Friday, November 7, 2014

Helicopter Parent Coming in for a Landing: Fostering Independence in Young Children

The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence. - Denis Waitley

Don’t do it for me, do it with me. I heard this phrase recently in a parenting discussion about fostering independence in young children. Over the next few days, it really stuck with me.
While I don’t self-identify as a helicopter parent - one who ‘hovers’ over their children, assuming too much responsibility for their child’s successes and failures – I do walk that tightrope every day of encouraging independence versus doing things for my kids. Where safety is concerned, it makes sense to take over the reins. However, in more cases than I would like to admit, I’m doing things for them that they can likely do themselves, if given the opportunity.
The first time I came to this realization was when my eldest son had just turned three.  I was picking him up from his Montessori classroom and was told by his teacher that he would be a few minutes. HE WAS FINISHING UP THE DISHES. There he was on a step stool, rinsing dishes in the sink (very competently, too).  Never would I have let him wash dishes at home. The counter would get too wet. His shirt would get drenched. My sons would turn it into a water fight. But never in my thought process did I ever think, “what a great learning opportunity, even if the dishes aren’t done perfectly.”
That’s when I realized I need to change my inner monologue more than my son’s wet shirt.
The long-term benefits of raising an independent child far outweigh the short-term pain of messy efforts or schedules running a bit late. In his article on raising independent children in Psychology Today, psychology professor Dr. Jim Taylor lists the following traits of independent kids:
  • Intrinsically motivated because they are allowed to find their own reasons to achieve.
  • They were given the opportunity and guidance to explore achievement activities of their own choosing.
  • Parents use extrinsic rewards appropriately and sparingly.
  • Collaborative rather than a controlled relationship with their parents in which the children's ideas and wishes are solicited and considered.
  • Good decision makers because they were allowed to consider various options and, with the support and guidance of their parents, make their own decisions.
One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that our kids look to us to understand what expectations we have of them. If we consistently have low expectations, then that is the level to which they will rise. We also can’t minimize the intrinsic value of kids of taking on responsibility, whether it is in the form of chores, choices or self-management. It shows them they are capable, valued and skilled beings.
With that in mind, I plan to make a few simple, yet at the same time drastic, changes:
  • Adjust our routine: Identify one or two things I want to change in my routine to give the kids more autonomy. Unpacking their backpacks and cleaning up their toys before bed are two easy ones. Once those are mastered, I’ll select new goals.
  • Offer choices: Involve the children in making choices in their activities and schedules, even if it is a controlled choice between two options. Soccer was a bust this past fall, largely because we made assumptions about our son’s interests. Next time, he will have a role in the process.
  • Make a visual chore schedule: For our family, a schedule alone won’t cut it. Visual chore schedules aid children in seeing what is expected of them and gives them a greater sense of completion by marking off that their job is done.
  • Heap on the praise: Praise, when earned, helps to strengthen the child’s inner voice and establish confidence.
  • Be consistent: This is the toughest of all the changes I want to make. I have tried to implement some of these changes before, but have then gotten sidetracked along the way. My consistency will be the key to ensure that all the above points are accomplished and that real change is made.
For more inspiration and another perspective on raising independent children, check out this Montessori chart of “Age-Appropriate Chores for Children” published in The New York Times parenting blog.


  1. If we consistently have low expectations, then that is the level to which they will rise." - very powerful! This is very good advice and great self-awareness, Helen!

  2. I still remember one of my kids picking dandelions on the soccer field! Teens and chores is still challenging for me but we're getting there... lots of great advice in your post.Kids love their independence even at a young age.

  3. Thank you for this post. It's a great lesson for parents about teaching independence. I started small in my household, getting the kids to load and unload the dishwasher, pour their own milk and water, and get themselves ready for shower time (they are just beginning to like baths), including turning on the water and adjusting the temperature to how they like it.