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We want our house to have the features and internal supports it needs to stand independently. We might use temporary supports, but our ultimate goal is to have a house that stands on its own and is strong enough to weather storms. If our children ask to help build the house, what should we do? Tell the children to leave? Wait until they learn the skills before we let them practice? Let them watch? Explain how to use the tools? Let them try simple steps?

Similarly, our ultimate parenting goal is to build internal qualities within our children so they are strong enough to independently weather the storms in their lives. To do this, children need to know how to do certain tasks and adopt helpful behaviors and values. Parents need to teach children these important life skills and let them practice using the skills by gradually increasing their freedom and responsibilities. This maintains a healthy balance that gives children room to grow and to separate from their parents in healthy ways.



This chapter encourages us to consider three important ideas about independence:

  1. Parents and children can resist responsibility and block children’s need for more independence.
  2. There is a delicate balance between expanding limits and teaching skills so children can responsibly manage their increasing freedom.
  3. Parents can use specific tools to foster responsibility and self-sufficiency.

We often think of independence when talking about young children, who are learning skills for the first time, and teens, who are on the brink of adulthood. In reality, we foster independence every day, from birth through adulthood. Every day, month, and year we have many opportunities to teach values such as responsibility and allow our children to practice the life skills they need as adults. Therefore, we constantly use these skills with children and teach the same skills to children.



Parents may hinder their children’s independence because they have difficulty letting go or are afraid the children will make mistakes. Our job is not to control children or do things for them, but to teach them to be self-responsible. We face a constant balancing act of guiding our children without demanding so much control that we get into power struggles with them. To build independence, we need to deal with our children’s power and control issues and our own.

 The key to healthy independence is to teach skills while expanding limits, staying one step ahead of our children’s abilities. 

Using the symbols we learned in the Foundation-Building Toolset, we can illustrate this delicate balancing act and the imbalances that can occur


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Zigzag = child’s skills and abilities Circle = parent’s limits and child’s Freedom





Children have the skills, but little freedom to use them. They resent these unreasonable limits and push for more freedom.

Parents believe: “When he has the skills, I’ll give him the freedom.”

Children have few and too much freedom. They can’t handle the freedom responsibly.

Parents believe : “When I give him the freedom, he’ll develop the skills.”

As children increase their skills, parents expand the limits, staying one step ahead. Balance is maintained, so children can handle the freedom responsibly.

Parents believe: “I must provide enough freedom for my child to grow and practice the skills I am teaching.”

It takes more time, patience, and skill to foster healthy independence, but there are many positive benefits. As children learn more skills, we don’t have to do so many things for children, remind them as often, and feel frustrated with their slowness. Children learn skills that help them throughout their lives—as youngsters, teens, and as adults. Children who learn they can do things on their own develop self-confidence. We feel more trusting when our children are away from us, because we know they have the knowledge and skills to avoid or effectively deal with potential problems.



Most parents include “responsibility” in the list of qualities they want their children to develop. Often, however, the definition of responsibility and how to achieve it are unclear. When most people think of responsibility, they think of chores. Actually, there are three kinds of responsibility.

  1.   Personal responsibility—being responsible for and to ourselves.
      a.  Self-care (getting dressed, personal hygiene).
b.  Taking care of our own property (keeping room clean, treating belongings with respect).
c.  Making decisions and choices.
d.  Being responsible for the consequences of decisions (admitting mistakes, making amends).
  2.   General responsibility—being responsible to the family and society.
      a.  Contributing to the daily operation of the family (setting the table) or society (peaceful conflict resolution).
b.  Helping without being asked (emptying the trash when we see it is full, replacing the toilet paper when we use the last piece).
  3.   Specific responsibility—being responsible for specific tasks.
      a.  Accepting chore/job assignments that include ongoing or one-time tasks with or without payment. These tasks are performed within school/work schedules and within reasonable quality guidelines.


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We can’t wait until our children reach adulthood to begin transferring responsibility to them. Children mature when they learn to accept increasing responsibility for their choices and actions. Many adults, however, struggle with their own response-ability.

Response-ability  is the ability to accept the consequences of the choices we make.

