Top tips to teach kids how to be self-reliant

Self-reliant child struggling with backpack
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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

As parents, you want to guide and protect your children. You want to teach them how to make good choices and solve problems. Then as they grow older, you can gradually let them make bigger decisions for themselves.

But perhaps you feel guilty you didn’t teach your children to be self-reliant. Maybe you were stressed, didn’t have the time or patience, or didn’t know the skills yourself. It may have been a difficult time for you.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t help to beat yourself up. Simply acknowledge that you wish you’d done things differently back then. And from now on, you can decide to teach children of any age to gradually take more responsibility for themselves.

1 Match their ability level

Make sure you teach children skills that match their ability level. This applies to teens and young adults as well.

For example, young children can help pull up the sheets and blankets on their beds, give their pet fresh drinking water daily, and take dirty dishes back to the kitchen. As they get older, they can learn to set the table, put away some of the shopping, and pack their lunches for school.

Let them help with simple steps in the kitchen. They can read a recipe, and find, measure and mix the ingredients. They can write lists of items needed, and find them in the supermarket. Teach them how to reduce or even prevent food waste, and involve them in growing herbs. 

Work with your children to clean up stuff lying round on the floor or on tables. Show them how organise a small space, drawer or shelf.

If you find this hard yourself, teach yourself tips on organising from a blog or book.

2 Be realistic

Be realistic when teaching new skills – give your child time to master each little step before going on to the next one. Don’t expect them to learn a particular skill all at once. They’ll make a hash of it the first few times at least. But they’ll get better with practice.

Also expect that they’ll forget what they’ve learned, and will need reminding to do tasks until it becomes a habit.

3 Teach kids to be self-reliant gradually

As your children grow older, teach them slightly more difficult tasks around the house. Although it can be frustrating and time-consuming, they’ll be more able to cope later in life if you do.

Remember back to when you were in your late teens. You didn’t suddenly learn life skills the moment you turned 18 or 21. You learned them over many years, so that you weren’t too overwhelmed when you left home.

So to teach your kids to be self-reliant, start to have discussions with your teens around a range of life skills. For example, how to:

shop and budget
pay the bills
cook and clean
apply for jobs
rent/buy a car, unit or house
apply for bank loans
plan a trip.

4 Include older children in practical tasks

As you carry out practical tasks in your daily life, include older children so that they learn the skills on the spot.

For example:

Show them how to bank, pay bills, and keep tabs on their accounts.
Help them plan what they need to do to buy a big-ticket item.
Discuss what it means to be a tenant when they want to rent a flat.
Help them work out how to budget their money week by week.

You’re there to guide and sort through issues that come up. But by letting them do the leg-work, you teach kids to be self-reliant.

5 Be the back-up if something goes wrong

Even small children can learn to work out how to fix things that go wrong. But sometimes, they need a helping hand. Older children and teens tackling more difficult tasks need to know you’re ready to help if they’re struggling.

See your role as being the backup if things don’t go to plan. But that doesn’t mean you simply take over and solve the issue.

It’s more helpful if you can work together to find better ways of managing difficult situations, or how to stop problems cropping up again.

6 Be mindful of your impatience

When children and teens are learning new skills, notice how annoyed you are at their clumsiness or slowness. Notice how you want to take over and do it yourself.

Use mindfulness to notice and acknowledge your urge to push them aside. Imagine you’re in a calm retreat in the middle of a forest. Fill yourself with the peace and serenity of that scene.

Then remember yourself as a child or teen, trying to learn something new. Didn’t you wish someone had been patient with you then?

7 Practise slowing down

So practice being calm and patient now, and in the future as your children get older and more challenging. When you’re stressed, breathe slowly and slow your speech and movements. That helps maintain inner calm.

Accept that you may not always succeed in being patient. If you’re having trouble, go easy on yourself. Work out what makes it hard to be patient each time you struggle. See if you can change any of those factors, and commit to being more patient next time.

Remind yourself – time you spend now teaching kids to be self-reliant will pay off later. Your children will be more confident as they become independent.

8 Become a guide

However, life is very complex nowadays. Even adult children may rely on you for support now and again. For instance, they may ask for advice about jobs, finances, or housing.

But their lives are their own. You’re not responsible any more for their choices. You’re more of a guide or mentor: a sounding board to help them clarify their options, without actually fixing the problems that result from their choices. 

Dealing with the consequences of their actions is now their responsibility. 

What if you don’t like their choices?

Unfortunately, you may not like the choices that adult children make. You can only hope your hard work when they were younger pays off. With luck, they’ve taken on board your values, and your relationship is close enough for them to ask advice.

Keep working on relationships

Of course, you’ll try to improve your relationship all the time. You’ll find ways to show you love and value your children as individuals. Show interest in their activities, work, and friends or partners. And in addition, tolerate differences and respect their choices where possible.

But you can’t be a counsellor to your adult children. They’ll keep depending on you, and won’t learn resilience skills. If they use you as a prop, they won’t get help for themselves. They need to be able to stand on their own two feet.

You won’t be around forever

As you get older, the burden of being your children’s confidante will get too heavy. You’ll need to drop being so responsible at some stage. That’s why it’s so important to teach your kids to be self-reliant as early as possible. Better to start now than not at all.

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