Independence Days: Seven Ways to Help 6- to 10-Year-Olds Become More Self-Reliant | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Independence Days: Seven Ways to Help 6- to 10-Year-Olds Become More Self-Reliant


Published June 4, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 4, 2024 at 10:53 a.m.

  • Rob Donnelly

Last month my wife, Ann-Elise, and I watched as our teenage children cleared another developmental milestone: They drove by themselves to Massachusetts to catch a flight to Seattle, where they spent a few days hanging out with their cousins.

We got up at 5:30 a.m. to see them off. Graham, 18, was behind the wheel; his 15-year-old sister, Ivy, was in charge of the documents. They'd worked together to come up with a budget.

We got a text from Ivy a few minutes after they left: "Love you! Haven't died yet."

Ha ha.

Their trip was a culmination of all the ways we've encouraged their independence from a young age. I wasn't thinking about it that way when we bought their plane tickets, but the significance of the event struck me after I listened to an interview with psychologist and Boston College professor Peter Gray.

Gray spoke with "Hidden Brain" podcast host Shankar Vedantam about why he believes kids need more freedom from adult direction and supervision.

"In many ways, adults have taken over children's lives," Gray said. Parents these days are expected to be teachers as well as comforters and nurturers, and "the cost has been that it takes away from children's own initiative, from children's own opportunities to figure things out for themselves and learn how to solve problems."

The episode, titled "Parents: Keep Out!," is available at

Inspired by the podcast, I made a list of a few ways in which we helped Graham and Ivy become more self-reliant. A new generation of parents might be interested in trying them during summer vacation — especially since many young kids have lived through a pandemic that disrupted their socialization and left them, and their parents, unsure about taking risks.

I'm here to tell you it's OK to try these experiments in independence with your kids.

Let them walk places on their own.

It's empowering to be able to get from point A to point B by yourself. Is there a friend's house your child could walk to or a well-known place like the library? If that's not an option, look for other opportunities to let them roam in a familiar area such as a park.

Encourage them to interact with adults.

  • Rob Donnelly

If you're in a store and wondering where to find an item, ask your child to approach an employee to ask for help. These supervised interactions with strangers can boost kids' confidence, and, in my experience, adults often respond with kindness. I'll never forget one time we were at the movies when Ivy was 6. We let the kids play arcade games at the theater afterward, and one of Ivy's quarters got stuck in the claw machine. I told her that she had to ask the manager for help, and she agreed — if I would go with her. I held her hand while she approached the counter. The manager listened, apologized and opened up the machine. He returned her quarter to her and gave her one of the stuffed animals that she'd been trying to win. Score! Another less intimidating option might be to have your children order for themselves at a restaurant. If you think they're ready and the place is not too busy, ask the kids if they would like to sit at a separate table or at the counter. For a 7- or 8-year-old, this could feel like a special treat.

Send them into stores by themselves.

  • Rob Donnelly

This is the best way to turn a boring chore — picking up something at the store — into a memorable excursion. I remember the first time I sent Graham and Ivy into our local Shaw's at ages 9 and 7. I had forgotten to get almond milk and eggs, so I gave the kids $10 and presented them with this special mission. "No impulse buys," I said. I stood outside and waited. When they emerged from the store, they were all smiles. They proudly showed me the almond milk and the eggs, which were the cheap kind, not the ones we usually buy. That left them with enough money to afford their prize purchase — a bag of small plastic skulls. This was not an impulse buy, Graham explained, because it was fall and we always decorate for Halloween. "And we got 20 skulls instead of one big one, so it was a good deal!" he said. Hard to argue with that logic.

Have them look for signs.

  • Rob Donnelly

As soon as our kids could read, we started asking them to steer us in the right direction at places such as parks, zoos and museums. "Anybody see a sign for the bathroom?" we'd ask. "Can you point us toward the food court?" I loved doing this in airports. I'd have them check the digital signage to tell us if our flight was on time and what gate we needed to get to. Then I had them lead the way. When I asked Graham about this recently, he said he liked it but it got old by the time he was 10. Now when we travel together, the kids usually walk ahead to our destination and meet us there.

Give them some space.

When I was a kid growing up in suburban Detroit, our tiny fenced-in yard included a row of pine trees. There was a narrow corridor between the trees and the fence where my sister and I would play with our friends; we called it the "Pine Passage." We were still in the yard but out of view of our parents. We spent countless hours there pretending we were Star Wars characters at our rebel base. I'm a big believer in helping kids find those spaces. If you don't have a Pine Passage, try setting up a tent in the yard or build a little clubhouse. Blanket forts work well, too. Then let them play on their own.

Let them take real risks.

  • Rob Donnelly

For us, this meant buying hunting knives for the kids when they were in second grade. It felt a little extreme at the time, but it was one of the supplies they needed for Crow's Path Field School. Until they moved up to middle school, they spent one day a week during the academic year out in the woods at Rock Point in Burlington. Through Crow's Path, they learned knife safety and carving skills, as well as how to start, tend and be safe around fires. We practiced with them on camping trips and in our backyard, too. They carved all kinds of implements, including spoons and a spatula we still use, and they demonstrated the ability to act responsibly with potentially dangerous tools. Best of all: Nobody got hurt.

Teach them to cook and bake.

  • Rob Donnelly

Start small — help your kids master a simple recipe, and it will give them a sense of achievement and positive reinforcement when people try their food and like it. For Graham, it was banana bread. Ivy has perfected a brownie recipe. Breakfast was the first meal they learned to cook on their own. Now they make the morning meal for their friends after sleepovers, complete with eggs, fruit smoothies and chocolate-chip pancakes. Graham recently grilled the most incredible maple-glazed bacon. Alas, he's probably ready for a grill of his own soon.

Conversation Starter

Don't know how to broach this subject with your kids? Psychologist and Boston College professor Peter Gray recommended a good line in the "Hidden Brain" podcast episode "Parents: Keep Out!"

Ask them: What is something you'd really like to do that you feel you could do on your own?

Ideally, that leads to a constructive conversation about boundaries and risk-taking — and it's "an acknowledgment that what the child wants to do is actually important," he said.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.



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