How to encourage your child's independence, from birth on up

It's 8:30 in the morning. We have three minutes before the school bus arrives to pick up my older daughters on the corner. Meg, my 2-year-old, has plunked herself down by the front door with her shoes on the wrong feet and is determinedly trying to buckle them. Herself.
It all started when she woke up and wanted to pick her own clothes: a short-sleeved dress and sandals (in December). We compromised by adding thick tights and a sweater. But then she insisted on standing on the counter to choose her breakfast, pouring her own cereal and milk (a small enough mess), and doing her own hair.

And now the shoes. Sure, I could reach down and finish the job myself in a few seconds, but I know that a toddler thwarted is not a pretty sight. So I take a deep breath. Waiting for her may test my sanity, but it's probably the best way to go for both of us.

Such little acts of autonomy are how kids learn to do things for themselves, and they're the foundation on which children eventually grow into self-sufficient, confident adults. But independence isn't built in a day. How to nurture and support your can-do kid, every step of the way:

Birth to Age 1: Babe in the Woods

Your Child's Job: Figure out who you are, who she is, what that green thing does

Your Job: Help her feel safe and smart

Feeding a baby when she's hungry, cuddling her, and keeping her clean and comfortable are essential to her well-being. But by responding to your infant, you're also giving her the building blocks of confidence. "Security leads to autonomy," says Warren Umansky, Ph.D., coauthor of Young Children With Special Needs. "Kids with a predictable environment are more willing to take chances later on. They recognize that they can always come back for love and encouragement." So by doing your best to figure out what your baby is feeling (is she hungry, bored, tired?), you're gradually helping her understand her own needs -- and, down the road, meet those needs herself.

It's never too soon to applaud your child's small victories. "When your baby does something on her own -- like reach for a toy -- and you react with enthusiasm, that's the first step toward independence," says Charles Smith, Ph.D., professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, KS. "She realizes that doing things on her own feels good and that it pleases you too." Of course, you don't have to bring out the trumpets every time your baby jingles her rattle, but expressing delight in her little accomplishments encourages her to try to succeed again and again.

Age 1

Wide-eyed Wanderer

Your Child's Job: Enlarge his universe

Your Job: Put perfection on hold

A 1-year-old is just realizing that he's a separate person from you and that there's a whole world waiting to be conquered. Striking a balance between his need to investigate and your need to keep some semblance of order -- not to mention safety -- can take constant negotiation.

Appreciate "no." "The first time a child says no is a moment a parent should celebrate," says Smith. "It's more than an act of defiance. He's simply saying, 'I'm a person; I can think for myself.'" Try to see what your child wants to do: Climb onto the couch by himself? Brush his own teeth? If he can try it without getting hurt, give him a chance.
Don't cry over spilled milk. Burgeoning independence usually means a certain amount of mess. But some cereal must fall and some dresser drawers must be emptied of their entire contents while your child is learning to care for himself. So take a big sigh and lower your standards a bit.
Slow down. It's much harder to let your little one test his new skills when you're in a rush. So if you can, allow an extra half hour (or more) for simple errands. If it means your child can walk instead of being carried, it'll be time well spent.

Age 2

Insistent Doer

Your Child's Job: Convince you she can handle anything

Your Job: Convince her you need to stand nearby

Two-year-olds are like yo-yos: They whirl off on their own one minute and then rush back to the safety of your arms the next. Though your toddler wants to be independent from you, let's face it, it can be a scary world. "There's a sudden shift in parenting a child this age," says Linda Wagener, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, CA. "You still have to nurture and respond but also must start to hand over some of the control, within reason."

Offer options. Kids love the power of a choice: "Would you like your juice in the red or blue cup?" "Do you want to take a bath before or after we read?" This helps toddlers feel as if they have some authority and lets them practice making decisions, an essential ingredient of self-sufficiency.
Provide a way to help. Take advantage of her willingness to do grown-up things around the house, and have her sort laundry, fold washcloths, or squirt a bottle of water and "clean" windows. While your child's "work" is still play and more for her benefit than yours, it can satisfy her lust for power -- and also teach her responsibility.
Remember she's still a kid. Every once in a while, a child who's been doing things on her own will want Mommy or Daddy to do them for her again. She may be sick, tired, or just cranky -- or maybe there's been a big change, such as the arrival of a new sibling or the start of preschool. Whatever the reason, go ahead and help her. It actually builds her confidence, which contributes to her ability to be independent. You can encourage her to return to her previous level by striking a deal: I'll help you get dressed today, and you'll do it yourself tomorrow.

