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The power of independence

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

I saw this quote on the wall of my son’s nursery the other day, and it got me thinking – how much do I do for my children and how much do I expect them to do for themselves?

As a teacher, I know and understand the importance of promoting independence in children; after all, one of our jobs as adults is to prepare our little people for their future lives. As a parent, I also happen to believe that childhood is short and precious. The saying, ‘The days are long but the years are short,’ rings true for me when I look at my now five-year-old daughter and how it seems only yesterday that we brought her home from the hospital as a tiny newborn. So, why rush their childhood by expecting them to be independent so soon?

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator who believed that children learn best when they are self-motivated. Through her studies and experiences, she found that children made more progress when they were allowed to be autonomous learners – that is when they were given the freedom to choose their task. By adopting this approach she quickly realised the need to foster independence in young children – she couldn’t have every child choosing something different and be expected to teach them all at once! So, she replaced the large adult-sized furniture in her classroom with child-sized versions, and she began storing resources in places that were accessible for the children so they could get them out and explore for themselves.

At the time (1907), her methods were considered quite remarkable and, when others saw the children in her care making outstanding progress, she began to receive attention from other notable educators. The rest, I suppose, is her legacy – you walk into almost every nursery or preschool setting, and you see this approach in practise. You see children encouraged to do things for themselves. You see teachers guiding and facilitating learning rather than preaching to groups of passive learners. Moreover, where this approach is working well, you see happy, confident children who are soaking up knowledge by discovering things for themselves.

For children (and for adults), learning to do things for ourselves gives us an enormous sense of pride and self-confidence. It promotes self-esteem and, having experienced the feeling of success, it provides us with the drive and motivation to persevere when something is challenging. Being able to do some tasks for ourselves also gives us the ability to be able to help someone else with that task. My little boy recently melted my heart when I heard him say, ‘I’ll help you,’ to my friend’s one-year-old daughter as she struggled to open a box.

Then, of course, I think about the reality of daily life; the times when, in a rush to get out the door, I hurriedly put on my son’s shoes for him, or zip up the jacket on my daughter’s coat. In an ideal world, I’d patiently wait while they tried, I would gently encourage and let them persevere – but you know, life isn’t always like that and I think that’s okay.

I think parenting has to be about balance. I think we absolutely need to teach our children self-help skills such as how to feed and dress themselves, and we do need to give them the time and space to try and at times, fail. I remind myself to let my children struggle occasionally and to avoid the temptation to be a ‘helicopter parent’ (someone who swoops in to solve their problems straight away) as, by doing that I’m teaching them that I can do it better.

So, before I cut it for them, write it for them, open it for them, set it up for them, draw it for them or find it for them, I’m going to remind myself to slow down, to take a breath, and, if life allows, to let them have a go, because I’ve learnt that they can often do it just as well as me if only I let them try.

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