independence

Are we together too much?

happy child girl with a kite running on meadow in summer

Tips for Creating Space in a Family

“I feel like I am disciplining my children way more often than my mother had to discipline me.” I hear this often. It may be that we, as families, are just together too much. Or, at least together way more than we were with our families growing up.

Aging myself here, I was a child in the 1970s. Summers and weekends we were outside, playing in the neighborhood, and riding bikes to the park at six years old with lots of other neighborhood kids. There were long days when my mom would say, just after breakfast, “go find someone to play with,” which meant, “go knock on neighbors doors until you find something to do.” We’d be out until lunch and then often out again until dinner. When I was inside, my mother was often busy with cleaning house, cooking or grad school. She was rarely playing with me.

I am not saying to put your kids outside for the day after breakfast, and let them fend for themselves at 6 years old. I get it doesn’t work that way anymore. If your kid were out there, they’d be out there alone and likely CPS would take issue. And, it’s good to play with your kids.

I am saying our kids are underfoot, they are indoors and often stuck with siblings for much longer stretches. They have constant supervision until much later ages. This shift means more discipline and more sibling conflicts. It means more pressure to provide structured activities and classes. It means arranging more playdates.

  • Encourage independent play – By three years old, a child should be able to occupy their own time for about 20 minutes. By five years old maybe 45 minutes to an hour. If your child isn’t able to do this, they may need more practice. During the summers in preschool and elementary school, my girls had 30 minutes each day to go to any room in the house to play alone. Some days one was the playroom the other in the living room, other days each others’ bedrooms. It wasn’t that they were in trouble, it was a time for everyone to have a bit of space. For older children, this might be having an independent reading time each day in the summer. Here is a blog post with lots of helpful ideas to encourage independent play.
  • Think downtime daily – Downtime is truly unstructured and relaxed time. This can be when they are busy with independent play. It can be time playing with siblings or time to just look out the window or hang out with the dog. It’s not time on screens and it’s not time directed by you. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would like children to have at least an hour of downtime a day at three through ten years old.
  • Have more long term projects – To encourage downtime and independent play as children are a little older, it may be helpful to have a few long term projects available. This might be a large jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, model kits, building sets they are allowed to leave out, latch hook rugs or big fuzzy posters to color.
  • Get them outside often – There is so much more space outside. The playground, the park, a walk in the neighborhood, the field behind your house, county parks, the woods. I get you are going to trail along at least for a while. There is so much benefit to spending time outside and in nature. A good parenting book is Last Child in the Woods by Louv.
  • Take them to the playground and plan to sit on a bench for some of the time – Once they are able to manage the playground equipment, it is fine to take stretches to sit on a bench and watch from a distance rather than follow them around the playground. Yes, it’s good to play with them, but it’s also good to give them some space.
  • The backyard – When they are young, this might be sitting out in the backyard with a good book while they play nearby. As they are older and you feel comfortable, this is letting them outside on their own.
  • Plan playdates then strive for less supervision – So this one may backfire. Invite a friend over and you may need to supervise more. The hope is you find a few friends who get along very well with your child for one-on-one playdates and schedule them more often. Here is a blog post all about playdates.
  • Give them a chance to work things out on their own – When children have conflicts with friends at any age, it is good to let them try to work it out. Even toddlers might surprise you with their ability to give a turn or help another child. It’s helpful to keep an eye on things, and if it starts to go south, you can intervene. Under three years old you are likely making the decisions and walking them through ways to solve. As they get older, it’s helpful to gradually do less. This might be helping them brainstorm solutions or giving a few suggestions. The goal is to support them learning to work it out on their own and they can’t do that if you continue to solve things for them. Give them some room.
  • Give siblings a break from each other – This might be the daily play times listed above. You could have each invite a playdate over and then play with their friends on separate levels of the house. It might be having individual outings with each parent regularly. You might have them work on homework in separate rooms.
  • Give privacy when they ask – At some point, most children close the door when they use the bathroom or sleep, and ask that they bathe separate from siblings. The idea is to plan to give them privacy when they ask for it. As long as you feel they are safe and old enough, step out.
  • Their bedroom is their space in the house – This includes letting them pick the paint and the decoration as young as you can tolerate. As they are in middle school or high school, this might be letting them keep their room how they’d like to keep it. You can insist on a deep clean once a month, and in between maybe just close the door.
  • Good to have some boundaries for your own privacy – When they are little, privacy is often unheard of, they follow you in the bathroom and basically sit on top of you on the couch. It is fine to teach them about personal space and request it as needed.
  • Still set smart limits on screen time – I get that handing them a screen, your phone or a tablet is an easy way to buy you some time, but it comes at a cost. If you do this often or for long stretches, their time on screens may skyrocket. Here is a link to four articles that outline the current screen time limits offered by the AAP.
  • Have hobbies and other interests – It’s healthy for everyone in the family to have outside interests. If you’ve lost your time for that, finding it again will give everyone a bit of space.

