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Onward, upward // from first steps to first apartment, here’s a guide to healthy growth and independence

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Coaxing a baby to use a spoon for the first time, teaching a kindergartener to tie his shoe, or practicing parallel parking with a teen — these routine parenting tasks aren’t merely milestones for the scrapbook. They’re part of guiding a child toward independence, a process that often involves more than a few pitfalls along the way. Experts say preparing children to become happy, successful adults starts long before kids leave the nest; in fact, children start learning self-confidence and self-reliance in infancy. Here’s how to foster your child’s budding independence, starting today.

BIRTH THROUGH PRESCHOOL YEARS 0-5: Skill building Even before a child takes her first wobbly steps, she’s moving toward independence. “Babies begin to understand themselves as separate from others around six months, sometimes a little earlier. That is typically the first sign in independence,” says board-certified parenting coach Kimberly Allen, PhD, assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Encouraging independent play by allowing infants to entertain themselves for short periods (up to 15 minutes or so) can build the foundation for more sustained creative play during toddlerhood. Babies may enjoy sitting in a swing or bouncer, listening to music, peering at images of faces or bold patterns, or simply gazing out a window.A toddler’s quest for independence boils down to four words: “I do it myself!” When your child utters this familiar phrase, allow him to try the activity he’s angling for, whether it’s pulling on a t-shirt or pouring a glass of milk. To determine the amount of guidance your little one needs, try “scaffolding,” a tactic often used by educators that involves showing a child how to do something, then stepping back and letting the child try the new skill. Sometimes, parents just need to “move out of the way,” says Allen. “The more children try, the better they’ll get.”

ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-11: Give and take Building independence is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance, particularly during the elementary years, when children may ask for more independence than they’re ready for, notes Allen. But parents can help children build confidence and self-reliance by honoring a child’s requests when appropriate. For example, a child who asks to make the two-block trek to a friend’s house alone may be up for the challenge. Consider a child’s developmental abilities in everyday contexts — for example, has your child demonstrated good judgment in public places? Does your child understand and obey basic pedestrian safety rules? If all signs point to yes, it may be time for a trial run, with the understanding that you’re always only a few doors (or a phone call) away.Allowing kids to take a few calculated risks is key, says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, a psychotherapist in New York City. Perpetually cautioning a child against risk communicates doubt about a child’s competence or trustworthiness. These damaging messages can thwart self-esteem, confidence, and a child’s burgeoning independence, says Maidenberg.

TWEEN AND TEEN YEARS 12-18: Growing wings Tweens and teens are moving toward independence daily, says Allen. Though it may be tough for parents to swallow, spending time with peers instead of parents is developmentally appropriate for teens. “Parents shouldn’t take it personally, as a move away from us, but rather as a move toward independence,” she notes.Don’t wait until your child starts packing for college to impart important life skills, like financial responsibility, time management, and cooking, that can take years to master. “As with most lessons, the earlier parents start teaching these skills, the more successful youth will be,” says Allen. Setting up a checking account for your teen, turning over laundry duty, or asking him to prepare one family dinner each week are great ways to start practicing for life after high school. “Research shows that parents who allow teens the freedom to learn by doing have the best outcomes,” says Allen. “With guidance, youth can learn to manage their finances, care for themselves, and move toward independence.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.

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