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Raising kids to be independent vs keeping them safe

PARENTS often have a tough time finding a balance between raising their child to be independent and ensuring the child is safe. While we want children to learn to do things on their own, there is a fear of letting them go in case they hurt themselves or are harmed by predators (in the streets or in cyberspace).

The process of raising independent children really starts from the time they are toddlers and not just when they are old enough to take care of themselves, says psychologist and family therapist Ivy Tan.

Parents will be able to recognise that their child wants to gain autonomy when they start saying they want to do things themselves – for example feed themselves or brush their own teeth or even dress themselves.

“You have to see where your child is at that time. Take into account the child’s strengths, weaknesses and personality. Usually, by three years old, the child would try to seek independence and do things on his own.

“This is where you’re guiding and not strictly controlling the child. And slowly you release that more and more, stage by stage, knowing how much your child can cope with,” says Ivy.

Toddler years

It starts with simple things like feeding himself, brushing his own teeth, bathing on his own and dressing himself.

Although it takes time and there might be a mess initially (especially with regards to brushing his teeth or feeding himself), parents should use this as an opportunity to guide their children on how to do these things on their own.

Parents may start with asking them to take the stool themselves to stand on so that they can reach the sink. Then teach them how to pinch the tube of toothpaste, how much to pinch and how to do it.

For a child that may be good enough to start with because that means they are gaining independence and mum isn’t doing it for them.

The same thing may be applied to feeding themselves. Perhaps parents can ask them to get their own plate and spoon and fork.

Brushing teeth and feeding themselves will probably be messy when they start.

According to Ivy, messing up is to be expected. This is where parents should be patient as messing up is part of the child’s learning process, and parents should be careful how they react to mess in these situations.

“You have to just be patient because they are learning a skill. You cannot push your child to learn faster because you want it your way. You have to consider whether it is good for you or beneficial for the child.

“It is easier of course for you to feed your child rather than clean up the mess. But it is recommended that you allow them to learn this skill, otherwise at the end of the day, your child will never learn and will depend on you for everything.

“If parents react negatively to the mess, the child will lose confidence and might not want to do it again. Messing up as they go along is part of the process of learning for the child. You don’t want to take that away from them.”

Apart from that, there are certain things children should know how to do on their own before they go to school. For example, how to feed themselves, go potty, ask for help and which things should not be done in public.

These are all part of teaching your child to be independent.

The older child

As they grow older, there will be other skills that parents need to guide and coach them on such as crossing the road and going to the park or shop alone.

“When you want to cross the road, they might tell you not to hold their hand and say they want to walk alone. Now that they’re a little bit older you can give them options as they have a sense of yes, no, good, bad, wrong, right,” says Ivy.

“When you give them an option, it gives them a sense of independence. At the end of the day, the goal of every child is to seek independence. At every stage, they want more independence, so rather than restrict them, give them options and monitor them.”

She suggests parents give their kids the option of you holding their hand or holding their hair.

“They want to be adults and cross the road or walk to school but it’s still unsafe for them so you let them pick an option – that you hold their hand or hold their hair. Put it in a humorous way. Of course a lot of them will say hold their hand. So, you validate, acknowledge they want to be adults but this time mummy is going to hold their hand.”

If they want to go to the park alone or walk to the nearby shops alone, you need to assess if they are ready for it – are they responsible enough, mature enough, can they be trained to be aware of their surroundings and who and what is around them, can you train them to know who to run to and what to do in case of any emergency or if they feel threatened.

In addition to teaching the children to cross the road and go out alone, she also recommends parents slowly teach their children how to talk to strangers, who they can talk to, how much information to share, what not to share (personal details, where they live, details about their parents and their schedules).

Ivy suggests parents practice the route and let them understand that in time they will be able to be on their own but for now mummy and daddy still set the expectations and limits.

“Practice with them how to be aware of their surroundings and the people around them and what to do and where to run to and who is a better stranger to trust in the case of an emergency. You don’t just walk with them in the park. You should also point out to them what to look out for. Point out to them the dangers, places to avoid, and people to be wary of.

“Along the route, teach them where they can go. This is how you teach them independence.

“You practice with them, map the route, and then you might ask them to go with one of their friends in the beginning.”

Ivy warns against telling children they can do things on their own when they are older.

“Don’t stop them from going and say that they can go when they’re older. When will that ‘older’ time come?” she asks.

Independence isn’t just about allowing your children to do things on their own, but also teaching them how to make choices, informs Ivy.

“Independence comes with giving them options and choices, according to their age. If they’re young maybe you give them two choices.

“If you don’t train your child to be independent from small, your child will have a tendency to rely on you for acknowledgement and approval, they might keep looking at you for approval before they do anything. You don’t want them to keep looking at you for approval even though they are old enough to decide on their own. There is a lot of justifying and explaining instead of just saying no. Then you have to explain why you’re saying no.”

Trust the process

Parents should trust the process that they have gone through while training their children. Otherwise, if parents are constantly fearful of letting go, they risk instilling paranoia in the child.

This deprives the child of that learning experience because of the parents’ own paranoia.

On the flip side, if the parent wants the child to be more independent but finds that the child is resisting it, then the child’s self-confidence needs to be boosted.

Ivy also recommends finding out why the child is reluctant to do something on their own. It could be because something that has happened to the child or within his or her peer group.

As a parent, you need to do your research – who are your child’s friends, are they outgoing or shy, is your child left out, is it affecting his self-confidence in making decisions and being independent.

This will help parents understand why the child is reluctant to be more independent so that they can support the child and encourage them to do things on their own.


By the time the children grow into teenagers, they should be more independent and relying less on parents. There are a lot of things they will be able to do themselves, within reason and limits set by the parents.

In the teenage years, children should be given several options and know how to think for themselves and effects of each option.

Then, they should be allowed to make their own decisions and learn from them.

“For teenagers, you hope that they will learn what you teach them.

“But if they don’t want to listen to you and they make a mistake, then you need to allow your teenage child to make that mistake, and let them know that you still accept them and love them and you move on. This is how you allow them to make mistakes, within the appropriate risk factors of course,” she adds.


Parents need to learn to let go. This helps the child become more independent, learn to make decisions and boost their self-confidence.

“If during their childhood they don’t get many opportunities to be independent and they’ve always been told what to do, they might grow up feeling like they are much better as a follower. They won’t know how to lead because they’ve never been given the opportunity to make decisions.

“A child who is allowed to make choices, understands the theory of action and consequences. A child who is not allowed to make choices may not comprehend that. This child will lack confidence and prefer to follow because that is where they get approval and a feeling of belonging. They will be able to survive when they grow up but they might realise something is missing – they always need to get approval from someone and doubt themselves a lot.”

Whether it’s just going to the park, or joining Facebook, parents should do their research, find out the risks, ensure their children are secure, then practice and train them how to take care of themselves, and what are the risks and dangers to look out for.

It is much better to teach kids to do things on their own and protect themselves, rather than hope that you’ll be there to do everything for them and protect them their whole lives.

Article republished from Brigitte Rozario (March 17 2014, ThotsnTots)


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