

    That’s all I can think of now!

  15. hedra says

    I like Sara’s, except that we don’t think babies need to be independent, nor do I think that learning to sleep alone as an infant impacts independent behavior in general (the only long term study I know shows no difference between family bed kids and sleep-separately kids in the long run – so do what you like, and don’t fret about independence on that point!).

    So, I’ll add from hers… (many of which my own mom did, and we’re starting on as well):

    Let them depend on you when they need to – they’ll need to less as they get older, and the more secure they are that you’ll catch them if they fall, the more likely they are to try jumping. Ours sleep with us, and consider that their ‘home base’ – anything that creates a secure point to explore from is important, doesn’t have to be the bed, but they need to have a sense that they can count on you.

    If they can do it themselves, don’t do it for them, in general. Which means that drink cups, plates, bowls, utensils, snacks (including fruit), napkins, and clothing are stored at their level. They get their stuff out, they put it away. By 21 months, our twins were helping unload the dishwasher, and before then (18 months) they were getting out their own cups and bowls for meals. Our kids pick their own clothes (with only ‘health’ backup from us), unpack their backpacks, and even hang up their coats most of the time!

    Reward exploration. Manage safey with physical solutions, rather than by being always right next to them. When there’s no safety solution other than being there, JUST be there, don’t clutch.

    Teach them to plan, and execute plans, and adjust plans. Our 2nd grader spent all last year learning how to figure out how many pages of homework he could do in a night, and how many pages at after-school-care. He made a plan when he got his homework packet at the end of each week, and we discussed it with him. He learned to include the unexpected in his planning, and make realistic assessments of how much could be done, when. And the consequences were his as well – he had to hand in incomplete work, and take it back and do the rest in addition to the other work the next week. It took the whole school year to get him ‘generally competent’ at planning and excuting his homework, but our job was very limited – teach him how to approach it, don’t teach him how to DO it.

    When we do have to set a limit, we get their input into how to do it. That way, even though we’re limiting independence in one sense, we’re encouraging them to think independantly in the process.

    IMHO, kids will naturally fight for independence. Watching for signs that they want a bit more of it has been our main guide to giving them gradual increases. They push back when we limit too severely. We choose what area, and how much, but they are pretty good at indicating that it is needed in the first place.