In my parenting classes, we brainstorm ideas for building independence at each stage of childhood. Here are just a few suggestions from other parents. You can probably think of even more.

Let infants reach for objects, instead of scooting them closer. Child-proof their environment, so they can safely explore their world. Don’t immediately rush to your crying infant—walk or finish going to the bathroom first. It is important to respond faithfully, so our children learn to trust us and feel secure. But we can pause a few seconds to see if they can calm themselves down or resolve their own problems.

A Personal Story. Like many parents, I used to believe infants aren’t capable of solving their own problems. At a conference I once attended, the instructor asked a group of nearly a hundred parent educators, “At what age are children capable of solving their own problems?” Some of us answered, “Two, when children can think logically.” “Earlier,” the instructor responded. Several classmates answered, “At birth,” remembering that infants cry when they are wet or hungry. “Earlier,” was the instructor’s reply. We looked puzzled. Then she asked, “When you are pregnant—men, imagine a woman you know—what do babies do when they’re cramped in a tummy?” We all replied in unison, “They kick!” “Right,” she replied, “when babies have a problem, like being cramped, they solve the problem by stretching their legs! Humans are innately capable, from the time of conception, to resolve problems. Their ability is dependent on their intellectual and physical abilities, but they are nevertheless capable to some degree.”

Let toddlers try. Let them feed themselves—put a mat under the high chair, use finger foods, and get easy-to-use utensils. Supervise their teeth-brushing by pretending you are a dentist who is checking or counting their teeth when they are done. As they learn to put on their clothes, teach skills without taking over. Stay nearby, guiding and coaching, but let them do as much as they can.

Let preschoolers help. They can sort dirty clothes, fold towels and wash cloths, and match socks. In the kitchen, let them measure, pour, and stir. Teach them how to dust furniture, removing any breakable items for them, at first. Outside, let them water plants or spray-clean lawn furniture. They can gather sticks before mowing or help rake leaves. Promise to let them play in the pile before you dispose of the leaves. At the grocery store, let them carry non-breakable items to the cart. Give them coupons and see if they can match them with the right items. Let them choose their clothes and get dressed, teaching skills when you help. Don’t expect perfection; they will improve with more practice.

Hold elementary school children accountable for their responsibilities and let them discover their own way of doing things. Let them get ready and out the door on time, on their own. (We discuss in Chapter 13, “Discipline Toolset,” what to do when children are running late.) Remember that school and home-work are their “jobs.” We can teach skills when we intervene, without doing everything for them.


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A Personal Story. If we take the time to teach skills, these are realistic expectations. By first grade, both of my children were totally self-sufficient in the morning. They set their own alarms, took a shower and got dressed, made their own breakfast, packed their own lunches, found and filled their own backpacks, and found ways to know when it was time to go to the bus stop. They had practiced and refined these skills during their preschool and kindergarten years, when they only attended half days and had more time to get ready. Back then, I taught parenting classes most evenings and got home late. I was bumping into walls at 6 a.m. and could hardly think straight. My only task was to give the children milk money—and I regularly forgot to do it! By planning ahead, teaching skills, and being patient, I now have two self-sufficient children who rarely need my help.

If we take the time to teach skills, elementary-age children can be solely responsible for certain family chores and earning and budgeting money. As they mature, let them try riskier activities with your supervision: using sharper scissors and knives or crossing a not-too-busy street. By late elementary school, we can expand their boundaries, letting them go to a friend’s house around the corner by themselves (this depends on your neighborhood, of course). Let your children be responsible for remembering their after-school activities. Get agreements for the responsibilities that come from extra privileges, such as calling you when they arrive at the friend’s house.

Preteens (junior high) and teens (high school) can have even more expanded boundaries and responsibilities. Hold them accountable for planning and managing their home, work, and school schedules and budgeting their finances. Have open discussions about their opinions and values. They appreciate our efforts to better understand them and know us well enough to know our opinions on almost any topic. As we show our willingness to listen to their differing opinions, they actually ask for our advice more often.

Let teens indulge in harmless clothing or hair fads. Each generation has some fashion fad that parents dislike—it’s their way of expressing of their independence and individuality. Most fads are harmless and will pass quickly. If a fad, such as body piercing, raises healthy or safety risks, use parent/child problem solving in the Clear Communication Toolset to get agreements that allow teens a safe way to express their independence.

