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My seven year-old son is highly dependent on us to tell him what to do. We had thought it was an age thing, but his little sister already grew out of it. How can we help him be more independent?

An example from this morning. This time of year in our area we often have highs in the 80s and lows in the 30s, so it's difficult to keep an even temperature and our house is often cold in the morning. My son decided to dress himself in shorts and a thin T-shirt, and was huddled shivering in the common area when I came out of my room this morning. We asked him, and he knew exactly what he needed to do to get warm, he just hadn't done it.

We expected these kinds of struggles for things parents want kids to do against their will. I'm completely baffled when we have to tell him to do things he wants to do. His five year-old sister handles those situations easily, and has for quite some time. What can we do to help him?

What we already do, with relative consistency:

  • Let him suffer the natural consequences. This feels cruel in cases like him being cold, so we reserve it for consequences that don't cause physical suffering. It works so slowly that it sometimes feels cruel in other cases too. For example, it took him 5 months to remember to bring his birthday money when we went shopping.
  • Ask him questions that lead him to discover the solution for himself. For example, this morning we asked, "What should you wear if you're cold?" He always knows the answer, which makes the questions feel like a slightly more tactful way of bossing him around.
  • I'll write an answer when I have more time, but in the meanwhile, have you read "Parent Effectiveness Training"? It's a fairly old book, but it's basically about this in its entirety: raising children in a way that leads them to solve their own problems, rather than by giving them rules to follow or telling them what to do. Some of its methods may be helpful here. – Joe Oct 31 '14 at 17:15
  • Have you tried asking him why he didn't get dressed in warmer clothes? Also forgetting to take his money is a different thing - children just are forgetful. – DanBeale Oct 31 '14 at 20:23
  • I've asked him before, @DanBeale, but I usually don't ask because he usually doesn't know. It just plain doesn't occur to him. – Karl Bielefeldt Oct 31 '14 at 21:00
  • Hey may know what to do to solve the issue we as adults see, but he is making his choices for some reason that to him may appear more imminently important. Without understanding how he sees things, the challenge can be harder. Why does he say he made the choices? For example: The clothes chosen looked more awesome than the comfortable clothes. It may be an issue of teaching critical thinking. I could be wrong, but that's what comes to mind from the question as-is. – Sylas Seabrook Nov 2 '14 at 4:33
  • That's the thing. As far as I can tell, he's not initiating a decision-making process at all. He's going with whatever's right in front of him for no particular reason. When we trigger him to make a conscious decision, he usually makes a good one with little or no input from us. – Karl Bielefeldt Nov 2 '14 at 5:00
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I have several boys and girls of wildly varying age. When we had our first child my wife and I thought that differences based on gender are all due to the environment, and that we would never let this happen to our children. Now, several children later, I laugh at this.

One of the things that set my boys apart from my girls is that the girls consistently act responsibly at a much earlier age than the boys.

A five year old girl realizing on her own it's cold and she should get other clothes from the wardrobe seems a year or two younger than my girls started to deal with them on their own, but I could very well imagine this. Contrary to this, none of my boys were very well in this at the age of seven. In fact, they probably weren't at nine or even ten. (OTOH, the child currently making the most fuzz about what to wear is my teenage boy. To him, this is at least as important as for his older sister. So this could improve.)

I work hard at handing responsibilities for their life to my children as early as possible, and I let them do and decide things at an age where others just shake their heads about me. But this ultimately depends on the child, and there are huge differences between boys and girls, but also between different boys or girls. One child would make a train journey alone at the age of 8, another only at 11. One child stayed home alone with two younger siblings to care for at 14, another did that at 11. (Just to counter my own argument: the latter was a boy.) I left the decision when to turn off the light, stop reading, and go to sleep to some of my children at the age of 11, but I seriously doubt that I can do this with the child that is currently approaching this age.

You see where this is going: No two children are alike. (In fact, I often say that the one thing that all of my children have in common is that they all have very different personalities.) I am all for encouraging children to be more responsible, but which decisions, tasks, etc. are left to them at what age is a highly individual decision that depends mostly on the child.


So how do you actively encourage independence?

I found that this starts very early, by not simply making decisions for a child, but involving it in the decision-making, explaining the reasons why you would decide the way you do, and being open for suggestions from the child. This absolutely includes letting the child make mistakes, even when they hurt a bit. (I don't see my task in preventing my children from every possible hurt, getting scratches and bruises. I see my task in preventing them from permanent harm. This has the advantage that my children know from experience that what I suggest is often what they should do, and thus follow my council voluntarily. In fact, the best way to end a discussion whether the warmer jacket should be worn to school is to say produce my arguments, and when they don't give in, to say I am fine with it, I said my piece, and they can do what they want. Left to their own device, they usually follow my advice.)

If you try to always do this, then it comes rather natural (for both sides involved) to let the child have more and more influence on the decisions made when it gets older and acquires a firmer grip on how the world works.

In your example this approach might involve talking with your son about what to wear (and why) every day. For me, there's many things that influence such a decision (whether, expected activities, what's currently in the laundry or should go there, and whatnot), so it's rather complex for a child. However, constantly being involved in juggling those factors eventually teaches juggling.

How long that takes, however... see above.

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We found the best way to foster independence was to give independence. We gave our kids the chance to make their own decisions independent of us by leaving them as often as possible. Birthday parties? The parents of the birthday boy will be there supervising, so we'd leave. Soccer? The coach is there, and he probably doesn't want parents coaching from the sidelines. After-school care is free in our district . . . leave them to fit into their own social world after school rather than picking them up immediately. They will act age-appropriate if they are in a group that's acting age-appropriate. (If you move this direction, do be on time every time to pick them up. Pushing your kids out of the nest a bit shouldn't burden others.)

As long as they're safe, they don't need you there all the time. Whether they want you there or not, sometimes they need you to be elsewhere, and for longer periods as they grow.

  • Yeah, this sounds quite reasonable. +1 from me. – sbi Nov 3 '14 at 8:14

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