“In order to grow up into capable adults, kids need stress in their lives,” says Michael Ungar, a Dalhousie University professor of social work and the author of several books, including Too Safe for Their Own Good. “Too little stress or too much stress, and our ability to cope goes down, but there’s a sweet spot. If you are able to deal with a little bit of conflict when you’re growing up, you’re more likely to be able to deal with conflict as an adult.”
The fact is, most kids are more competent than we give them credit for. My 11-year-old loves being able to go to a local café and buy herself dinner between dance lessons, and my five-year-old is positively thrilled when I ask him to take on some responsibility for his two-year-old brother. Kids love knowing we trust them, and the more useful they learn to be, the easier it is for everyone in the long term. The good news is we can start to foster that self-sufficiency and responsibility at a very young age.
Resist the urge to baby your toddler. “Developmentally, independence can start early in terms of giving them choice, building self-regulation skills and exposing them to manageable amounts of risk,” says Ungar.
“Preschoolers naturally gravitate toward risk, and this is the perfect age to create safe ways for them to push themselves,” says Ungar. “They also love responsibility, and caring for pets and siblings can help develop that sense of independence.”
Once they start kindergarten, you’ll notice a sharp uptick in their independence levels, as they take on responsibilities in the classroom.
At this age, kids want to feel big, and they often jump at the chance to take on more responsibilities. “Judgment at this age can be iffy, however, so providing step-by-step instructions is key,” says Ungar.
Before the rebellion stage kicks in, tweens often love rules, and they like to take on responsibility, says Ungar, which makes this a perfect time to push them toward greater autonomy in their lives.
At this age, you can push kids to do more and take bigger risks.
This story is a part of Let Them Play, a project examining kids and independence by Today's Parent and Maclean’s.