A Personal Story. A co-worker entered my office to apologize for something she did that could have upset me. She asked for my forgiveness. I didn’t remember her doing anything and wasn’t the least bit upset. I was quite impressed by the inner strength it took for her to accept responsibility for her actions and the possible consequences. I decided, then and there, that I wanted to have the kind or integrity it took to own up to my mistakes and earn respect from others. It isn’t easy. I’m often tempted to defend myself or blame others, but try to accept responsibility for my actions whenever I can.

We all know people, adults and children alike, who avoid responsibility. It’s natural to want to be right. It’s more difficult to admit when we are wrong, make a mistake, or to respond to blame and criticism. So we try to justify our failures and mistakes, giving away our personal power and self-responsibility in the process. To teach our children responsibility, we need to model it.

No one can avoid making choices, but our attitude toward the consequences of our choices shows whether we are responsible. If the consequence is positive, we know how to make a similar choice in the future. If the consequence is negative, we can learn from the experience and choose better next time. This is how children and adults learn and grow. Being a role model and teaching responsibility through our responses is sometimes surprisingly effective.

A Graduate’s Story. I told my six-year-old daughter to give me something for safekeeping. I assured her I would keep track of it. Later, when she asked for it, I searched the house, but couldn’t find it anywhere! I said, “Maybe when Dad gets home we can ask him if he’s seen it.” My daughter replied, “Mom, it was your responsibility, not Dad’s.

I was taken aback, being put in my place by a six-year-old, but was more impressed by her understanding of the need to accept responsibility for one’s actions and mistakes. I responded, “You’re right. It was my responsibility. I’ll keep looking until I find it.” Looking back, my daughter might have done a better job keeping track of it in the first place.

Sometimes, a child’s irresponsible behavior is really just a difference in priorities. A preschooler’s creativity and desire to play is often incompatible with our expectations for neatness and organization. A fort, still in progress, can look like an abandoned mess of blocks. A tired child might conveniently drop books on the floor, because he’s supposed to stay in bed. Neatness is a gradual process that evolves with age and a change in priorities. We need to keep our expectations realistic, teach skills, offer encouragement when they improve, and hold them accountable when they forget.

Older children, especially teens, can have different priorities from their parents. Neat children some-times turn into messy teens, as their priorities change to issues more important than cleaning: career goals, friends, romance, trying on identities, and keeping up with busy schedules. We can focus on the skills they are learning and qualities they are developing, even if they are not the particular skills or means of learning that we would choose for them.

A Group Discussion Story. A mother in one of my parenting classes was concerned about her teenage son’s involvement in a body-building competition. As the day of the final competition approached, he became more focused on his training. One evening when it was time to attend his teen group at the Jewish Community Center, he chose to miss the group rather than skip his workout. His mother was concerned that his priorities might be on the wrong track. She was afraid he might be more concerned with a beautiful body than socializing with his friends. She worried that he might start wanting others to accept him for his body, rather than his mind and personality. She thought he might be obsessed with the competition. (I emphasize the word “might,” because she was assuming this and had not checked out these perceptions with her son.)


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The other parents in the class knew the parent and her teen. They pointed out some positive lessons her son was learning from the competition. They saw that part of her conflict was that she didn’t value body-building and felt the teen group should be a priority. Her son seemed to feel that, during the competition, his workout should take priority over socializing. The other parents didn’t think he was being obsessive about the competition, since he wasn’t using steroids or neglecting his home and school responsibilities. Had he already worked out that day, he probably would have attended the teen group.


Another parent asked her, “If you had a work project, were behind on your deadline, and were invited to a party, would you miss the party to fulfill your commitment?” The mother could see that, in his own way, he was being responsible and self-disciplined. She started seeing the lessons her son was learning, although he was learning them through an activity she didn’t value.


Attaching Privileges to Responsibilities

Many children earn their privileges through responsible behavior. This is a valuable approach which can motivate children to accept responsibility or explain why a parent denies or restricts a privilege. (We will explore restrictions more in Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset.”) Parents need to be careful, however, that they don’t use privileges as bribes or to control children.

