Teaching a child to be self-reliant is one of the most crucial skills a parent can impart. Self-reliance is another word for “independence,” and training a child to be independent — to act and think for themselves — will be essential to their success and well-being later in life.
While day cares and schools can teach some aspects of self-reliance, most of this education has to come from parents. Parents play a crucial role in instructing their children to do things without help and moving forward confidently in various tasks.
Teaching your child to pick up after themselves, complete their homework on time or tie their shoes isn’t always straightforward. But maintaining a commitment to progress is an essential part of parenting from birth until adulthood.
Self Reliance vs. Dependence
To understand what we mean when we say “self-reliance,” let’s look at how the dictionary defines it. Merriam-Webster defines self-reliance as “reliance on one’s efforts and abilities.” Whether you were aware of it or not, as a parent, you began teaching your child self-reliance the first day they were born. Though babies, by definition, are not self-reliant, our actions and habits as parents all aim to move our children toward independence. For example, we encourage tummy time with a newborn so their muscles will grow strong and, eventually, they will roll over, sit up, crawl and walk. We praise babies for falling asleep in a crib rather than on our shoulders in anticipation of the day they will sleep through the night in their bed.
When parents employ a self-reliance theory of development, they typically find that their children possess:
- Good problem-solving skills
- High self-esteem
- Positive interactions with others
- Ability to make decisions independently
- Sense of security even when alone
- Difficult to manipulate
The opposite of self-reliance is dependence, which is relying on someone else to accomplish something. Children are born depending on their parents, but if you don’t encourage them to develop the skills needed for self-reliance, that dependence may last long after it should.
A child who relies on their parent may beg to be carried instead of walking through a store. They might refuse to make a snack or dress themselves. Over time, this may evolve into relying on a parent to keep track of school assignments and deadlines and providing transportation to school and work. The child may also have frequent emotional outbursts and act out in various ways. Often, children who are overly reliant on a parent do not believe they can succeed alone.
When teaching children self-reliance, part of the process is showing them how to do things — how to prepare food, pick up their toys, complete their homework. But the other part of teaching self-reliance is fostering a child’s belief in their ability to accomplish things. When a parent encourages a child toward achievement, they are not “making” them do chores. They are teaching children what they’re capable of.
Symptoms of a Dependent Mindset
It’s never too late to start teaching your child self-reliance. But how can you tell if they’re somewhat stuck in a dependent mindset?
1. Low Self-Confidence
A child with a dependent mindset may genuinely believe they can’t complete tasks. They may also feel they do not have worth or value to offer to their family or friends.
2. Lack of Direction
Dependent children may not know what they want and struggle to make decisions. They may be unmotivated to do chores or require a lot of convincing to get them to complete a task. They may also procrastinate until a parent becomes angry or fed up and jumps in to take over and finish the job for them.
3. Trusting Others Above Themselves
An overly reliant child may trust the words and judgments of others over their own. They believe they do not have the necessary knowledge or understanding of good morals to make sound judgments, so they will rely on the wisdom of others to make decisions.
Dependent children may tend to resent situations or requests they perceive to be “unfair” or dwell on things they believe others “owe” them. They may be more likely to expect their parents to pay for things, do their work and cover up their mistakes because they believe it’s what their parents are there for.
How to Teach Your Children Self-Reliance
Though it may be alarming to realize your child is showing signs of dependency, it’s never too late to turn things around! Self-reliance is a valuable skill that will serve them well for the rest of their life.
1. Choose Your Words Carefully
The way parents speak to their children has a profound and lasting impact on a child’s self-esteem. Carefully evaluate how you talk to your child. Are you choosing words that build them up and celebrate their strengths? Are you pointing out things they’re good at and offering encouragement when they face new challenges?
If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” it’s time to revamp your vocab.
Start by taking the time to observe your child. Where do they excel? Perhaps your child is good at picking up crayons or helping fix dinner. Praise them for this and use these skills to encourage them to branch out. For example, you could say, “You did such a great job setting the table last night. I’d love it if you’d do that again tonight, too!”
In contrast, avoid words that may have negative consequences. For example, if your child forgets to turn in another homework assignment, resist the urge to yell, “Why can’t you ever remember your work?” or something to that effect. Instead, turn it around and ask, “What happened here?” Allowing them to talk through the problem prevents negative labels while also allowing them to practice problem-solving to avoid a similar situation in the future.
2. Encourage Decision-Making
You aren’t going to ask your 2-year-old to make choices concerning your retirement portfolio, but they are capable of making smaller decisions, such as what to eat for breakfast, what game to play or what movie to watch. When you give children the opportunity to exercise control over specific situations, it gives them confidence in their abilities. Besides building self-esteem, children are more likely to stick with their decisions if they are the ones who made them.
