How Are You Teaching Your Children Independence?

By: Jen Shoop

A few months ago, a girlfriend told me that she was proactively seeking small ways to give her six-year-old daughter more independence. She talked about sending her daughter to drop a letter into the mailbox across the street, and how her daughter had looked at her with saucer-wide eyes: “Across the street? By myself?” My friend nodded calmly, and then turned her back to busy herself with something else, as though it wasn’t a big deal, but once she heard the door close, she ran to the window to watch from behind a curtain. Her daughter stood at the curb and looked left and right for a good few minutes before sprinting across to drop the letter, and then ran home with a look of gleeful accomplishment on her face. I loved this story and have been channeling it with my own children since. My friend and I also talked about “the feral 80s and 90s” in which we grew up, where we enjoyed a lot more independence than our children’s generation does. I grew up in a house on top of a hill on a busy street, so I did not experience quite the same “don’t come back until dinnertime” vibe that many of my friends did — but I still remember my mother shooing us outside and not expecting to see us until lunch, and spending countless unsupervised afternoons at the local park and playground adjacent to my best friend’s Cathedral Heights-area home, and, strangely perhaps, in the gridded alleyways behind it. We liked to pretend we were Harriet(s) the Spy, and would crouch behind garbage bins and neighbors’ shrubs taking down notes about the (benign) ongoings of the neighborhood. I also recall many summers at the pool during which we made our own determinations about when to pause for a snack or water, when to wrap up and find adults to ferry us home, etc.

Mr. Magpie and I have been talking a lot about these themes the past few weeks, and have decided that our mission for the summer is to cultivate independence in our children. This is in part self-serving, or necessary, because we have no childcare this summer save for a few hours a week with a mother’s helper, but we also want to empower them, and help them see themselves as capable.

I’m curious to know — what are some pathways for inviting independence among children under the age of 8?

A few small, specific things we’ve been doing below —

+Teaching them to bathe themselves. I am still “spotting” them to ensure bodies are actually cleaned and suds are actually rinsed from hair, but bath/shower time is much less about me bending over and pouring water over their heads than ever before.

+Involving them in the preparation and plating of their own meals and snacks. Mr. Magpie bought them their own knife and peeler set (seen above), and we will invite them to wash and then slice their own berries, melon, peaches, etc. We also keep most (healthy, approved) snacks at reaching level so that they can help themselves to an apple, yogurt, cheese stick, granola bar, etc when they’re hungry.

+Teaching them to put on their own sunscreen and brush their own hair. This also requires “spotting” but it has to start somewhere.

+Asking that they run over to the neighbors to return / borrow something we need.

+Having them order their own food at restaurants.

+Buckling their own seat belts.

+Setting the table with napkins and appropriate cutlery, and asking them where they’d like to eat — outside? picnic? dining table?

+Granting them autonomy in dressing themselves and selecting shoes, jackets, etc.

+Giving them more wiggle room at bedtime. Summer is so forgiving — less pressure to get them to bed on time so that they have a full night of sleep for school! — and we’ve been lenient with them in the evenings. If they’re happily working on Legos, or coloring, or even riding bikes outside, we’ll let them know we’re closing in on bedtime, and suggest that they draw things to a close when they’re ready. This doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it feels gentler and more empowering to invite them finish a task, project, game, etc before shuffling them into bed.

+Sending them to pay for something at the cashier or vending machine.

+Asking them to place letters in the mailbox.

+In general, asking: “Why don’t you try to do that yourself?”, even if things take much longer or are not done fully.

What else can we do to foster this independence? What’s worked for you?


+Related: bringing Montessori in the home.

+How do you get your children to eat? (Comments are incredible — I routinely think about and quote from many of them, especially the concept of thinking about their diets in 48 hour periods vs. 24 hour ones.) I’m also happy to share that after a long and arduous road, our seven year old will at least try everything on her plate, and will usually eat what’s presented to her on a given night, and that our five year old is rapidly rounding the corner. I think it’s partly an age thing and partly a persistence thing.

+My favorite sensory play ideas for kids.

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation.

+Perfect last-minute FOJ dress — extra 50% off!

+I think I’m going to order these $50 sandals. The bungee detail reminds me of a pair from Miu Miu.

+This breezy top reminds me of Doen. And while we’re talking Tuckernuck tops, our favorite striped top is now available in tons of colors including a great, versatile white.