Leaving Children Home Alone

Cute girl with long hair sitting alone near window

My girls were 7 and 10 years old when I decided to leave them home alone for the first time. They were excited and slightly concerned, so we spent about 40 minutes talking through the details about where I’d be, how long I’d be gone, what they could and couldn’t do, how to contact me and emergency phone numbers. I was going to the store about a mile away to pick up one thing and would be gone for about 15 minutes. After all of the rules and ways to be in touch, they decided they were going to sit on the couch, watch tv and not move. While they did just sit together and not move, they were thrilled with themselves when I got home.

The decision to start leaving your child home alone is a big one. There are several things to consider. The first would be your child’s own comfort level. It makes no sense to leave a scared child home alone. The next would be their age and maturity level. Here are the current age guidelines for being left home alone in Fairfax County, Virginia:

Fairfax County’s Child Supervision Guidelines by Age

7 years and under:
Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.

8 to 10 years:
Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.

11 to 12 years:
May be left alone for up to 3 hours, but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.

13 to 15 years:
May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.

16 to 17 years:
May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).

Fairfax County adds that given the age guidelines, it is up to the parent to make a judgement about the child’s emotional and behavioral readiness and ability to manage medical or other issues. They reiterate the child should feel comfortable alone, have a way to contact parents or another trusted adult, an awareness of what to do in emergencies, and guidelines for acceptable behavior.

I would add that you consider rules about eating, food prep, the phone, answering the door, cooperating with each other and staying indoors.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides additional guidelines: .

You might also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker. It is a parenting book about teaching children personal safety, and it has a valuable chapter on leaving children home alone.

It is also important to know that local and state age guidelines for being left alone vary in the United States, from an 8 year old minimum to a 14 year old minimum.

So all that said, I look at these guidelines, not just as minimums, but as goals. If you have an 8 to 10 year old and haven’t left them home alone, good to at least start preparing them. If you haven’t, consider why not and work on those things. Start having conversations about it, practice being in different areas of the house for longer stretches, encourage your child to make their own lunch or get themselves completely ready for bed on their own occasionally. You might encourage your child to make more daily decisions for themselves.

Many children are still getting car keys at 16 years old, and leaving home for college at 18. To be really ready for these things they need practice at being home alone, at handling situations, making decisions and at caring for themselves. At some point they need practice at being independent in public places as well. Car keys at 16 is free run of the east coast (sorry dad), and it makes no sense going completely supervised at 14 years old to being free run two years later.

As a reminder, in 1979 first grade readiness guidelines included your child being able to navigate 4 to 8 blocks of their neighborhood. I get it was a different time. If your first grader were out roaming the neighborhood now, they’d be the only kid out there which isn’t safe.

The idea now is to start when they are young and make slow and steady progress towards them being fully independent. Staying home alone is an important piece of that process.

What to Do When a Child is Scared of Going to Another Room in the House Alone

Upset problem child sitting on staircase

At least every other month a parent says to me, “this might be odd, but my child is scared of going to another room in the house by himself.” This is not odd. Between four and eight or nine years old, this is completely common. My older daughter spent a few years negotiating with me or her younger sister to have company while roaming the house. As common as it is, it can also be frustrating for all involved. Here are several ideas that may be helpful:

