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How to Help Your Child Develop More Independence

Written by Mariana Serralde

Photography by Photographed by Michelle Drewes

Want to foster more independence in your small child? To show us the ropes, we tapped Mariana Serralde, a mother of two and Montessori Mentor at Guidepost Montessori—which has locations in California, Texas, North Carolina, and (as of this fall) Wicker Park, Chicago. Read her tried-and-true advice below.

A child’s journey to adulthood is quite literally a journey to independence. Young babies start out in life helpless, unable to lift their heads or focus their eyes. Every tiny developmental step forward they take is a step towards greater independence. By the time they reach adulthood, they need to have the knowledge, the mental habits, and the character to make important life decisions, pursue their goals independently over time, persist through challenges, and succeed in their chosen path. They need to be fully independent, in the adult sense of the world.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, why children under the age of six crave new forms of independence so desperately. Getting into a car seat without help. Helping to set the table. Drinking from a glass without an adult. Children love doing things for themselves, and often get very frustrated and upset if they aren’t allowed to.

At Guidepost Montessori we recommend that parents of young children, starting even with babies, challenge themselves to find ways of setting up their homes so that children can succeed in doing things by themselves. Here are six pieces of advice that I use with my own daughters, and highly recommend to like-minded parents:

1. Don’t help your child to do something he can do for himself! If your child is ready to carry his own lunch box (which he is ready to do as soon as he is walking steadily) allow him to do so! If he can put on his own pants, don’t help! It may take three times as long, but it is worth it three times over.

2. Start with small opportunities, at your child’s level, to participate in family life. Your 18-month-old isn’t ready to chop up all the vegetables for dinner. But he may be able to take them and put them all in a bowl so that you can transport them to the pan. And he may be interested in holding, feeling, and smelling the vegetables before you chop them up. Who knows—if he’s had a hand in preparing them, he may even be more likely to give them a taste once they’re cooked!

3. Observe your child carefully. Simply through sitting back and watching your child—a simple thing that we rarely actually do in the hustle and bustle of daily living—you can learn amazing things. For instance, through simply observing, you may notice that your child is fascinated by opening and closing boxes, and putting things inside. Great! Give him more boxes, with all different kinds of lids, and fill them with pinecones or shells.

4. Have confidence in your child—imagine him succeeding. If you are convinced your child is going to fail, no matter how much you think you are masking that, your child can read it from you in a hundred tiny ways. Believe in your child. Picture her, not falling down and hurting herself, but climbing to the top and laughing with pride! Project that confidence to your child, and she will absorb it and take confidence in herself. Even if she does fall down, she’ll pick herself back up and try again!

5. Trust the process. The laws of nature are on your side. Children will grow and develop on their own, as long as you give them the time, space, and opportunity to do so. The best way to support children is to set up a safe space where you can leave them alone and let them try. Which also means letting them fail, maybe even cry, then pick back up and try again.

6. Remember, you’re still the parent. There are choices and activities that children are ready for, and others that they aren’t. Give them the space to try, but always be there for them. Your toddler may want desperately to walk to the park all by herself without holding your hand, and if so, great! But it’s also ok to tell her, “We need to hold hands when we cross the street, because cars could be coming,” and to enforce that rule even if she doesn’t want it. The model is to set limits where it is truly important, and don’t deviate from those limits. But meanwhile, wherever you can, allow freedom to the full extent your child is ready for it and has shown she can be trusted with it.

At Guidepost Montessori, Serralde helps teachers and parents put these principles into action, showing them how to prepare a home or classroom that supports and enables child independence, and then how to step back and watch while children try, fail, try again, and succeed.

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