Recognize that teenagers need separate identities from their parents or their childhood identities. This process is called individuation. It starts at birth, but really blossoms in the teen years. As teens strive to become unique individuals, they try on different identities. These are usually temporary, unless we overreact and push them to fit our mold of who they should be. Such pressure only causes teens to rebel and make even stronger statements of independence.

Individuation is the natural, necessary process of becoming an individual, with ideas, identity, beliefs, and values all one’s own.

Rebellion is a reaction to control.

Every teen is individuating, but not every teen rebels. Individuation can turn into rebellion—if parents try to control children’s efforts to express their independence and individuality.

In my T.I.P.S. for Teens class, we discuss individuation. I share an analogy with the class that helps explain the values clarification process children go through. When a four-year-old dresses in a Superman cape and jumps off the couch, we say, “Isn’t that cute?” We might address the dangers of jumping off couches, but we humor the act of trying on a different identity. When teenagers wear outlandish clothes and put glitter in their hair, many parents flip out! Jane Nelsen, the author of Positive Discipline for Teenagers, suggests parents also develop an “isn’t that cute” attitude with teens. We can express our concerns about dangerous acts, but need to remember that part of a teen’s “job” is to try on different identities, to figure out who they are separate from their parents.

Children are born with an invisible backpack on their backs. As they go through life, people put things in their backpacks—rules, roles, identities, values, and beliefs. Some examples are “Look


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both ways before you cross the street,” “You’re the minister’s child so you have to set a good example,” or “Change your underwear every day in case you are in an accident.”

Some children examine and question each belief that goes into their backpack. They want control over their backpack from the toddler years on. When we give orders, make requests, or say “no” without any reason, it is like stuffing something in their backpacks without their permission. These children resist such control and test these rules or values before accepting them into their backpacks.

Other children misunderstand what is put into their backpack. If a parent says “education is important,” as the parent takes over responsibility for getting homework done, children might inaccurately conclude, “Education is important to them,” or “It is their responsibility to make sure I remember my homework.” Later in life, problem behaviors can arise from these inaccurate beliefs. These parents will wonder why their children aren’t developing self-responsibility but don’t realize it is partly because there is a rule or belief in the backpack that the child misunderstood.

Finally, there are some children who don’t question what others put into their backpack, until it becomes heavy or they realize people are sticking things in without the children knowing what they are. By the teen years, their backpacks are getting rather heavy and teens figure, “If I have to carry this thing around the rest of my life, I want to know what’s in it.” They begin to go through their backpacks, examining the rules, values, and beliefs. They might accept some beliefs right away: “I know I need to look both ways before I cross the street, because the risk of not doing it is dangerous.” Others they might reject or accept on their own terms, “I’ll change my underwear every day, because I want to be clean, not because I fear an accident.” Some they might reject, “I don’t care if I’m the minister’s child, I’m tired of people expecting me to be perfect. I’ll do what I want to do, just to prove I’m my own person.” Others they may need to question and test, before accepting, “Well, education is important to my parents, but sometimes it seems like a waste of time to me.” They need to wrestle with these values and beliefs, before settling into what their beliefs will be.

The individuation process is very healthy and normal. In order to be a fully-functioning, well-balanced adult, one must have a sense of individual identity. Although children may test or seem to reject their parents’ values or beliefs, the process is usually short-lived. If parents don’t get into power struggles with their children, forcing their beliefs on them, children and teens usually consider the options and settle on beliefs, rules, and values that are very close to their parents’.

The teen years are a time when parents must readjust how much they teach skills and how much they listen to their children’s opinions and decisions (see Chapters 7 and 8, “Child Problem Toolbox”). As we learned in Chapter 3, “The Universal Blueprint,” teenagers “own” most of the problems they experience. We don’t want to rescue them from these problems, so we use the skills in the Child Problem Toolbox instead. These tools help teens resolve their own problems or make decisions. We explore the details of how to do this in the next chapter.


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Letting go does not mean to stop caring,
it means I can’t take responsibility for someone else.
Letting go is not cutting others off,
but the realization I can’t control others.
Letting go is not enabling,
but allowing others to learn from natural consequences.
Letting go is admitting powerlessness,
which means that the outcome is not in my hands.
Letting go is not to try to change or blame another, it is making the most of myself.
Letting go is not to care for, but rather it is caring about others.
Letting go is not to diagnose, but to support.
Letting go is not judging others,
but is allowing them to be fallible human beings.
Letting go refuses to arrange or guarantee results
and allows others to make choices that determine their own destinies.
Letting go refuses to protect others from reality but encourages one to face the facts.
Letting go refuses to nag, scold, or argue
but instead searches out my own shortcomings and corrects them.
Letting go is not regretting the past but growing and living for the future.
Letting go is fearing less and loving more. 



Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.


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1. Plan Ahead.
2. Explain the value of the skill.
3. Break the task into smaller steps.
4. Let children watch.
5. Let children try. 

6. Let children do things their way.
7. Offer choices.
8. Work together.
9. Make it fun and “child-friendly.”
10. Offer encouragement at every step.






















Permission for reader to reprint this page for personal use only granted by author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, The Parent’s Toolshop, © 2000.


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A.  Use the Tools. Change each statement to one that will encourage a child’s independence, using the suggested independence tools. (Possible answers are at the end of the chapter.)

  1. A child says, “I’m hungry.” The parent is tempted to say, “I’ll fix you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” How can the parent teach skills?
  2. A parent is tempted to say, “I wish you weren’t such a procrastinator. You always put things off until the last minute!” How can the parent openly model behavior?
  3. A parent is tempted to say, “Let me sort the dirty laundry. They have to be separated properly.” How can the parent give a quick tip?
  4. A parent is tempted to say, “That game is too hard to set up. Pick a different one.” What can the parent say or do to let the children do it by themselves?
  5. A parent is tempted to say, “Your make-up looks terrible! You look like a clown!” How can the parent notice the difficulty of applying make-up?
  6. A child asks, “Can I color these invitations for your [adult] party?” The parent is tempted to say, “These invitations have to be colored in just right. Let me do them.” How can the parent let the child help?
  7. A parent is planning to plant a vegetable garden. How can the parent involve the children?
  8. A child asks, “Why do you work, and work, and work?” The parent is tempted to say, “So I can afford this house and all your toys!” What can the parent say before answering this question?”
  9. A child says, “I want hair like Emily’s.” The parent is tempted to say, “Don’t dye your hair. Your shade is so unique!” How can the parent show the child how to use outside resources?
  10. A child complains, “Patty keeps messing up my tower.” The parent is tempted to say, “Why don’t you let Patty help you build it?” What can the parent say or do to respect this child’s privacy?
  11. A child says, “I want to be a park ranger when I grow up.” The parent is tempted to say, “There’s no money and hardly any jobs in forestry. Get a real job and go to the park on your days off.” What can the parent say or do to let the child dream?
  12. A child who still wets the bed asks to spend the night at a friend’s house. The parent is tempted to say, “You can’t, because you still wet the bed at night.” How can the parent nudge, but not push?

B. Encourage Independence. In this exercise you’ll see a series of situations that often frustrate parents or tempt them to take over. As you read each situation ask yourself, “What could I say or do to encourage my child’s independence?” Draw on all the techniques you just learned.

  1. A child calls from school to say, “I forgot my lunch. Will you bring it to me?”
  2. A child says, “I can’t work this zipper.”
  3. A child resists wearing a coat, saying “I get hot on the way home from school!”
  4. A parent offers his child a choice between eggs or cereal for breakfast. The child chooses eggs. When the parent serves the eggs, the child says “I changed my mind. I don’t want these eggs. I want cereal instead.”
  5. A preteen says, “I want to invite Jimmy to my birthday party, but I also want to invite Scott and they hate each other. What should I do?”
  6. A teen says, “I’m going to save my allowance for a motorcycle.”
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Activity  for  the  Week

List things you now do for your children that they could do themselves. Some examples are picking up clothes, buttoning shirts, buying expensive toys or clothes for them. Now look at the list and brainstorm ideas for transferring responsibility to your children.


Possible  Answers

These are just possible answers. Give your own answers before you read these.

