Raising self-reliant children: Five steps

We want our children to have rich, independent lives. At the same time, we don't want to spend retirement supporting adult children. Here's how to give your kids the tools to strike out on their own.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Caoimhe Finucane, dressed as a ballerina, eats banana bread with her mother, Mary, in this 2011 file photo. In raising children who will be able to fend for themselves as adults, Hamm recommends holding children accountable for tasks and letting them make their own choices.

When my children graduate from college, I do not want them relying on me in any way. Sure, they can call me up for advice and visit sometimes, but I want them to have their own independent lives.

This is both a selfish and an unselfish goal. It’s unselfish in that I want them to have a great life that doesn’t rely on anyone or anything, but it’s also selfish in that I don’t want to be committing my resources to enhance their lives.

My retirement plans do not involve supporting an adult child.

In order to accomplish this goal, it’s very important that I foster self-reliance in my children all throughout their childhood.

Doing this doesn’t mean that you’re letting your children run wild and do whatever they want. It actually requires a pretty good amount of parental attention to foster true self-reliance, which is quite a lot different than children merely running amok. Without structure, children will self-organize, but they often do so in a non-productive or destructive fashion.

How do you encourage self-reliance in your children? Here are the tactics we’re using.

First, we give our children tasks and hold them accountable for them. Cleaning up their toys is one major task for them. Our oldest child has a large repertoire of tasks, including taking showers by himself and making his bed.

If they don’t do these things, there are repercussions. Toys are taken away. Activities are lost. Again, our oldest child understands the connections most clearly, so he’s the one that’s far and away the most responsible with the tasks assigned to him.

However, it took a long time for him to become accustomed to responsibility. The younger children are still lacking the maturity and time that their older sibling has attained. Don’t expect success with this overnight, especially with young children.

Second, teach them to do household tasks, then share those tasks. Teach your child how to prepare meals, how to clean the kitchen, how to do dishes, and so on. Do it with your child a few times, then start having your child do these things on their own. Then, start sharing household tasks with your child.

This teaches several things beyond the task at hand. It teaches them the value of sharing responsibility for household tasks. On the whole, it also teaches that there are a lot of things to do to keep a household going.

When your child tries something new, don’t hover. Let them do it on their own. When they run into difficulty, they’ll ask you for help. Save your help for those moments.

It can be really difficult to not say anything when you see your child making a mistake, like running the dishwasher without any soap in it. Unless the result is going to be a major disaster, let the mistake happen and then talk about the results together. What went wrong? How can it be better the next time?

Let your child make choices. Within reasonable limits, let them choose their own clothing. Let them decide whether or not they want to take piano lessons or not. Talk about pros and cons with them, but let them make as many decisions as you can reasonably allow them to make, and then abide by those decisions and their consequences.

This can be a hard thing to do because it may conflict with the vision you have for your children, but autonomy leads to self-reliance.

A final tactic: work on goals. Talk about things your child wants over a longer term than the next day or two and help them figure out a plan to get there. You can gently nudge them to stick to the plan, but you shouldn’t do the work for them.

This has worked very well for our oldest child, who has established multiple long-term goals and achieved them over the past year or so. He’s saved his allowance for six months for a single item and embarked on a long quest to achieve a youth-level black belt in tae-kwon-do, a goal he’s pursuing with impressive diligence.

These are the tools of self-reliance and independence, and if you want self-reliance and independence for your child, it is worth your effort as a parent to foster these traits.

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