  • Start with empathy often – When your child is scared, it’s often helpful to start with empathy. Empathy would be saying, “I know you are worried about going up to your room. You don’t like being alone,” which lets the child know you are listening and you understand. It keeps the communication open. So many parents start with logic, “you were just alone in your room this morning,” which is something for the child to argue with. Other parents start with denial, “you shouldn’t be scared, we are all right here,” which just tells the child you don’t understand. Logic and denial tend to close down the communication.
  • Next move to problem solving – Once you’ve given empathy, it may be helpful to brainstorm solutions or ask the child to think of things he can do to help themselves. You might also remind them of other solutions given below.
  • Encourage practice being alone in small doses – While you are playing together, you might make small trips to check on something in the kitchen. You can start with stepping out for very short periods of time and work your way up.
  • Then encourage your child to go alone in small doses – You might ask your child to get something from the hallway that is in plain view and gradually request things farther away. You might leave a favorite thing in another room, so they are motivated to make the trip.
  • Offer to go part way – We have two landings on our way upstairs. For about one month, I offered to go to the top landing and watch her go the rest of the way to her room. The next month, I offered to go to the lower landing. For a few days in-between, I may have negotiated to a step or two in between.
  • Agree to talk the whole time – (Thanks to a mom on facebook for this idea!) You might agree to have a conversation with your child the whole time they are going back and forth. This mom said she and her child would “beep” back and forth to each other or play “Marco, Polo.” This way the child knew their mom could at least hear them.
  • Promote the buddy system – In our house it was a younger sibling. The family dog or a stuffed animal might also be sufficient company.
  • Give a bravery cape or medal of courage – Small tokens can go a long way. A bravery cape can be taken from a super hero costume, or can be made out of a towel. A medal can be bought at the party store or made from yarn and construction paper.
  • Appeal to being a big kid – Without putting pressure, you might highlight an older cousin or friend who easily goes to other rooms. You might remind them of other things they are able to do as a big kid.
  • Leave music playing in other rooms – Your child may not feel so lonely if there is familiar music playing.
  • Draw maps of the house and make a plan – You might make errands to other rooms more of a game by making a simple map (a few squares with doors marked by lines) of the house. You or your child can then draw an X to mark the spot and lines about how to get there and back.
  • Descriptive praise when they do go alone – Remember this is a small accomplishment. Good to note, “you were brave! You went by yourself to get that,” when it goes well.

 

Encouraging a Sense of Responsibility

One beautiful middle eastern little girl with pink dress and long dark brown hair and eyes on white kitchen,helping parents to wash dishes and drinking water and smiling looking at camera studio.

Responsibility is best taught in small doses across childhood. Think of gradually increasing expectations, ownership and chores overtime.

Responsible for belongings – A way to build a sense of responsibility is to have them gradually be responsible for their belongings. This means teaching them to keep their toys clean and all the pieces together, keep their floor reasonably clean and keep matching gloves throughout the winter.

This also means they are gradually responsible for their sports and activity supplies. At four and five years old, they should be helping you to pack their ballet or soccer supplies. By six and seven, you should be helping them pack their supplies. By eight and nine years old, they should be packing their own supplies. You might make them a checklist or a picture chart, but it’s important to encourage independence here.

In kindergarten and 1st grade, you can help pack up their school supplies and be sure they have what they need. By 2nd grade, they should be packing and you can check after. By 3rd grade, check every other day. By 4th grade, it’s theirs to do but check in occasionally, and offer more checking if they struggle.

Avoid rescuing them – If they lie to someone, have them talk to that person and fess up. If they take something from a store, even a small something have them return it and apologize. If they get a bad grade, focus the follow up on how they can improve and do better, and check in more as they go. Avoid working to get them out of it – speaking to the person about the lie for them, letting them keep the small thing or taking it back yourself, calling to ask to excuse the grade.

Avoid creating work for other people – This has been a mild mantra in our house. When the girls were little, we’d all spend a few minutes cleaning our mess before we left a restaurant. If you decide you don’t want something when you’re shopping, it has to go back to where it belongs.

Model and encourage work before play – Clean bedrooms before friends come over, and do chores before going out to a matinee.

Model and encourage helping others, even small acts of kindness – This may be shoveling a neighbor’s driveway, helping someone carry groceries or just checking in with a friend who’s been sick or is elderly.

Teach responsibility with volunteering and community efforts – This can be participating as a family with your school’s charity efforts, your church’s outreach programs or finding places and ways to volunteer together. The website our-kids.com has a resource list of places to volunteer as a family in the Northern Virginia and D.C.

Teach responsibility through chores – I like the idea of starting contribution, children being helpful throughout the day, by 18 months to two years old. They can carry small things to be helpful. By two-and-a-half they can match socks, they can set out spoons and napkins. By three-and-a-half, they can pour dog food and water plants.

