Growing Independent Kids

Dr. Virginia Smith

I don’t know about you, but when my kids were small, it used to emotionally wear me out to constantly have to tell them to do things – things that they should know they have to do because they do them every…single…day. “Pick up your dirty clothes and put them IN the hamper.” “Do your homework.” “Don’t forget to practice your trumpet before your sister goes to bed.” Sometimes it could seem like my major job as mother was “haranguer-in-chief.”

Growing Kids, Growing Brains

When should kids learn to do things on their own initiative and how can we help them develop this quality? According to physicianscenter.org, the brains of elementary children are still growing and developing so if your younger child hasn’t become the epitome of self-motivation yet, do not despair. They are still not only learning what they should do, but their synapses are still forming those connections between “time” and “action.”

That being said, it is still important for their own good for them to learn to schedule their time. Going through the process of developing this skill, which is inexorably linked to initiative, helps them appreciate the concept of “free” time and learn how to use this precious commodity appropriately.

Steps to Independence

Here are a few ideas to get started helping your child develop initiative:

Homework. Practically every student has homework nowadays, even in elementary school. While children in the younger grades may have a difficult time choosing to do their homework earlier rather than later, they can make some choices with regards to the work that can later develop into the ability to choose when to do the work. Start by allowing your child to choose which tasks they want to complete first for their homework. Initially work with your child to help them identify what all will be involved with each assignment so that they can make an informed choice. They might want to get the more difficult or lengthy assignment out of the way first so they can relax, or they might need to do an easy, quick task to get them ramped up to be able to tackle something more challenging. Either way, they are growing into the bigger responsibility of appropriating their time wisely so that they can complete everything they must do.

Home tasks. Different from homework that is associated with academic learning, home tasks are responsibilities they have around the house. Perhaps it is their job to feed the dog, do the dishes, or load the washing machine. Whatever their tasks are, it is important that they not only do them, but learn to take the initiative to do them without being told. A chart listing responsibilities is a great place to start; and your child can check off the task or place a sticker once completed. Again, working with your child initially to help them accurately estimate the amount of time and effort needed is a good idea. They may think that doing the dishes may only take 5-10 minutes when a half hour might be more realistic.

Master calendar and schedule. Kids may not be aware of all of the family activities that may interfere with when they plan to take care of their responsibilities. Help them remember by having a calendar in an obvious spot that they can easily reference. If, for example, they have a trumpet lesson scheduled every Tuesday afternoon at 4:00, then that is not the best time for them to plan to clean their room.

Learning to take the initiative can be a long, slow process. However, this quality is what helps separate leaders from the rest of the pack. Help your child to develop this important quality and they will be thankful later on.


Dr. Virginia Smith is a speaker, author, and life-long educator. A Kamm Distinguished Fellow in Academics, Research, and Leadership, she holds degrees in family services, business, and education with areas of concentration in curriculum design and development.

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