Where Every Family Matters

How to Raise a Self-Sufficient Kid

Empower your little ones with an "I can do it" mindset early on, and they'll grow up able, confident and resilient.

“Williamson County Schools” appeared on my newly cracked iPhone screen, and my heart sank down into my chest. 

    I knew exactly why Carol Birdsong was calling. 

    No more school year. Crisis homeschooling continues. Six feet apart just a little while longer.

    Thanks COVID-19.

    I think at first I felt like most of you probably did, too: disappointed for my kids (and myself — let’s be honest!), a small amount of relief, some panic mixed in — all tied up in a messy bow of GRIEF.

    My “Hey, let’s bake homemade bread!” enthusiasm has worn off, and now I’m just trying to figure out how to entertain three kids at home for a few more months and work full time from my make-shift office in our bonus room. And most of all, I’m still learning how to show up for everybody who needs me, including myself. 

    But here’s the thing. We’re all in the same boat — an unprecedented one maybe with a few holes in the bottom of it — but nonetheless the same one. 

    Everywhere we turn, leaders are calling on parents, small business owners and newly unemployed residents to be strong and resilient through this global crisis. 

    And we are. We’re doing the dang thing. Not without our hard days, but we’re still finding creative and intentional ways to support our communities and each other. 

    I think THIS is what we’ll remember from this time in history. And maybe the toilet paper hoarding, too.

    But this brings us to another point. What about our kids? What are they learning? How are they holding up?

    We have an opportunity to make a mark on history; to use this time to teach our kids to be independent thinkers and doers in the wake of a global pandemic. To raise the next generation to be self-sufficient and resilient, just like we are. Not so we can work our side hustle in peace or watch season 3 of Ozark in one sitting, but because we know there’s a connection between self-sufficiency and success in life.

    And we want our kids to be successful. 

    If they’re going to be able to act and think for themselves, we have to create a home environment that fosters it. What better time to start than now?

   It begins with you and with me — doing our part, a little at a time, to usher our kids into a life they can handle. And a life in which they can excel. 

    We don’t do it so our kids can wash their own laundry by the time they’re in high school. I mean, yes, that would be great. But we should do it because it makes for a stronger family in the long term. When everyone has a voice, knows who they are, has room to fail and grow, and feels confident in their decisions, each family member feels his worth. 

    Edwin Williamson, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center says it makes your family healthier, too.
     “All of these self-sufficient traits we instill in our children make for healthier relationships and more loving families who get along better. And THAT is the reason to do it,” he adds.

    But some parents may act on their own needs for power and use control and coercion to ensure they remain the dominant forces in their children’s lives. Even less harsh, but just as damaging, could be the good-hearted parent who just doesn’t want their children to fail or get hurt. 

    This begs the question: When should our kids struggle so they can learn and when do parents need to intervene?

    “It’s a fine line,” Williamson says. “Studies of resilience show that a small bit of adversity is helpful to grow, and if kids don’t have any, they don’t learn life’s lessons. But on the other hand, too much can damage them.”

Finding Balance is Key

It’s helpful to understand what skills will foster self-sufficiency in each developmental stage of your child’s life.

    In the toddler years, think of it as laying the groundwork for the future. Create a secure environment where your little one feels safe to explore. Let him test the waters, knowing you will be there to catch him if he falls, literally and figuratively.

Elementary-age children are more like tigers, Williamson says.
    “They’re willing to start new things and try new activities. Give it to them. They might even cause a raucous. Let them do it. You might be worried they will break something, and they might.” 

    Middle-school kids aren’t quite ready for full independence. They still like routines and don’t necessarily want to stand out from the crowd. Pull back some, but don’t give them full access quite yet. Address their individuality but understand where they are.
   High school kids are ready to create their own identity, and that takes more independence. Allow ample space for them to find it. If you’ve laid the foundation, they will have the confidence to step out on their own, but also know when to return back home for help.

You don't need to solve their questions, you need to guide them toward thinking for themselves.


Ways To Guide Kids Towards Self-Sufficiency:
Practically speaking, Williamson says to be conscious about the decisions you make at home. Ask yourself these questions:

1) Are the things I’m doing at home leading my kids towards self-sufficiency?

2) Are the things I’m doing making us overly dependent on each other?

     Or as Kim John Payne, M.Ed., ponders in his book Simplicity Parenting (Ballatine Books; 2010): “Can you recapture your dream of a family life that is big enough to accommodate all of its members? Can you realign your reality with the hopes you had for your family?”

    Taking stock of where you are is always the first step.     

