Fostering independence is truly a balancing act: Children need -- and want -- rules to follow, but if we hover over their every move, we prevent them from developing a sense of trust in themselves, their judgment, and their ability to recover from mistakes. Teaching self-reliance involves giving kids firm guidelines, as well as the room to apply and even test them. Remember, it's normal for kids, especially teenagers, to challenge parents' authority: This is part of what helps them hone their decision-making skills. Use these strategies as a starting point.

By Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D.
August 26, 2015

Children of all ages can take on tasks that will help boost their sense of self-worth and autonomy. Younger kids can fold and put away laundry, and help clear the dishes. As children move into their teens, they might mow the lawn, walk the dog, or even get an age-appropriate job. Involve kids in deciding on their duties, and be explicit about what's required; your idea of clean might not mirror theirs. Don't forget to establish clear-cut consequences for not finishing, and stick to them. You can give praise, but use it to prompt kids to take pride in their own hard work. For example, when my daughter cleans her room, I say, "Wow, how does spending time to organize your toys so well make you feel?"

Let them Problem-Solve

Be a guide, not a "fixer," as your children confront challenges. Instead of just offering solutions, help them think things through by asking open-ended questions like, "What do you think would be a good way to handle that situation?" and, "How would that approach affect you, your friends, and family?" When things don't turn out the way a child envisioned, ask: "What went into your decisions? What might be a different tactic to try next time?"

Make Room for Mistakes

We're so afraid to let our kids fail, yet recovering from slipups, big and small, is a prime building block of self-reliance. Encourage healthy risk-taking, such as trying out for a new team or taking a challenging class, and reframe the concept of "failure" as a chance to learn and improve. Assure your children that their efforts -- and how they bounce back -- are what really matter.

Independence in Action

These books and movies highlight situations in which children rely on their own judgment to guide their behavior. BOOKS My Father's Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett Seven-year-old Elmer Elevator saves a dragon with creative problem-solving.

, by James Preller
 Eric, the new kid in seventh grade, accidentally becomes involved in bullying and struggles
 with what to do. MOVIES A Bug's Life One ant breaks out and leads a group of unlikely soldiers to save their colony.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Due to his mother's deteriorating health, Gilbert must take on responsibility for his family.

The Good Kid Project

The Good Kid Project is a yearlong series in which we explore the 12 qualities that are key to a happy, well-adjusted child. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and author of A Happy You, is the author of the series. Find her at


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