(Kris Hanke/iStock)

Well, that was a surprise.

My column in the Washington Post recently was, at one point, the most-read story on the site. “Would you call 911 on another parent?” was a call to create communities where 10-year-olds can practice walking home from school and other acts of independence. It struck quite a nerve. But it’s unusual for me to write about older children. As the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, my focus is on parenting children ages 0 to 5.

So let’s think about that. How can parents can foster independence in younger kids? How can I explain that?

Helpfully, as I was thinking about it, this happened:

Scene: Playground sandbox. A construction toy! It’s a seat with two long handles that work independently of each other to operate a scoop.

Enter: Boy, age 3. He climbs up onto the seat and eagerly leans toward the handles. He cannot reach.

Enter: Grandpa. “Here, you pull these handles.” Grandpa pushes them toward the boy. The boy grasps the handles but doesn’t immediately know how they work. “Help him,” Grandma says. Grandpa starts to operate the handles: one to lift and lower the scoop; one to rock the scoop into the sandbox and dump the sand out. When Grandpa lets go, the boy doesn’t quite have it down.
“Okay,” Grandma says. “We’re going to give someone else a turn, since you can’t do this.”

Scene: Same morning. Same sandbox. Same toy.

Enter: Girl, age 3. She climbs up onto the seat and eagerly leans toward the handles. She cannot reach.

Nearby: Her mother sits with a book. She smiles encouragingly as the girl tries to get at both handles. Another child comes over and pushes one handle toward the girl. She’s able to get the other. The girl grasps the handles but doesn’t immediately know how they work. She tries this and that. “Help me,” she calls to her mother. “Hmm. Try putting your feet here,” her mother says, aiming to improve her leverage. Mom sits back down. The girl starts experimenting with the handles. After a while, she is scooping and dumping sand.

“Mama, I’m scooping!” she says proudly.

So how can we foster our little ones’ independence? These playground scenes provide a simple illustration. We can
• hang back instead of jump in
• observe instead of direct
• step in after being asked instead of before
• guide lightly instead of grabbing hold
• smile encouragingly instead of giving up for them, and
• let our children surprise us

This waiting takes longer than many of us are comfortable with. I mean, it’s excruciating. It doesn’t matter how old our child is.

Watching our infant try to roll over, our toddler buckle her own high-chair strap, our preschooler put on her clothes, or our kindergartner make his sandwich, we’re all itching to jump in there and help, if not get ‘er done. Kids are just so … much … slower at everything than we are. But this discomfort is more about us—our inability to wait—than it is about our children and their ability to do things on their own. (Want to try slowing down? Read “Where to find happiness.”)

Here’s a common refrain I hear: “Kids today just aren’t as independent as when I was growing up. It’s such a shame! I do want my children to be independent. But I can’t let them do things by themselves.”

Certainly there are any number of factors behind that last sentence. But it’s worth pinpointing and pushing back against those moments when “I can’t” is solely about our own discomfort with waiting. That includes discomfort with being judged by other parents on the playground for waiting.

Because when we take over, we take away our children’s chance to practice. And that actual, physical practice is what strengthens connections in the brain.

Allowing this practice is critical in everything we’re trying to teach our kids—figuring out how things work, dealing with emotions, quelling the urge to hurt others. As I write in Zero to Five: Why don’t kids just follow the rules?

At some point, kids know they shouldn’t hit or shove or snatch away toys. If you ask them, they will tell you it’s wrong. But in the heat of the moment, they hit, because the knowledge hasn’t yet become second nature.

Knowledge becomes second nature only through repeated action. Through repeated action, knowledge is passed from the prefrontal cortex, where we do our logical thinking, to the subcortical regions of the brain, where actions are automatic. Kids need to repeat the action. That’s why lecturing isn’t very effective. (“How many times do I have to tell you . . . ?”)

That’s also why the 3-year-old boy at the playground didn’t have the construction toy all figured out between the moment Grandpa let go and the moment Grandma gave up. He hadn’t been given a chance to do it himself.

As we give our infants, toddlers and preschoolers these chances to practice, they learn to try harder instead of give up. They are more likely to grow into confident 10-year-olds and then independent young adults. Starting earlier is better: We need the practice, too.

Tracy Cutchlow is the author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. She edited the bestselling books Brain Rules for Baby and Brain Rules. You can find more of her work at www.zerotofive.net.

Visit On Parenting at washingtonpost.com/onparenting. You can join On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news and sign up for our newsletter here. 

You might also be interested in:

Parents, stop “training” your children

Give a little girl some space to learn

Teaching myself, and my daughter, to self-soothe