A:    Use  the  Tools

  1. You can fix a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. . . You don’t know how? Here’s what you do. Take two pieces of bread. Use a butter knife to spread the peanut butter . . . Yeah, that’s trick. . . That’s it! . . . Then the jelly . . . Now put the other piece of bread on top. You did it! Your very own peanut butter and jelly sandwich!”
  2. When parents have a project to do that they don’t feel like doing or that has a deadline, they can say aloud to themselves, “I really should (whatever the task or project is). I really don’t feel like it, but if I do it now, (the positive consequence or benefit of getting it done.) Then I can do (something the parent likes).”
  3. “When dark clothes are washed with the light ones, they get dark colors all over them, so I separate them into different piles. This is the basket for the whites, this is the basket for the darks. Let me know if you aren’t sure which basket to use.”
  4. “That’s a tricky game to set up! You’ve got the board and cards in the right place. If you take the pieces and look at the picture, you can sometimes see where they belong.”
  5. “It can take awhile to get the hang of how much make-up to put on. Sometimes, if I blend my eye shadow with this brush, it doesn’t seem so strong.”
  6. There are three possible options: (a) “I’d like to do the coloring, but you can help me with the folding and licking the stamps and envelopes. Here are some envelopes to do.” (b) Plan ahead and make a few extras so you can say, “Here’s one you can color.” Chances are it will take the child a longer time to color it. (c) Allow the child to color a few and send those invitations to people on your list who would appreciate your child’s coloring.
  7. “Summer is coming soon. Do you have any ideas for vegetables you’d like to grow?” (Later) “Tell me which seeds you would like to plant and I’ll show you how to do it.”
  8. “I wish I didn’t have to work so much. Why do you think I have to?” (My daughter asked me this question and I replied this way. Her answer was, “Because you help lots of people?” I thought it was neat that she understood the importance of my work.)
  9. “The next time we get your hair done, ask Lory how much it costs to color hair, what shades there are, how often people have to keep dying it, and what could happen to your real hair color if you dye it.” (This was my daughter’s question and my response.)
  10. “John, you can build that tower up in your room with the door shut. Or Patty, you can play with something else.” (When Amber was a toddler, I borrowed a large play gate. When Amber bothered Chris or he played with small toys that Amber could choke on, Chris played inside the play gate and Amber roamed the child-proofed house.)
  11. “You really like being in the woods, don’t you? What else would you like about being a forest ranger?” (This was my husband’s dream when he was younger. His parents thought he’d be better as an engineer. Now, he’s an environmental engineer.)
  12. “One of these days, you’ll be able to stay dry all night. Then you can stay all night at Susie’s.”


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B:     Encourage  Independence

  1. “I bet you’ll remember your lunch tomorrow! What can you do about lunch today?”
  2. “Zippers are really tough. Here, you take this side and I’ll take the other. Put your side into this spot right here. I’ll hold this side. Now pull! . . . There you go!”
  3. “Go look at the thermometer. If it is 50 degrees or higher, you can go without a coat.” (A great idea is to cut out pictures of clothing, such as a winter coat, hat, bathing suit, and sweater. Paste to an outdoor thermometer by the appropriate degree markers. For example, 30 degrees = hat and mittens, 40° = winter coat, 50° = sweater, 60° = long-sleeved shirt, 70° = shorts, 80° = bathing suit.)
  4. “Since you asked for the eggs today, you’ll need to eat them. I only cook breakfast once. Tomorrow you can have cereal.” Or “After you eat the eggs you asked for, you can fix yourself cereal.”
  5. “Well, that’s a dilemma. You are friends with both Jimmy and Scott, but don’t want them to ruin your party. What do you think your options are?”
  6. “You’d like a motorcycle, huh? What do you like the most about motorcycles?” “Are there any extra dangers of owning a motorcycle?” “How much would you have to save? What other expenses are involved, like a license or helmet?”



We have completed our tour of the Prevention Toolbox. Practice using these skills daily. As we move through the rest of the toolsets, we refer to these tools often.

Chapter 7, “F-A-X Listening Toolset,” is the first stop on our tour of the Child Problem Toolbox (Step B of the Universal Blueprint). We review the process of identifying Child Problems and keeping the ball in the child’s (or other person’s) court. We learn about the first step in the F-A-X communication process—Focus on feelings. We discover which responses can accidentally shut down communication. Then we practice the art and skill of effective listening.



  1. “Notice the Difficulty” is a paraphrasing of the skill, “Show Respect for their Struggle,” in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Avon Books, 1982) p. 155.
  2. Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness, by Paul Ekman, Ph.D. (Penguin Books, 1989) p. 123.
  3. “Let Them Dream” is an expanded description of a skill called “Don’t Take Away Hope,” which I first read in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (AvonBooks, 1982) pp. 145, 153.