+Looking for some inexpensive travel backpacks for the kids at the last minute. Their school ones are pretty big and dinged up – looking at this one. Love the patterns and fun shape. We also bought them these headphones to use on the plane. In doing research, we learned that many children’s headphones smartly cap out the volume so kids won’t hurt their hearing listening to things to loud, but that can mean that on airplanes, they can barely hear a thing since the cabins are so noisy. We got them these ones with active noise canceling so that they can listen at a safe volume but actually hear it on the plane.

+More travel gear here, and my dream travel wardrobe here.

+Just stocked up on some travel minis of my favorite beauty products, including this cleanser, which Mr. Magpie and I are both addicted to (we talk about it at least one night a week) and my favorite body oil. I ordered from Revolve because they have fast and free shipping and the code TULIP gets you 15% off, but you can also order an even wider range of Osea’s products in mini sizes from Osea itself, and MAGPIE10 gets you 10% off your order. I’m truly addicted to the body oil. I use it daily. Gives the BEST summer glow.

+I’m also testing this travel shampoo and conditioner a Magpie recommended awhile back! Can’t beat the price. I was about to order an Oribe travel set and this is like 1/3rd the price!

+Shopbop is offering an extra 25% off sale. Love this unusual swimsuit.

+Speaking of swim, lots of Hunza G on sale here.

+Did anyone snag some of Rhode’s newest cheek flushes? Everything this brand releases goes viral!

+I just bought this precious romper for a new baby!

+A fab dramatic earring. Loving all the chunky gold earrings out this summer.

+CUTE striped everyday dress.

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22 thoughts on “How Are You Teaching Your Children Independence?

  1. As a former children’s librarian, I encourage you to let your children have a discussion with their librarian about books! Books they liked, books they want to read next and what the librarian could recommend based on their preferences. And parents, just listen. Enjoy watching your child formulating their own opinions, thoughts and ideas.

    1. I love this idea – and especially the point about letting them make up their own minds on what they like to read. Thank you!

  2. Hi Jen! I saw your Instagram post before the full blog while I was up feeding my baby, so I’ve been thinking about this! I think I mentioned the concept of Autonomy Supportive Parenting by Emily Edlynn, and part of her thesis is that this is not only better for kids, but more pleasant for parents, because man intensive parenting is a grind!! I love my kiddos AND I am making one million decisions daily for the sake of their wellbeing. I once spent a 10 minute walk to the doctor listing in a note on my phone everything I was thinking about, and it was a good 60 things. Two thoughts in terms of the skills that foster independence:

    Scaffolding: doing the whole thing for them, then gradually having them take over pieces as their skill catches up. We’re doing “apprentissage de propriété” (French gradual toilet learning, learning to be clean) and we’ve worked on removing clothes, going to the potty, washing hands, for about a year now, along with communicating, and are now (he stopped diapers a week ago) starting to incorporate using the real toilet, wiping, getting his own soap, getting dressed as he masters those other skills. It also allows you to do more “errorless modeling” and set them up for initial success (ie more experience successfully using the potty than having an accident). I wonder what other skills would benefit from an apprentissage approach!

    Breaking down a large task into sub tasks. Whether that’s making mise en place before cooking, or taking something daunting like cleaning a mess of toys and saying “put away all the red ones” or “put away all the legos”. I keep a sliding board of tasks for resetting the kitchen that helps me immensely before I’ve had my coffee! Executive functioning is its own skill. There’s the idea that misbehavior shows an area where your kid needs to grow and develop skills, and that’s certainly true of my kid, especially since he has inherited my tendency to dig in my heels when I feel pressured.

    How We Montessori is a great resource since you can sort by age to see all the things her boys have done independently! This is an interesting post:

    My son (2.5 next month) is working on participating in cleaning, laundry, the dishwasher, making the beds, setting the table, wiping windows, fetching items for me, packing his own bag and making sure he has hat/shoes/sunglasses/sunscreen/his epipen. We’re working on other fundamental skills (sorting and categorizing) to set him up for later tasks. He’s mastered putting away the groceries, bringing laundry to the laundry room, and putting away trash and recycling, and he’s good and his bonjour/au revoir/merci and we’re now working on SVP and asking someone to play. I’m very open to more ideas!! The more we give him to do, the happier he seems to be.

