Fostering Your Child’s Independence

By Jenni Watts Evans, September 13, 2018

Learning Skills: Part 1 of a 2 part series.

When you think of homework and helping your child do better in school, you probably picture paper and pencil, drills and quizzes – or, at least, a review of the color and letter of the week. But children of all ages learn best when they are engaged and building skills that will help them become active learners. Knowledge is important, but knowing how to find answers leads to lifelong learning.

Independence looks different for different children and at different ages. While a confident four-year-old may venture out onto the playground to meet other children, a two-year-old is likely to need more reassurance from a parent.

Developmentally, very young children first build trust and attachment with parents or primary caregivers. Then as toddlers, they become more aware of others and their own autonomy– they are figuring out how to interact with the world and all that is in it.

This is a huge task and requires a good bit of support – especially for ‘busy’ toddlers and those with ‘big personalities’ who encounter resistance with babies that shouldn’t be hit or toys that shouldn’t be grabbed.

Independence is more than just learning to do things on your own– it’s gaining skills to meet age-appropriate tasks with age-appropriate help. Learning to interact with other children is the first step to participating in activities, then practicing following directions, keeping track of a lunch box, doing homework, and so on.  Parents can help by meeting their child’s emotional needs and giving them appropriate power, space, and control to practice on their own.

Emotional support.

People are only able to use their brains for thinking and learning when they feel safe and secure. Parents, teachers, and caregivers create a learning environment by ensuring emotional needs are met and children know we “have their backs.” Doing things for your child that they should be able to do for themselves is not helpful and leads to self-doubt. But letting them know you are a reliable resource – for ideas, support, and understanding – helps them feel safe enough to try.

Your child will face frustration at every age and that’s fine–don’t “save” your child by doing the task for them. Instead, let them know you think they can do it and are happy to offer tips if needed.

With a toddler, “I see you working with that shape and it doesn’t fit. Can you try another hole?” With a preschooler, “It’s hard to get clothes on and off. Try using a hand on each side to pull straight up.” Early elementary, “That looks like a challenging tower to build. Let me know if you want some ideas on how to keep it standing.”

Power and control.

When we meet our children’s developmental needs without overstepping, we allow them a feeling of achievement. And nothing breeds success like success.

Beware of telling young children how things should be done. When possible, give power over decisions and activities and let them practice. For example, you may know exactly how your child’s toy dump truck works. But if you give her time to experiment with the hinges and buttons, she will figure it out – and discover many other things along the way.

Power starts young with a sense of self-efficacy. Let infants initiate a “conversation” by responding to their sounds and expressions. Toddlers can make choices about play and can help with household tasks. Preschoolers can explore and discover, choose outfits, and help decide menus and family activities. As they get older, your children can play on teams, follow directions on projects, take on household “chores,” and so much more.

So observe, rather than direct. Be encouraging. Hang back; step in only after being asked. Remember that praise and consequences may help set limits, but independence comes from feeling supported and having power.

In Learning Skills: Part 2, we will talk about building curiosity.


Jenni Watts Evans is a parent educator and assistant director at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information and to learn about the parenting groups and classes available, call 504.896.9591, visit or email

Newsletter Signup

Your Weekly guide to New Orleans family fun. NOLA Family has a newsletter for every parent. Sign Up