By four or five years old, I like the idea of adding chores because they are part of the family. This is daily things like putting clothes in the hamper, putting plates in the sink or even helping make the bed, that are just expected and maybe charted, but not paid for. I particularly like pet care as a chore they do as part of the family. It encourages care for a living creature and responsibility to a relationship.

If you start there, by six or seven years old, I like the idea of adding paid chores. Keep contribution and a few chores they do to be part of the family, then, when you are ready, consider chores for allowance. Again, these are daily, otherwise they are things you keep track of and kids get paid weekly. If you lose the contribution and chores for family, it’s hard to get them to be helpful unless you pay them – and that’s not the goal.

As they get older, by nine or ten years old, you might be more flexible about chores. Maybe there’s a chore to do twice a week or a list of chores to pick from. It’s fine to get creative as long as everyone is aware of the new rules.

Prioritize school work, attendance and deadlines – It’s good to put homework or study time on the calendar daily, so kids see it’s importance. Encourage regular attendance. Help children to plan for and meet deadlines for projects and tests.

Encourage self care – Once your child can tie their own shoes, you are done tying their shoes. Have goals for self care. This may be getting dressed by five years old and taking showers independently by eight years old.

Be sure to set a good example – This includes keeping promises, showing up on time, taking care of your own belongings and keeping the house reasonably clean.

Ask Them How They Want to Be Helped

Whether your four-year-old is working on a hard puzzle, or your fourth grader is struggling through math homework, when they ask for your help, start by asking them how they would like to be helped. If you swoop in and give them your brand of helping, you may be doing too much, which discourages independent problem solving or frustrating the system.

I learned this the hard way. When my older daughter was learning to read, she asked me to please just give her the word when she got stuck. I explained that, if I just gave her the word, she wouldn’t learn how to best sound out words on her own. Her valid point back was that when she was reading and had to stop to sound out words, she would lose the storyline and be confused going forward. She also said she was getting plenty of practice sounding out new words at school, thank you very much. So, I started just giving her the words when she was stuck. This lasted a few months as she was gaining skills at school and then it tapered off.

When my younger daughter was learning to read, and she would get stuck on a word, I just gave it to her. We went on like this for the first several months. One day after I gave her a word, she stopped and said, “please stop doing that! If you keep giving me the words when I am stuck, I will never learn how to read them myself.” She was right, I was slowing her progress and should have asked her how she wanted to be helped.

Soon after they are old enough to ask for help, they are likely old enough to explain how they would like to be helped.

Nurturing Independence

Dear Dr. Rene,

My, just turned three years old, son knows his alphabet, colors, shapes and dinosaurs. He is beginning to spell and can manage 48 piece puzzles by himself. He is very interested in learning and listens intently and soaks information up like a sponge when interested. My concerns are when he has to do things for himself such as turning a doorknob, getting dressed or playing independently. In these situations, he always fights it. He resists and exaggerates his attempts. Sometimes he doesn’t even try, he will just lay down and say he is “resting” until I am able to help him. I try to give him more play time alone, but he has a hard time occupying himself. How do I encourage his independence in situations he isn’t interested in?

Sincerely,

Cynthia

Dear Cynthia,

There really are two issues here. The first is learning to play independently. The second is learning to do for yourself and being able to move forward taking on greater responsibilities rather than continuing to rely on others to do so for him.

To build independent play skills there needs to be adequate downtime. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This may be indoors or out, alone or with you and any siblings available. The idea, though, of downtime is you are not organizing for the child, you are not providing entertainment. The child is left time to entertain themselves. They can also be unproductive if they choose. Real downtime means they can watch the clouds or play with dripping water at a sink if that’s what occupies them. To get good at this, most children just need more practice. This means, stop entertaining them. A little boredom here is a good thing as it prompts play.

To encourage independent play, you might also give them things to do that are like or nearby what you are doing. Meaning if you are cooking, give them pots, pans and spoons with a bit of water. If you are on the computer, give them a leap-pad on the corner of the desk, so they can do their work beside you. You might also give them things you start together such as a big puzzle. Sit together for the first few pieces, and then make trips away.

Encouraging a child to take ownership and increasing responsibility for life tasks is a harder thing. I think the first thing to do is focus on teaching them to do for themselves. If they struggle with parts of getting dressed, which may sink the entire effort, sit and practice that piece. Give them ample practice when you are there to help. Once you know they are capable, move back and give them space to work through. This may mean you are out of the room to avoid doing for them. Think of each challenge as opportunity for them to master the task and to at least learn from the experience.

