Fostering your child’s independence

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One of the countless reasons parenting can be so challenging is finding a daily balance between keeping kids safe and allowing them the freedom to find their own independence.

Walking that tightrope is no easy task. And the rules — and limits — are constantly changing on us as our kids get older and need more space to be themselves.

Lipstik reached out to Rachel McGuffey, a pediatrician with Lexington Clinic and a mother herself, for expert guidance on fostering kids’ freedom, while keeping them free from harm.

Toddlers and preschoolers

At this age, tantrums about food or clothing options can be common, so why not use these moments to give kids a chance to do their own decision-making, in a very controlled way, said McGuffey.

If your daughter is fighting eating her vegetables, give her a choice: “Would you like green beans or carrots today?” If your son is balking at getting dressed, let him choose from three weather-appropriate shirts you lay out. “You’re giving your kids some independence, while you’re still helping ‘choose’ the safe, available options for them,” McGuffey said.

Also, don’t be afraid to use the playground as a learning ground. Once you’re certain your child can make it up the ladder or down the slide safely on his or her own, feel free to pull back and watch from a bench a safe distance away.

“Let your kids explore, so they’re not so scared of getting on the swing or going down the slide by themselves,” McGuffey said. If you’re hovering with one hand on them at all times, kids may start to feel as though they should be scared, or that they can’t go it alone, she said.

Elementary years

When children turn 8 or 9, they’ll likely begin to ask for permission to go on overnight sleepovers or even overnight camps. Watch for cues from your children that they’re ready, McGuffey said. If they’re not ready, don’t push them.

If your child does make an overnight play date, don’t tell them to “call if you want to come home” — that just plants the idea in their head, McGuffey said.

Instead, reassure them that the friend’s parents are there if they need help. And, if they do end up having to call to come home, don’t make a big deal of it. Just be reassuring and say, “We’ll try again another time.”

Look to afterschool activities and supervised parents-night-out events, like those sponsored by area churches or the YMCA, for additional opportunities to allow elementary school kids the freedom to become comfortable in settings where you’re not there.

“It’s giving kids a chance to select activities they want to do. And, in turn, you can feel safe knowing that it’s supervised and they’re going to get a chance to do something fun,” McGuffey said.


At this age, kids will likely want to meet up with friends to hang out at the mall, at a football game or at a movie.

Be sure to set specific check-in times throughout the evening, and have your children text at those times to assure you they’re okay. If they don’t, don’t hesitate to revoke the privilege in the future.

“You have to give them steps to be responsible and earn that freedom,” McGuffey said. “You’re setting specific expectations, and you’re following through with the kids to make sure that they’re meeting those expectations. In the end, it makes them feel safe, and it makes you feel safer, too.”