As a public Montessori teacher, I am always trying to support parents in building independence at home. I mean, parents really, really want an independent kid, and preferably one who will also hand them the remote and turn off the lights.
The preteen years sometimes throw parents into a panic. For the first time they feel their babies pulling away from them, but they worry they have left them unprepared for the tumultuous teenage years that lie just around the corner. So how do we prepare our older children to be responsible, independent, self-advocates?
We dress them for the weather (metaphorically), and let them go.
Often articles for parents regarding building independence at home focus on age appropriate chores for children, but overlook the crucial mindset that may be a shift for some families: Children are capable problem-solvers who want the best for themselves.
Building independence in your adolescent child is more than just practicing life skills, it is also trusting your child to do important work and make important decisions. It sounds scary, I know; they could make the wrong choice! But at the end of the day, so could we. Even considering my own adult life, it’s not like humans have the best track record for decision making. Older children really just need to be informed and guided.
For the first time in fifty years, the top five disabilities affecting U.S. children are mental health problems rather than physical problems. Rates of stress-induced illness are extremely high in every demographic, yet there is a known antidote: a healthy sense of control.
Interestingly, we do not actually need control to measurably mitigate the potentially negative effects of our stressful environments. Rather, we need a sense of control, and intentionally building opportunities for independence into your child’s life can be powerfully stress reducing.
Empowering your children to be autonomous can provide them with the confidence that they can direct the course of their life through their own efforts. This perceived control is associated with virtually every positive outcome we want for our children: better physical health, less use of drugs and alcohol, increased life expectancy, lower stress, positive emotional well-being, greater intrinsic motivation, enhanced self-control, and improved academic and career success.
These benefits, in turn, support a healthy decision-making capacity; so basically, once you qualify for the race, you can set the cruise control and enjoy the ride.
While the evidence in support of developing authentic independence in your child is compelling, the feeling of handing over your power can be difficult. It may help to remember that supporting your child’s autonomy doesn’t mean abdicating your role as a parent.
Successful parents often consider their role as consultants rather than as enforcers or fixers. When parents work harder than their kids to solve their problems, their kids get weaker, not stronger. If kids have parents managing their lives, they don’t have to think much because, on some level, they know that eventually someone will “make” them do whatever is expected.
The brain learns by doing. Without handing over the reins, children will not develop the skills needed for self-management.
Therefore, in upper elementary school, building independence truly means building habits of a well-adjusted, independent life, including practical skills like cooking and cleaning alongside managerial skills like long-term planning, thoughtful decision making, and maintaining true responsibilities.
Parents must adapt a style of interaction with their children that values self-direction and maturity over obedience. Kids need responsibility more than they deserve it, and the brain develops according to how it is used.
Maria Montessori explains that, perhaps counter-intuitively, freedom and discipline go hand in hand. Parents must create a disciplined environment for children to have the freedom to be responsible for themselves, even if they make mistakes along the way. Parents then need to discuss the natural consequences of those mistakes with their children while protecting their agency to make meaningful choices.
Finally, when we talk about giving kids choices, we really mean informed choices that they are ready to make. Saying, “it’s your call,” does not conflict with limit setting, which will always be an essential part of parenting. Kids feel most secure when they know that adults are there to make the decisions they are not yet ready to make themselves.
In fact, Dr. Montessori was quite clear about this as she outlined freedom within limits, saying, “to let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.” As parents, we have the responsibility to provide information, perspective, and boundaries.
In short, parents can and should support their child’s independence by respecting their child’s autonomy, even if they disagree with their child’s choices, as long as they are within reasonable limits. They must be there to debrief the consequences of those choices, positive and negative, and also create an environment that is safe, predictable, structured, and supportive.
While I always try to help parents build the mindset to trust their children and embrace the opportunity to help them through mistakes, I know parents really like lists. So here you go. Things your typical 9- to 12-year-old children can do for themselves with parents working as consultants include, but are not limited to:
1. Care for pets
2. Change sheets on the bed and put dirty sheets in the hamper
3. Operate the washer, dryer, and dishwasher; fold and put away clothes
4. Measure detergent for washing or ingredients for cooking
5. Create a grocery list using recipes, compare pricing, and purchase items from list
6. Pick up a little sibling after school
7. Keep own appointments (reading to younger kids, meeting a neighbor to help in their garden, preparing for camp, doctor’s office, or community service)
8. Prepare food from baking to a family meal
9. Ration portions, plate and serve food
10. Pour and make tea, coffee and lemonade
11. Answer the phone with grace and courtesy
12. Greet and attend to guests
13. Plan own birthday, other parties, or fundraisers
14. Complete household chores without a reminder
15. Earn money and budget allowance wisely
16. Research a cause to support
17. Write thank you notes
18. Research for a trip or family vacation and pack own suitcase
19. Borrow and return books to library
20. Research high school options
Through these things, kids develop a sense of autonomy and responsibility and gain practical skills. Our ultimate goal is not to produce compliant children, but to produce children who understand how to interact successfully in this world, and improve their mental health with a well-developed sense of control.