A Graduate’s Story. My teenage son is so irresponsible. His idea of summer break is to sleep until noon, watch TV, and hang out with his friends. He argues with us every time we ask him to do chores and then turns around and wants us to grant him privileges we don’t think he’s ready for. When we say, “No,” he compares himself to his older sister, who is in college. For example, he wants his own car and points out that we purchased a car for our daughter when she graduated from high school. I told him that we will purchase a car for him, too, when he shows us he can handle the extra responsibilities that go along with having a car: a job to drive to that would provide money to pay for gas, repairs, and insurance.

Recently, we had an argument about what he was going to do with his life. I own a business and he said he would just work for me, assuming that when I’m ready to retire I would pass the business on to him. I told him, “When I retire, I will sell my business to the person whom I think will manage it the best. Whoever the person is, he (or she) will have a college degree, so I know he has the self-discipline to work hard for his accomplishments. If you happen to be interested and qualified, I will consider selling the business to you—but not just because you are my son. You would have to meet the same requirements as anyone else who wants to buy it.

This son is focusing only on the privileges, a car or employment in the family business. The father is focusing on the internal qualities necessary to earn those privileges. The father provides opportunities for his son to develop responsible driving behavior whenever he lends his car to his son. His son can develop responsible work habits when he does chores at home or with his school work. It is the son’s choice whether to take advantage of these opportunities. The father did not use the privileges as bribes. He simply detailed the conditions under which the son could obtain the privilege.

Parents can send the message, “When you have chosen to handle your current privileges responsibly (and detailing what this means), I will know you are ready for more privileges.” There is a delicate balance here, however, and parents frequently set up no-win situations for their children. They say the child isn’t responsible in a particular area, but don’t provide opportunities to develop that responsible behavior. Or they say children must show the ability before giving any level of the privilege. This is similar to the experience of applying for our first job or when starting a new career. The employer says, “Sorry, you don’t have enough experience.” But you can’t get experience if no one is willing to hire you!



Allowances are a controversial practice for developing responsibility. Some parents view allowance as a privilege children earn, while others view it as each family member’s right.


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When parents pay children for chores, children often do the chore only for the money, not to help as a family member. Consequently, money is the value, not cooperation. Then, if parents ask the child to do an extra job or accept more responsibility, the child may ask, “How much will I get for it?” Soon, the parent becomes a labor negotiator, paying increasing amounts of money just to get basic chores done. If children don’t complete a chore and don’t care about money, the chore still doesn’t get done. (Yes, there really are children who don’t care about money, especially if someone uses it to control them.)

Parents want their children to learn that jobs can earn money, since that’s the way the real world works. There are many jobs in the real world, however, that require work without pay. (Do you get paid for washing your dishes or doing the family’s laundry? If so, I want to live in your house!) 

Allowances and chores each teach life skills.

    • Allowances can teach money management: how to earn, save, budget, and prioritize purchases.
    • Chores can teach cooperation and responsibility: pitching in as a member of the family, following through on agreements, and doing quality work.

Separately, each is a valuable teaching tool. When combined,  problems often arise.


Three-level Allowance Plan

Parents can meet their goals for teaching responsibility, money management, and cooperation, without negative side effects, by following a three-level plan for chores and allowances.

    Level 1: Base allowance. Give a base allowance for money management purposes. If children don’t manage their money, let them experience the consequences. Children often spend their money carelessly for a couple of months. If parents don’t criticize or rescue them when they run out of money, children usually realize they must save their money for nicer purchases and naturally change their spending habits.
  Have children do base chores simply because they are part of the family to make the household run more smoothly. Do not connect their base allowance with their base chores. If they do not do their base chores, they can experience a loss of a social privilege, not money. This teaches the value of work-before-play. Level 1 chores might include making one’s own lunch, keeping one’s room neat, and a regular chore such as vacuuming or dusting. Chores such as doing the dishes or setting the dinner table can rotate among family members. The effects of not doing these chores are logical: no lunch that day, unable to have friends in the house because it’s too messy, not eating until the table is set, and no cooking until the previous meal’s dishes are clean. (We’ll learn more about discipline in Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset.”)
    Level 2: Earning more money. Children can earn extra money if they accept additional responsibilities beyond self-care and base chores. These chores are usually more difficult or need to be done less often than daily chores. Level 2 chores might include laundry, weeding, washing windows or cars, and mowing the lawn.
  •    Level 3: Saving for purchases. If children want to save money for a large purchase, they can do Level 3 jobs. These are large, one-time or several-times-a-year chores such as cleaning a closet, raking leaves, or helping a parent with a large project like landscaping or painting. Since Level 2 and 3 chores teach children the value of earning money through increased responsibilities, consider having children do chores for relatives or neighbors. This will prevent extra money always coming out of your pocket.