For younger children, this may take the shape of offering an “either/or” option. For example, tell your child to pick whether they want to take a bath before dinner or after. As they graduate from early childhood programs, elementary-aged students can continue to develop their decision-making abilities with more complex problems. For older children, this may mean giving them guidelines for making smart choices. For example, you might say, “Please finish all your homework before dinnertime.” This time frame allows them to choose when to complete this task by the deadline you have set forth.
3. Emphasize Independence
Yes, it would go faster if you tied their shoes, zipped up their coat and packed their backpack, but allowing your child to do these things for themselves encourages self-reliance. Assign your child age-appropriate responsibilities that can grow and evolve over time.
If they tend to be slow doing these things, the better option is to plan more time in your day for these activities rather than becoming frustrated. As your child grows, look for more things they can do on their own. That doesn’t mean you can’t help out, but limit your assistance when possible. For example, if you want your child to set the table, but they’re still learning how to do that, set out all the elements they’ll need — silverware, plates and napkins — then allow them to place them in the proper places on the table.
Focus on Effort
One crucial aspect of imparting self-reliance is to teach young children that every situation is an opportunity to adapt and change. This attitude teaches them to be open-minded and excited about the skills they will gain as they try new things. There are two ways to accomplish this goal. First, praise a child’s effort, rather than their abilities. For example, instead of saying, “I’m so proud of you for getting an A on your test,” you could say, “What helped you the most as you studied for that test?”
It’s also essential to appropriately respond to a child when they fail or don’t do something as expected. For example, instead of saying, “What were you thinking?” when a child tracks mud through the house, try saying, “What could you have done differently to prevent this mess?”
Making the effort to try new things and working through a setback or failure is valuable to a child’s cognitive development. It also sets them up to understand the importance of self-reliance and making an effort even when things are challenging.
Research has shown that fostering an attitude of gratitude has a profound impact on a person’s ability to feel positive, overcome adversity, enjoy experiences and develop positive relationships. In children, this can also support healthy development and build new skills.
Being more grateful can start with understanding morals and teaching a child to identify the positive things around them. When children are little, this may be as simple as teaching them to say “Thank you” when somebody gives them something. As they get older, this may include conversations about exciting things that happened in their day, who they are thankful for or ways they can give to other people.
Fostering gratitude is also about what your child does NOT get. Don’t make a habit of buying them a toy or piece of candy every time they go to the store with you. Don’t immediately accede every time they ask for something new. When you shop for gifts for other people, avoid buying something for your child. Allow them to experience the joy of doing things for other people and the anticipation of special treats that only come once in a while. By doing this, you are teaching them to focus on and appreciate the special events and people in their lives.
Boredom Leads to Innovation
Believe it or not, allowing children time to be bored leads to innovation. And innovation can help children develop independence and self-reliance.
When faced with boredom, independent children have to reach deep into their minds to get creative. Doing so employs various cognitive processes, including problem-solving and use of their imagination. When children have the time and space to develop a solution to their boredom, it teaches them to persevere to find a solution, play independently and get creative. Boredom stimulates creative processes that become a lifelong habit, serving them well as they grow.
Being bored can also teach children not to rely on their parents for help or entertainment. When Mom or Dad is busy, it’s up to them to entertain themselves. Resist the temptation to keep your child busy all the time and allow them to develop coping skills for the days when there isn’t much on the agenda.
Spend Time With Your Kids
Though teaching your children to be independent is essential, it’s also vital to intentionally spend time together with your child. Plan a family game night, bake some cookies or go camping in the backyard. Choose activities that require skills you can teach your children that will serve them well as they become more self-reliant. For example, if you make cookies together, teach them how to measure ingredients and how to safely use the oven. Allow children to take an active role in mixing the cookie batter and sharing them with others when they come out of the oven.
Family activities are a great way to teach children the skills they need to be independent when their parents aren’t around. For example, your family can cultivate a vegetable garden, which teaches children about hard work, the environment and the value of growing food. Quality time spent together also reinforces a child’s self-worth. It sends the message that parents and kids should enjoy spending time together. This confidence can then extend into cultivating independence.
Self-Reliance and Early Childhood Development
Teaching children to rely on themselves is an essential part of early childhood development. At Haymarket Children’s Academy in Prince William County, our goal is to come alongside parents to encourage children and help them develop the skills and self-reliance they need to succeed as they grow. As Gainsville’s premier provider of early childhood programs for elementary school students, HCA aims to provide a consistently excellent experience for early childhood education, along with opportunities for play-based growth and development.