    1. I love the concept of scaffolding / apprentissage! Amazing – going to reflect on how to adopt that approach with various things. The shower seems like an obvious one and sort of represents how I’ve been approaching that particular task, since they do need help learning to wash their bodies and hair thoroughly…

      What do you do if/when your child says “can you do it / I don’t want to do it”? I’ve been encountering this with my 5 year old on occasion. He loves the initial empowerment but after a few days/weeks of doing something on his own wants me to do it for him. Thoughts??


      1. I have an eager-to-help little guy and a much more resistant daughter. But giving the task a title usually works for both of them – “who’s going to be my laundry helper? You are? Really? Okayyy (said very conspiratorially) if you really think that you, a boy who is almost 5, can do it, I now appoint you SHIRT BOY and you put away all the shirts!” And my daughter then is almost always begging for a title of her own. But – I’m a devotee of Hunt Gather Parent, and that author cautions not to force participation. So I don’t force them to help me, but I do let them know that doing laundry folding and putting away by myself means some natural consequences they csn understand, like we won’t have as much time to read/play/go for a walk later on – and they are slowly starting to cop on. It’s not perfect, but usually silliness or a natural consequence does help steer my little friends back towards helping the family.

      2. Seconding Elizabeth on not forcing/natural consequences! A visual timer has also helped (used on me, not them, so they understand where the time goes). That said:
        1. I assume most things are connection seeking from my little guy, especially if he’s following me around or otherwise in my space, so if he wants me to wash his body I’ll pretend it’s a car wash or a massage, or if he’s refusing to clear up I’ll pretend I’m his butler, or if he won’t put his pants on I pretend they go on his head. Was whatever the skill replaced previously a connection time? Diapering was for us, and adding more connections helped toileting acceptance.
        2. If there’s a skill he needs I haven’t noticed he needs, it often shows up in these moments and can be mislabeled defiance! But they’re not miniature adults and sometimes things that surprise me are difficult for them. Usually I break it down to the smallest step (pick up your plate. Waaaalk it to the dishwasher. Open the dishwasher.) and do it alongside him. Or make a visual chart or song for the steps, Daniel Tiger is great for that ( Flush and wash and be on your way!) And “kids can’t do a don’t.” When he was too rough with the baby, I needed to show him how exactly to interact with a tiny tiny person.
        3. Look to the adults. My husband was getting on my son about not thanking me enough…*he* wasn’t thanking me enough. Modeling is powerful!! My husband’s had a busy few days and I’m picking up the slack, and that’s when “no you do it” rears its head. My husband’s very good about getting on board in service of our larger goals for our kids. I also remember the injustice of being a kid getting in trouble for a messy room when every room of my parents’ house was messy.
        4. Reduce the difference between you doing it and him doing it (nudge theory: look at the friction/barriers involved with each choice). Whether my son uses the toilet or gets his diaper changed he has to stop playing right away and come to the bathroom! So that made it less of a change than if diapers always meant more play.
        5. Are the words you’re giving directions with unfamiliar or unclear? Are you using jargon they haven’t encountered yet? Trying to give my husband one of my recipes recently revealed that he’s much less familiar with cooking terms! He found the same recipe in YouTube to follow, which I absolutely could not do, but different learning styles!
        6. Decide which hard lines to hold. I don’t need to control the exact way everything gets done, especially as he figures things out.
        Sorry for all the potty examples, I know your kids are older but it’s top of minding right now!

        1. Wow! Such fabulous insights and suggestions. The observation about whether or not a skill is replacing a former site of connection really blew me away. I am now realizing that my son specifically begs me to help him wash his hair/body in the bath and am realizing this is obviously a common time for affectionate physical touch! Definitely going to slow down and give him more snuggles / shoulder squeezes before and after and see if this helps.


    2. This is so helpful! I sometimes realize that I expect my children to pick things up just by osmosis or watching me, and they often need more of a nudge. I love that you’re working on social skills (greetings and thank you) as well. This is inspiring me to teach those things more explicitly, in particular inviting others to play, greeting friends and teachers, etc. Thank you for the ideas! I read somewhere (I think @BusyToddler) that children are more physically capable and less emotionally capable than we assume. I think this applies – we can safely give them more tasks and also do more to teach them the soft skills.