When they are frustrated, give hints and suggestions to get them back on track. Avoid doing for them. Be sure to give lots of empathy for the frustration and encouragment for the task. Focus your praise on their effort and process rather than the outcome. Notice the hard work and the additional attempts, comment on the time and energy required to get it right. When available, give them opportunity for decision making. Children are much more likely to buy into doing if they are in charge of the process.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Giving Them Space: Being a Child of the 70s

We rented Super 8 today. Great movie, even the second time. My husband liked the action, my girls liked the humor and, I think, the excitement of seeing something rated PG-13. What I appreciated and paid more attention to this go around, was how it captured being a kid in the late 70s. Particularly the freedom kids had to ride their bikes through the neighborhood and to be out after dark. I cherish the memories of being with a bunch of other late grade schoolers down by the creek in the woods behind our houses for hours or playing Ghost in the Graveyard after the street lights came on. My husband remembers starting out at his house with a few friends on bikes in the morning and ending up in another nearby town by mid-afternoon. Sadly, this is unheard of today.

Believe me, I get the whole safety and supervision thing. I really do. My children are well supervised, don’t leave the house alone and have a sitter if we are going to be away for long stretches. What worries me, though, is we have a 13-year-old who, three years from now will have car keys and suddenly free run of Northern Virginia (and beyond, if she is anything like me at that age). She will have this freedom without the years of practice I had, running between neighborhoods and working to solve the social conflicts without a parent looking directly over my shoulder. Think of the social skills that were developing at the playground or community pool between children, versus what is developing now with the limitations of planned playdates and organized activities. Children need space and time to be and to problem solve and to grow.

I’ve only been able to answer this myself in small ways, we let the older kids hang out a good football field away today at a park. Yesterday, they went into a few stores at the mall while I parked myself on a bench just outside. I don’t know the answer here, but struggle with the question often. There are two books that address this issue from very different angles Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Louv and Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry by Skenazy. I think I will put these books back in the to-read pile.

>Independent Play

>Tips for Encouraging Independent Play

* First, pinpoint any particular needy times and plan accordingly. If your childis an early riser and always in need of company at that time or if they need to reconnect when parents first return home, don’t expect those to be times for independentplay.

* Try starting activities together that the child can continue alone. if your childreally enjoys and has success with puzzles, take out a stck and start together. Once the child is engaged make a trip away by saying something like, “I need tocheck on something in the kitchen, I will be back in a few minutes.” Leave andreturn in just a few minutes to check in. If all is going well you might make a few encouraging comments such as, “You’ve gotten two whole puzzles done!” and then take another trip. As the trips get longer just be sure to continue checkingin. Children given encouragment are more likely to stick with it than if left completely alone. Many times parents try to get kids to start something independently. Thisis often less successful.

* Set aside specific times TO PLAY. Some children worry that they won’t get anytime with you if they don’t follow your every move and ask to play constantly. Giving them a time they can count on may aleviate this worry. It helps some ifthis play is the same time every day (think the needy times) but it can be differentas long as it is your priority.

* Give children something to do that is similar to what you are doing. If you needtime on the computer place their leappads nearby. If you need time cooking in thekitchen give them pots and pans with spoons and a little bit of water to play with.

* Explain why you need the time. Even very young children may appreciate an explanation. This can be as simple as “Mommy has a few calls to make. I need quiet for 10 minutes.”

* Arrange playdates (if this is helpful). Once children are a bit older, they maywant a friend to help spend their time. You may have to have several playdates to find a mix of children that can play together nicely for more than a few minutesbut if you find that match it is priceless. For others, the playdates are never really helpful. Some need more supervision on playdates and there is no way you’dleave them alone.

* Create a space that builds on their interests. If your child is very into picturebooks make a cozy reading corner that invites them in. Big beanbags, a low faceout book shelf, maybe a tape player for books on tape and a few related things like puppets.

* Limit TV and screentime. When parents hear this many of them argue, “But this is their independent time!” While children are viewing they are being otherwiseentertained and learning nothing about independent play. They are learning to bemore dependent.

* Boredom is a good thing. Many parent worry about their children being bored whenleft to play alone. This boredom is what sparks creativity, allows children to explore their interests and leads to better quality independent play. It is goodfor kids to have real downtime. At a minimum think an hour a day of unstructuredjust go play time. Time when they are in charge of what to do next.

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