Helping Your Preschooler Become Independent


Try these tried-and-true, pediatrician-approved tips for enjoying the “I did it myself!” years

As every parent knows, the years when their kids are past the toddler stage but not yet in kindergarten zip by especially fast. Full of boundless energy, curiosity, belligerence and yes, more than a few tantrums, the years from ages 3-6 are an important time to teach your child how to be an independent person, make good decisions, understand consequences and be safe. Here are some reliable guidelines to help your growing youngster build a secure foundation as he/she prepares to enter the world of kindergarten and beyond.

1) Set limits and establish consequences

Glenn Kaplan MD, Westchester Health Pediatrics

Glenn E. Kaplan, MD, FAAP

Appropriate discipline, along with praise, is an important way to help your child develop into a responsible, well-adjusted adult. When he/she crosses the line and does something against the rules, explain in a few simple words how the behavior was wrong and what will happen if it continues. Consequences need to be meaningful and simple. For example:

  • If your child rides a bike without a helmet, the bike is off limits for a day or two.
  • When your child won’t share a toy, that toy can’t be played with for the rest of the day.

2) Create routines

Daily routines help kids feel secure because they know what to expect from day to day. Helping your child turn these repetitions into habits will establish a daily rhythm that will stay with him/her throughout life.

In the morning:

  • Go to the bathroom
  • Get dressed
  • Have breakfast
  • Brush teeth and hair

At bedtime:

  • Take a bath
  • Put on pajamas
  • Brush teeth
  • Read a story

Reading with your child at this age is really important. Not only does it help your child learn to read, it’s an important bonding time for the two of you, along with helping him/her settle down after a busy day and get ready for sleep.

3) Take time to talk and listen

Young children feel important when adults, especially their parents, take the time to talk with them. Talking often and about different things helps them gain self-confidence. Whenever you can, ask your child about his/her experiences, likes/dislikes, thoughts, dreams, friendships, games, favorite songs…anything! Let your child know that it’s OK to have negative feelings or be mad about something. You can also share the best and worst parts of your day, which teaches your child that we all have ups and downs.

4) Assign simple chores

When young children mimic and carry out your everyday household tasks, they’re really learning to contribute, which helps build good self-esteem. As they grow older, they can begin to take on age-appropriate responsibilities and chores, such as:

  • Setting the table
  • Putting away their toys
  • Feeding the pets
  • Placing dirty clothes in a basket

5) Encourage your child to dress himself/herself

This may take a lot longer than dressing your child yourself but it is time well spent. Little by little, independence will come with practice and with your guidance.

Put out your child’s clothes the night before so in the morning, he/she will just need to put them on. And remember: praise is a great motivator and confidence-booster! Just a simple: “You did a great job getting yourself ready for school today!” will do wonders for your little one’s self-esteem.

6) Teach safety around adults

Keeping your child safe is one of your most important jobs as a parent. It’s important for your child to respect and trust adults, but he/she also needs to learn to be careful and not be too trusting. Here are some ways to start a conversation with your child about the importance of keeping safe:

  • “If an adult asks you to do something that you’re sure is OK, ask me, your teacher or an adult you trust.”
  • “Never keep secrets, even if an adult asks you to. No one should ever tell you to keep a secret from me because it would make me mad if I found out.”
  • “Certain body parts are private. I’ll tell you which ones.”
  • “Nobody (except your parents, a doctor or a nurse) should touch your private body parts, not even your friends.”
  • “This is a very busy place. If you can’t find me, find a security guard or police officer, or ask someone to help you find one. That person will help you find me.”

7) Help your child become a good friend

Four- to six-year-olds are still learning what it means to be a friend, which includes everything from games and laughs to arguments and hurt feelings. Although it might be tempting for you to try to solve your child’s problems yourself or go to the other child’s parent, it’s far better for your child to work out the solution himself/herself. Help your child understand the other child’s point of view and use words to describe what he/she is feeling (“I guess Sam wants a turn on the swing too.”)

Learning how to communicate, make up, share, compromise and forgive a friend are crucial lifelong lessons that if learned now, will go a long way to helping your child build character as well as independence.

Helping your preschooler become independent now will establish a sound emotional foundation for the future

As children strive to gain more independence, they need to feel they can make it on their own. Give them opportunities in which to test themselves, reason things out, problem-solve and experience the consequences of their actions. This kind of self-awareness is critical for future emotional growth. Our #1 goal is to help you raise happy, healthy kids and for you to feel confident as a parent. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

 By Glenn E. Kaplan, MD, FAAP, Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball