Our Privacy/Cookie Policy contains detailed information about the types of cookies & related technology on our site, and some ways to opt out. By using the site, you agree to the uses of cookies and other technology as outlined in our Policy, and to our Terms of Use.


6 Things You Should Let Your Kids Do by Themselves

Photograph by Twenty20

Seconds after my first child was born, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of wanting to protect him. It was overpowering.

I felt like I wanted to shelter him from everything and everyone.

If someone looked at him in his stroller while he was sleeping, my heart raced. If he didn't have anyone to play with during a play date, I wanted to leave. If he couldn't do something on his own, I grew impatient and wanted to fix it for him. If he wasn't doing well during a sporting event, I wanted it to be over. It all felt excruciating to watch, and I could barely hold it together.

Deep down I knew I wasn't doing him any favors if I pulled him away from difficult situations, ones when life was giving him the middle finger. Sure, there are those occasions. But most of the difficult times are chances for them to benefit from being uncomfortable.

It is not a parent's job to protect their kids from everything.

It's our job to give them the skills to overcome difficult situations.

We can do this in a gracious way that makes them want to learn and become empathetic and passionate. If we don't teach them to work hard through struggles, how will they learn? We can follow up by teaching them to see beyond the hurt and find the strength in a difficult situation—to remind them they are capable of doing hard things. Here's how to get started:

1. Play outside alone

When they are old enough to listen and follow rules, know that it is OK to play outside, to get dirty, to enjoy some freedom.

We can teach them the boundaries and watch them from afar. They are never going to learn how to follow rules on their own if we never give them any to follow, because we are at their side telling them "no" all the time.

2. Take charge of their own activities

There are parents out there who coach kids' sports, and we are grateful for them. Then there are parents who only coach because they want to control everything their child touches, favor their child and make sure they get the best of the best treatment during every game. These parents are only hurting their kids and leading them to believe they really don't have to be a part of a team, that they will always come first.

When these kids get shoved into real life, jobs or go off to college, they are going to be lost—unless their parents go with them.

3. Speak for themselves, even if they are shy

There is a time and place for this, of course, but my best friend taught me something so valuable last year. Her daughter did not like the way my son was playing, and she told her mom. My friend looked at her daughter and said, "If you don't like the way Jack is playing with you, you have to tell him." So she did, and he listened (for a few minutes anyway). When he started getting too wild again, her daughter looked at him again and told him to stop.

It is so hard not to get involved here, and sometimes we have to. But when we empower our children to speak up, it gives them confidence to set boundaries that are going to be essential as they grow up.

If your child gets in trouble in school, let the teacher handle it unless they ask you for help.

As they get older, they are drawn to certain kids.

If my kid gets in trouble at school, I don't believe for a second the teacher is going to take the time out of their day to contact me, punish my child and come up with a way to better their behavior for the fun of it. I refuse to take my child's side and try to get them out of a punishment they clearly deserve. While they are at school or daycare, they must follow the rules of their teacher, because I am not there to see what is going on or help them. Rules keep them and their classmates safe, and they will start to think they are exempt from these rules if I step in every time.

4. Right their own wrongs

One of my kids stole something from a friend when they were 5. It was horrible for both of us and very embarrassing. It took all I could muster to not return the stolen item, apologize and let it go without bringing my child into it. Instead, I sent my child over there, and they fixed it.

It was really hard, but I believe they learned a lesson that day.

5. Make mistakes while learning healthy eating habits

If they have certain dietary restrictions or allergies, this is a given. But I have been the mom who dropped off her kid at a party and told the host they couldn't have a lot of sugar because it makes them feel sick. First of all, it's not the job of the gracious parents who decided to throw their child a fun birthday party to monitor what my child eats. Second, if my child decides to eat too much sugar when I am not there to stop them, they won't feel very good.

All three of mine have done this. And they have all learned from it.

My son once ate too many fruit snacks at the neighbor's house and felt horrible for the rest of the afternoon. To this day, he has one packet and says, "That is enough for me."

The upshot is that being hurt is part of the journey of life.

6. Choose their own friends

This is a hard one, I know. I am not saying lock them in a room with someone who physically or mentally abuses them, but I am saying we can not choose our kids' friends. As they get older, they are drawn to certain kids. All three of my children (especially my boys) have been drawn to crowds or kids I didn't feel set the best example. It was on the tip of my tongue so many times to say, "No you can't hang out with Tommy," but I knew my kids liked them despite that fact I did not.

My child has the choice here, and they' re the ones who need to see and feel what a healthy relationship feels like. I can give them support and encouragement to walk away from something that feels wrong. I can teach them about peer pressure and remind them just because someone makes a bad choice, they need to stand strong and do what's right or there will be consequences.

But I cannot pick and choose who my kids want to be friends with any more than I can choose what eye color they have.

The upshot is that being hurt is part of the journey of life. When we let kids have true experiences and get out of the way so they can recognize and fix their mistakes, we are giving them an opportunity to learn how to cope in a healthy way and in a stressful world that is absolutely not fair.

Believe it or not, one day they will thank you. At which point, you will thank yourself for enduring their hardships, against all your impulses, when they were young.

More from toddler