An Age-by-Age Guide to Building Independence in Your Kids

You know your kids best, but don't assume your queasiness means they're not ready to be more independent. 
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"The more we involve them in age-appropriate tasks and activities, the more we're surprised by how much they are capable of," says Parents advisor Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital and author of Mama Doc Medicine. Here, a checklist of ways to start swapping fear for freedom.

Have a drop-off playdateAge: Pre-K and up
"This is wonderful for forming independent relationships outside the home and giving your kids time away from hovering," says Dr. Swanson. If your child is already in school a few days a week and has formed some friendships, she may be ready. But if you have any doubts, start with a neighborhood friend; you can dash back if the date goes south. 

Use a knife Age: Pre-K and up
"Involving kids in food prep from the beginning encourages them to make healthy choices," says Dr. Swanson, whose own children were spreading peanut butter with a knife before they entered elementary school. When her 6-year-old recently asked to cut a baguette with a bigger, serrated knife, Dr. Swanson let him go for it as she watched. "It built confidence for both of us," she says.

Send your kid to camp, sleepaway or not
Age: 4 and up

What's so independent about camp? No parents! Kids can go to day camp as young as Pre-K, and some kids are ready for sleepaway earlier than others, though many kids feel ready to try it for the first time between the ages of 8 and 12.

Walk a few blocks alone
Age: 6 and up

Some neighborhoods feel safer than others. Some kids seem more prone to recklessness than others. If you've never let your first-grader out the door alone, you might start by letting her play in the front yard. If you haven't already, this is a great time to forge a few friendships on your block. That way, you can feel better about sending your child down the street to a neighborhood friend's house, perhaps texting the friend's mom to peek out the window the first few times. From there, work up to allowing your kid to walk to school or another regular destination.

Run into a convenience store for milk while you wait in the car
Age: First/second grade and up

Counting money, talking to strangers, and deliberating among whole, low-fat, and skim—all while you monitor the door from the driver's seat? It might be a humdrum errand for you, but it's a life-changing experience for him.

Get dropped off at the mall (or library or movie) with friends
Age: 11 to 14

Sure, this is great practice for adhering to a timeline and managing money. But if it feels too risky now, start smaller. Take your junior-high-schooler and her core crowd to the movie theater—or to the mall, where they can roam for an hour. (If you can't bear to leave, linger with a cup of coffee at the food court.)

Send them to college
Age: 18+


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