Ages 3 and 4

Strong-willed Explorer

Your Child's Job: Find out just how much he can do

Your Job: Encourage him, but comfort him when it's tough

Preschoolers are getting pretty good at mastering small skills, and they need you to acknowledge this. "Parents should be like scaffolding," says Wagener. "You're there to offer support but aren't doing whole tasks for your child. As he gets older, you slowly disassemble the scaffolding until he's really able to do things all on his own."

Kid-size the chores. A little pitcher filled with milk or juice helps him pour his own cupful. Low shelves and pegs encourage him to put away his clothes and toys. Preschoolers love to have jobs to do and often perform them surprisingly well. They can set and clear the table, feed the family pet (with supervision, of course), sort the silverware, or wipe up a spill.
Ease up. Your child needs to figure out what to do on his own sometimes. Allowing him to be bored helps him learn to amuse himself.
Do it together. Step in when your child seems at a loss or is tackling a job that's too difficult for him. "As tasks become more complex, a child needs to feel comfortable asking for help. He should know that the grown-ups he's looking to won't be judgmental," says Umansky.

Ages 5 to 8

Confident Learner

Your Child's Job: Succeed on the front lines school

Your Job: Be a good backup

Schoolkids are on their own for much of the day. But while their social radius is expanding, they need a strong safety net.

Prepare her. "When children know exactly what to expect, they're much more capable of handling experiences on their own," says Smith. Visit a new school before the first day, role-play how she can ask to join a kickball game, and discuss potentially challenging situations, such as what to do if she gets sick at a sleepover.
Set firm limits. Let your child know up front how much freedom you'll allow. Establish clear rules: "You can ride your bike one block, but not two" or "Always let me know where you're going." While limits will certainly change as your child grows, firm but reasonable boundaries help her make smart decisions.
Be positive. When you tell your child, "Don't be scared," what sticks in her mind is the "scared" part. Instead, acknowledge that a new soccer team or music teacher will be different and that she might need to be brave, but assure her that you know she'll manage.

Ages 8 and Up

Assertive Individual

Your Child's Job: Act as if he's all grown up

Your Job: Remember that he needs his space

The teen years are coming soon: a whole new era of independence. Kids this age are developing more opinions about the world and their place in it. It's a crucial time for you to pay attention but at the same time allow your child to explore.

Talk to him. Eight- to 10-year-olds need someone to listen to what they've done and what decisions they've made. "By talking through situations and challenges, parents can help their kids become more independent thinkers," says Umansky.
Stay involved. Acting out how much you care matters as much as saying it. Some parents think that once their child is settled in elementary or middle school, they can -- and should -- step back a bit. But experts agree that this is when kids need you to be there the most. "Attend PTA meetings, conferences, games, and concerts," says Smith. "Let your child know by your presence how important his achievements outside the home are to you."
Be a role model. When kids are old enough to really understand the way the world works, doing the right thing is more important than ever. Don't just complain about something frustrating at your job; explain how you tried to fix it. When you learn something new, such as a sport or a recipe, show that it takes time to get good but that it's worth trying. "Be the adult you want your child to be," says Umansky.
Helping our children succeed as responsible, self-sufficient people is a parenting priority we all strive for -- even if we sometimes forget it on hectic mornings when we're rushing out of the house. I try to remember this as I wrangle through each routine of the day with my own kids. On the morning that started so full of struggles, we actually did manage to make the bus. We decided that if I let Meg finish buckling her shoes herself (yes, on the wrong feet), she'd let me help her with her coat. The negotiations didn't stop there that day, but I'm glad for them. They're helping my daughter grow into the strong, confident girl -- and eventual woman -- I want her to be.