Consider these tips:

• Create an environment for open and  
honest communication with your kids.

•  Take the time to get down to their level and really listen to their hearts. Brushing off their voice or talking to them while distracted by technology or too-busy schedules has an adverse effect. Think of your conversation as a “collaborative” relationship, not a controlled one. Listening to their point of view may not change the answer or the outcome, but your children will feel valued and heard. 

•  Develop consistent routines and make responsibilities clear.

• Create structure in the home as a safety net for kids and helps provide a framework of security where they feel comfortable to learn. Just remember, a too-rigid routine can have the opposite effect.

For school-age kids, Tamasyn Nelson D.O.,assistant professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital Vanderbilt, suggests creating a chart listing your kids’ daily routines.
    “Children need structure, but it can be exhausting if parents feel like they are forcing their kids to do it,” says Nelson. “When the daily expectations are clear, kids know what they have to do, and it’s up to them to get it done. Kids need to feel like they are doing things on their own, but still have the necessary structure in place to be successful.”

 Let Kids Make Mistakes 

Many parents want to protect their kids from failure, but that can actually have adverse effects. Kids need to fail, brush themselves off and try again — with you standing nearby for support. It’s important to create a hardy environment where failure is a learning opportunity. 

    “You have to know your child,” Nelson says. “Each child responds differently. Some kids make a mistake and it’s helpful to redirect them, then step back out and let them move forward. But some kids are strong willed, and if you step in, it will make them rebel. Use your instincts to guide your kids in the way that works for them specifically. The goal would be, as they become more independent, to step in less and less,” she adds. 

Normalize Mistakes

Don’t put too much pressure on your kids. Honor their effort, not necessarily the outcome (the grade, the score, the result). Nelson adds, “It’s hard for kids to be confident if they’re worried about mis-stepping. Normalize the idea of mistakes and normalize success, too. Get them to the place where they don’t want to make a mistake, but they aren’t afraid to, either.” 

Simplify Family Life

We’re experiencing a mandated simpler life right now, but think about what has been able to flourish because of our slower pace. For kids to really learn to be independent, there needs to be space and margin in the family’s schedule for it to actually take root. When kids are scheduled from sun up to sun down, they don’t have adequate time for play and exploration. A simpler life fosters it.

    Payne explains, “With this level of busyness, distractions, time pressure and clutter (mental and physical), children are robbed of the time and ease they need to explore their worlds and their emerging selves.” 

Boost Your Kids’ Confidence

Williamson encourages us to watch our words carefully, because what we say can backfire or come across as false or fake. “Think about the effort and work kids put in and not the in-born qualities (like looks, smarts, height, weight), which are hard to control. Their efforts are easier to adjust,” he adds.

Teach Kids Life Skills

Prep your kids for life after your home. Think about skills they might need — like how to cook or fix something that’s broken or even how to drive a boat. Consider teaching them about insurance, stock markets, taxes and giving. Check out Dave Ramsey’s middle school and high school curricula on this subject.

Hold Kids Accountable

Reminding your kids to follow through or stay the course with a commitment will help them build character and dependability. Let each family member play his given role.

     Your role as the parent is to provide the proper environment for kids to thrive. Give them opportunities and then offer your consistent support. It will be your kids’ responsibility to then maximize those opportunities by giving their best efforts, staying committed and having self discipline.

Be a Role Model 

As with anything in parenting, if you want your kids to do something, you have to do it too. If your kids see you doing the right things consistently, they are more likely to follow suit.  Let them see your resilience, your dependability, your discipline. Let them see you be a good friend. Show, don’t tell. 

    Lastly, Nelson reminds us, “Be easy on yourself. Parenting is tough. Take it step by step, day by day.”

    If you feel overwhelmed, look at what’s in front of you right now. Think, “In this moment, what decision can I make that will foster this situation toward self-sufficiency rather than dependency?” or “What is a future-minded response here?”

    Raising independent kids is made up of hundreds of small decisions and reactions over time.
    If you feel like you’re missing the boat, don’t give up. Jump right in with your kids, wherever they are. Reconnect with them and implement the aforementioned tools. It’s never too late. 

    “Your dreams for your family will be your motivation; they’ll act as your wings throughout the process,” Payne encourages. And most of all, remember, YOU are the anchor for the family —  you hold everything steady. Make sure to take care of you, too. 

About the Author

McKenna Hydrick

McKenna Hydrick is a mom, blogger and journalist. She lives in Franklin with her husband and children. Hydrick advocates for her kids with food allergies; find her recipes, resources and more at threebittybirds.com.