How to raise a self-sufficient kid

From pouring his own drink to tying his shoe, doing little things for himself sets your kid on the path toward independence. We look at what kids are capable of at every stage, and how you can help.

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You’re scrambling to get the kids out the door, but your three-year-old is putting on his shoes at a glacial pace. The temptation to take over is overwhelming. While letting your child do it himself definitely takes more time and patience, it’s some of the most important parenting you’ll do, says Jane Hewes, chair of the Early Learning and Child Care at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. “When kids learn to do things for themselves, they’re developing a positive self identity, and it makes them feel competent and worthy.” Here’s what kids can learn to do for themselves at every stage from toddler to tween, keeping in mind that some may be ready earlier or later—and what you can do to help your child blossom into a self-sufficient young adult.

The toddler years (1–3)

“I do it!” may become your toddler’s daily mantra and now is the time to start nurturing that independent spirit.

Using the potty Around 24 to 36 months, kids are developmentally ready to be toilet trained, and they’ll show you when they are interested, says Emmett Francoeur, a developmental paediatrician at The Montreal Children’s Hospital. “They might be curious about adults using the toilet and begin to imitate it, or start inspecting the toilet or potty.”
Coaching tips: Once your child shows interest, encourage him to use the potty once or twice a day to start. When he goes, celebrate and offer lots of praise.

Drinking and pouring Toddlers can graduate to cups without lids. At around 18 months, kids can also start pouring their own drinks.
Coaching tips: To minimize cleanup, have your child start with a small pitcher filled with water.

Eating with a spoon From the time your child is sitting up in a high chair, she can start eating with a spoon.
Coaching tips: Let your child have a spoon as soon as she’s able to grab it from you. Holding utensils helps develop the fine motor skills your child will use later to hold a pencil, says Hewes.

Putting on coats and shoes Kids this age are capable of putting on their own coats and shoes — if they’re given time and patience.
Coaching tips: Make it easy for your child to get her outerwear, put it on and put it away, by installing a hook or cubby within her reach, and offer help only if she’s getting frustrated.

The preschool years (3–4)

By ages three and four, kids “can really zero in on what they need to do,” says Francoeur.

Eating with a fork Some kids may still prefer to use their fingers, but they are capable of feeding themselves with a fork.
Coaching tips: Give your child utensils and encourage him to serve himself. As you serve yourself, you might point out what foods are on the table (“I’m going to have some more yummy peas”).

Bathing and hair washing Preschoolers always need to be supervised in the tub, but leave most of the washing to them.
Coaching tips: Give your child soap and a washcloth, and offer guidance about which body parts to scrub. Preschoolers can lather up their own hair (and have fun creating sudsy styles!), but they’ll need help rinsing so they don’t get soap in their eyes.

Picking out clothes and getting dressed Unless you’ve got an outfit planned for a special occasion, let your little one pick out her clothes and dress herself ­— however mismatched the outcome may be.
Coaching tips: Make sure dresser drawers are accessible and open easily. Keep non-seasonal clothes separate so she doesn’t come down for breakfast in a bathing suit mid-winter. To help her son Jai tell his left foot from his right, Toronto mom Brenda Ha stuck shoe labels on the inner sides of his boots and told him to make sure the labels were looking at each other before he slipped them on.

The school-aged years (5–8)

By age five, there’s been lot of development in the part of the brain where cognitive functions develop, like planning, remembering, paying attention and organizing.

Using the washroom By five, kids may feel ready to go into a public washroom stall without mom or dad (though they may need reminding to wash their hands!).
Coaching tips: Have a chat about the hygiene issues with public toilet seats — that they are used by lots of people and might be wet or dirty — and proper wiping techniques. Stand right outside the stall door in case she needs help.

Tooth brushing By age eight, most kids can brush their own teeth and they can master flossing by age 10, says Calgary paediatric dentist Sarah Hulland.
Coaching tips: Make sure your child has a toothbrush that suits her — the heads on battery-powered toothbrushes are often too large, so the back teeth are missed. Try floss sticks with handles, like GUM Crayola Kids’ Flossers.

Eating with a knife School-aged kids can cut their own food.
Coaching tips: Show your child how to use a knife safely. At age six, Madelaine Wice cuts her own meat like a pro. “We tell her she’s one of the big kids now, and she loves it because it makes her different from her younger brother Sam,” says her mom Cynthia Keeshan.

Organizing homework Some kids are born organized and others will always need help in this area. But between eight and nine, your child may be ready to manage his own school work.
Coaching tips: Help your child come up with a plan about when he’ll do his homework — after school or after dinner, for example — and a strategy for staying on top of project deadlines. Get him a paper calendar or set him up with a calendar on the home computer; this lets your child develop organization strategies so he can eventually control his schedule on his own.

The tween years (9+)

The limbic system in the brain is developing, allowing kids to make better decisions about people and social situations, says Francoeur.

Preparing food By now, many kids are ready to make their own school lunches and prepare some meals.
Coaching tips: Make a habit of inviting kids to help in the kitchen, supervising while they stir a pot on the stove or chop vegetables, so they gain confidence and competence. Kayla Hall, 11, of Oakville, Ont., helps her parents pick out groceries for school lunches and bakes her own cookies and muffins. “We don’t force the kids in the kitchen, but let them lead when they want to bake or cook with us,” says her mom, Alice Hall.

Riding public transit solo Most 12-year-olds are mature enough to take the bus or subway alone or with friends.
Coaching tips: Take a field trip together: instead of driving to the mall, go on the local bus and let your child take the lead with getting you there. “It helps to role-play different scenarios with kids, like practising how to ask for directions and who to ask,” says Patty Young, mom to 13-year-old Maya Shaffer-Young. “I always say if you need help, ask women with children. We also gave her a phone — so she can call us and we know we can always reach her.”

Staying home alone Around 12, kids are usually ready to stay home by themselves or with younger siblings for a few hours at a time. Child Safe Canada (childsafecanada.com) offers home-alone safety courses for children age 10 and up.
Coaching tips: Give kids a sense of responsibility in a gradual way. Start by going out for a short walk, then the next time, take a short trip to a nearby store and so on, gradually building up to longer time periods away. Leave lots of instructions and your cellphone number, and call home to check in. And if your child screws up — maybe inviting friends over without permission — talk about what he could do differently next time. And continue to give kids chances to show responsibility for themselves and others, says Hewes. “It’s part of becoming an adult.”

This article was originally published in the November 2011 issue.

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