      1. Love the quote from Busy Toddler. I’ll never forget that my daughter’s Montessori school told us “children can walk their age in miles.” I was astounded. My three year old was capable of walking three miles in one day?! But it really empowered me to encourage her to walk/scoot from the apartment to the subway and from subway to school instead of schlepping her stroller.

        My husband is really good about the social skills instruction. He’ll explain how and why to order food, how and why we greet people, and gets really specific — “wait until you catch someone’s eye and then speak a little louder than that…” These things are taught, not intrinsically born! Last night, I was talking with my children about a big family reunion we’re having and I suggested (per a Magpie reader’s suggestion about dinner table convo) that they try to “ask for a story” from an aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin. We talked about what some good starting points might be. “Aunt E, can you tell me about the Taylor Swift concert you went to?” “Uncle T, what do the roads look like in Norway?” It was really interesting to think about how we make conversation, and how to teach those skills to children. It put pressure on me to reflect on how I do this.


  3. Laundry! Whether it is my 4 year old bring hamper to the room and then putting his clothes away in the proper spot or my 7 and 9 year old who can pretty much to all of it themselves. Life skills we are giving our children and empowering them at the same time while taking a load of us as moms. My girls put on music when putting their laundry away and make it fun!

  4. This ties so well with “The Anxious Generation’s” creed to give kids more independence! I appreciate all your ideas. We have a set of knives for our 4.5 year old and he cuts strawberry tops off! My kids also help peel carrots with those awesome Rikon peelers you’ve linked before. (My husband’s fave thing I’ve ever bought from your blog:)

    One random thing I tried lately was letting my child go to the bathroom in a public place without me. Big caveat: ONLY when it’s a private bathroom and only when I can see the door. But, for example, at the dentist in the waiting room rather than taking both boys into the bathroom with me when the older one needs to pee, telling him I trust him to go by himself and then verbally confirming he’s flushed and washed his hands. I swear he feels proud each time he gets to do this! (He’s 4.5)

    1. I love this so much – I’ve done similar recently, too — specifically, letting them go into the changing room to switch into bathing suits at our pool. I’m usually right outside the door in case they need help, but they are SO proud when they come out in suits and goggles on their own!

      Love this!

  5. Yes to fostering more independence this summer. My kiddos are 6, here are some things we are currently trying or plan to try:
    -cutting fingernails
    -interacting with adults: librarians, store workers, etc.
    -getting the mail, putting outgoing mail in the box
    -bringing in the recycling and trash cans and compost bucket
    -unloading the dishwasher
    -stocking toilet paper and towels in all the bathrooms
    -putting on sunscreen (my goodness, this is the BEST! While I still spot check, not having to do it all myself is such a relief!)
    -playing in the yard
    -art projects (the mondo llama ones from Target are great, but look at the contents to make sure there is no glitter- voice of experience!)
    -telling me the route to drive to friends’ houses
    -remembering to bring their water bottles everywhere

    I’m hopeful these changes with empower them and help relieve some of my burden too! Looking forward to seeing what ideas others have as well!

    1. Oo these are fantastic! Lan and I were just debating about the fingernail clipping. Since you’re doing it, I’ll give it a try. Love the idea of having them tell the route to friends’ houses — going to try this while driving to camp tomorrow! Great idea.


  6. This is so timely! I have been thinking about independence a lot (since reading Bad Therapy especially) and you’re right that summer is the perfect time for trying some of these things. I have been having my girls take turns doing midday dishes with me (after dinner seemed like a fraught time to be teaching new skills!). They get a step stool and pretty much just splash around but I narrate how I’m washing things properly and at least the 6yo seems to be picking some of it up. Like you, we have started independent showers with occasional help rinsing etc. Now that mornings are more relaxed, I’ve been having them make their beds more regularly. My parents live right down the street and I *think* I’m ready to let them walk down there alone. I like the idea of having them order for themselves! Will try that next.

    1. These are great – love the idea of having them help with the dishes. Hadn’t thought of that, going to implement tonight thanks to you! I think the point is to narrate how and why you’re doing things, to let them do things half-way at first and figure it all out. Love these ideas.


  7. I remember visiting a friend in the UK and witnessing her almost 4 year old daughter confidently order for herself at the pub. I was so impressed watching her rattle off “I’ll have the kids fish and chips and an apple juice with a straw, no ice, please!”

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