I feel that one of my main parenting jobs is to help my kids leave the nest knowing to look both ways before crossing the street, how to boil water, and that it’s a good thing to pay bills on time.

How to be a grown-up, in other words.

By the time my kids are young adults, my prayer is that they’ll understand the basics behind living in the real world, so that they can establish their own households responsibly and contribute positively to the world around them.

Baby steps. It’s got to be baby steps, because as I write this, only one of my children knows how to get their own pajamas on, and one of them still can’t leave my side for more than a few hours at a time before he needs milk again.

I’ve got a long time before my nest is empty. But baby steps are required for fostering independence in my kids, and it’s the little, daily things that add up to creating a young adult who isn’t scared of the world around her.

Here are some basic things we do to help foster independence in our little kids.

Tons of free play

Sure, we have scheduled play dates, and we’ve been known to enjoy the occasional library story time or ballet class at the Y. But far and away, most of our kids’ play time is unstructured, left to them to decide how and what to play.

Photo by Cameron Russell

Not only is it stressful to be a helicopter parent, it’s not healthy for kids. They need lots of time to be free-range, to make decisions and create their own imaginary worlds. Skinned knees build healthy confidence.

Our kids know their physical boundaries outside, and they’ve earned our trust. When it’s free time, they’re allowed to go in the backyard to do whatever, or also grab a book off the shelf and curl up on the stair landing, build a city out of blocks, or dig around the craft cabinet and make cards for their friends.

Daily independence in play leads to independence in other areas of life.

Let them get frustrated

A couple times per week, we let our kids play on our touch screen desktop computer. It comes with tons of age-appropriate games, along with the ability to create individual accounts so that we can pre-set where they can go on the Internet when they’re logged in. Add because it’s touch screen, and it’s really a useful tool for helping a young child learn how to use a computer and play independently—no need to mess with a mouse.

Our button-loving three-year-old loves this computer, so we help him sign in, select a game, and go to town. But that doesn’t mean Reed understands perfectly what to do. He’ll still get stuck, or not understand a game, or want to change coloring pages.

He does pretty well for his age, but sometimes he’s unsure what to do next. We let him figure it out on his own. We don’t let him needlessly suffer, and when he’s lost all self-control, we either show him how to do whatever it is he wants to do, or we move him on to something else.

But giving him that time to be frustrated is giving him the chance to do it himself. You know how toddlers are always saying, “Me do it.” Well, we want him to. So we provide a safe environment to “me do it.”

Let them work out conflict

Tate and Reed play well together, but that doesn’t mean it’s always roses. There are still daily arguments over him Godzilla-ing her tea party, or who gets which tree swing. I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “REED!!!” from the six-year-old, or crying in a collapsed heap on the floor from the toddler.

Unless it’s a major deal, we let them deal with it. Sure, we intervene when we can tell it’s necessary, but we want them to learn how to democratically handle disagreements. Respectful voices are required, and Tate knows to clap her hands in frustration if Reed’s being a pill, which gives us the signal to come in and help. But for the most part, they’re on their own to decide what to play, who gets which toy, and who gets to be in charge.

Letting them handle their own conflicts has helped them play really well together. Hopefully this is laying a foundation for later dealing with a frustrating coworker, putting up with a less-than-perfect situation in real life, and handling disagreements with their spouses.

Speak to them naturally and take them seriously

Photo by Krystian Olszanski

We don’t baby talk in our family, so it always throws Tate off when an adult speaks to her in a childish way. From the get-go, we like to converse in a normal voice, talking to them in a way that speaks trust and confidence.

That doesn’t mean we sit around discussing the national debt or why Kafka’s works are epitomes of German existentialism. It means we ask them questions about the best part of their days, and probe deeper into their thoughts when they share surface-level answers. It means when they tell us something that matters, we don’t laugh it off, because it’s important to them.

When Tate tells me she had a bad day, I ask her why she thinks her day was bad. And then I take her answer seriously. If she tells me it’s because Nick wanted to play soccer on the playground instead of with her, I listen. And then I never, ever say something like, “Well, it’s really no big deal — it’s just one kid” or, “Just wait until you have much bigger problems.”

I try to put myself in her situation. I ask, “So why was that frustrating to you?” And then I listen to her answer.

If she pouts and asks why I won’t let her have cocoa mud muffins for breakfast (like she did just a few hours ago), I help her think through my logic. “Okay, let’s talk about why that sort of thing is a special treat. It’s got lots of sugar, right? Well, wouldn’t that be weird if I let you have something that’s basically dessert for breakfast? Sometimes it’s okay, but not all the time, right?” And then I let her share her thoughts. I don’t lecture with this sort of everyday situation.

“But I really like them,” she’ll say. “I know — that’s why you have them after having a day with mostly healthy food. They are good, aren’t they?” She made a valid point — I like them, too.

When we speak to our children like they have valid thoughts and ideas, we’re telling them we trust their instincts and ability to come to conclusions. It fosters independent thinking.

I know when I was a kid, I loved being around adults that treated me respectfully. I want my children to feel the same around me. What a blessing to (hopefully) see them move in to adulthood with tools to make wise decisions, and to think critically without being told how to think.

Provide safe situations for little kids to flex their independent muscles now, and when they’re older, they’ll know how to use those muscles when it really counts.

Awhile ago, many of you shared your thoughts on how “free-range” you let your kids go — there are great comments in this post.

For more to chew on, some of my favorite books about fostering independence are Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (an absolute must-read), and Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy.

What everyday things do you do in your family to foster independence?

This post was first published on January 14, 2011.