A Personal Story. A note about allowances and credit—use caution. Chris had been asking for a video game system for several years. I was philosophically opposed to them and really couldn’t afford such an expensive purchase. Chris was not much of a saver, so I suggested a compromise. If he saved half the cost, I’d pay the rest. I assumed he would probably not reach


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the goal, but this was the motivator Chris needed to discipline himself to save. He volunteered for extra jobs, but I often didn’t have the extra cash to pay him. He knew it would be too tempting to have the cash anyway, so I agreed to record what he had earned. When he finally earned half the cost of the system and his birthday was near, I could not put off the purchase any longer. In the end, I still had to foot the whole bill and he only had to do extra work but not actually save anything. I learned my lesson the hard way and stopped all credit plans. Now, my children have to decide if they want something enough not only to do extra work but also resist the temptation to spend the money they are saving.

Budgeting  Options

The amount of an allowance depends on what children need to buy with it. Parents’ budgets may be such that parents could give larger allowances, but overindulging children robs them of the experience of saving. When children receive their allowance, they can divide it into budget categories. Experts and parents hold differing opinions about making children budget their money or allowing them to freely spend it. Older children want to be in control of their own money. If parents suggest new budget requirements, it often leads to power struggles. If parents establish budget requirements when children are young, they get used to the routine, but still might resist this control as they grow older. You’ll need to test this plan and decide whether mandatory budgeting works for your family. If you decide to try it, consider the following budget items. Involve children in choosing the categories and percentages they will contribute:

    • Charitable donations such as religious offerings.
    • Long-term savings.
    • A family fun fund. Family members contribute to a general fund that is used for special outings.
    • Free spending money.

Some parents provide saving incentives. For example, the parents match any money the child saves or they pay interest on the total savings balance. The parents might only require the children to put a small percentage of their allowance in long-term savings, but the incentive offers a bonus if children save more. It is still each child’s choice to save. While this plan works for many families, I’ve heard horror stories of parents going broke so money-hungry children can increase their bank accounts without having to do any extra work. Think about the long term money figures you might have to pay as your children’s savings increase. Also consider teaching your children about investment options that could increase their bank accounts without breaking yours. Beware, once you start a saving incentive plan, it can be addictive like any other bribe or incentive plan. Money is power, so use caution or it can rule (and ruin) your family.

A Graduate’s Story. My sister is divorced and her children live alternate weeks at her ex-husband’s house. She and her ex-husband are caught in a vicious cycle of trying to outdo each other. They each take the children on expensive vacations and give the children expensive gifts like VCRs, camcorders, and computers. To encourage her children to save, my sister started a savings incentive program; whatever the children save, she puts half that amount in the savings account. This policy applies to any money the children get—allowances, gifts from relatives, and job earnings. Not to be outdone, the father agreed to also contribute half the amount to the savings account they keep at his house (they must use this money to buy items they use at his house). It doesn’t matter which account the children make their deposit to; each parent will add half that amount to the savings account the child keeps at that house. These kids get a 100% return on their money! If they deposit Grandpa’s $100 Christmas check, they get a total of $100 from their parents. Whatever they deposit automatically doubles!

These children are nice, sharing, good kids caught in the middle of this competition. My nine-year-old niece even said to me, “I’ll be able to buy a Volvo when I’m sixteen!” These parents are caught in a trap that is very unhealthy for their children, but neither will stop because it would make them look bad. Although the children are learning how to save money, they are also learning how to be more manipulative.


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Whatever allowance plan you choose, it is best to decide or change family-wide plans in a family council meeting. Here, the entire family can weigh the options, decide the details and consequences, and get a commitment to the plan from everyone. (See Chapter 14, “Family Council Toolset.”) You can also use one-on-one problem solving. (See Chapter 8, “Problem-Solving Toolset.”) If only parents decide and enforce allowance and chore plans, it turns  chores and money into bargaining chips, which usually leads to more power struggles.