Family, Kids & Relationships

9 ways to give kids more autonomy and prepare them for the real world (without getting in trouble)

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In the Japanese reality show Old Enough!, toddlers as young as two years old run errands all by themselves—for example, walking to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner. If you’ve watched an episode, you’ve probably been struck by how much responsibility children can handle from a very young age, and also how much self-worth and confidence they can gain from being trusted to do these things on their own.

While the practice of letting little kids run errands for their parents is actually quite common around the world, most parents living in America face a different reality: We often can’t let kids (even well beyond toddlerhood) roam too far on their own without getting into trouble or being seen as negligent. In some localities, it might be against the law.

The very idea of “free-range parenting” takes a good amount of privilege, starting with a safe neighborhood, and with having enough clout in the community that watchful eyes would give you and your kids the benefit of the doubt. Black and brown families and those with other marginalized identities, in particular, may not feel safe letting kids venture out on their own, because neighbors and authorities may not be quite so understanding towards them.

All parents can learn something from the concept of letting kids run errands, though. Kids can do so much and learn so much, if we just let them try—without all the hovering. And if we let them practice this kind of autonomy in the real world, they can build the skills and confidence they will need for life, including how to interact with others in the community and how to ask for help when they need it.

In fact, when kids are not given enough autonomy, it can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression in kids and teenagers—as well as young adults who don’t know how to manage on their own. Plus, worrying about kids’ every move leads to increased stress levels in parents too!

Here are some realistic ways to let kids do more on their own and build up their sense of autonomy, while staying closer to the limits of our shorter-leash cultural norms. Be sure to check your local laws and consider your kids’ ages—plus their health and developmental needs—before trying these ideas.

Have kids fetch things in the store (with you)

Next time you’re out shopping as a family, ask kids to find certain items for you and bring them back. You can start by sending them to the other end of the same aisle where you are, and then as you get more comfortable, send them to another aisle. Once you get started with this system, you’ll think of more mini-errands-within-errands that kids could be responsible for: For example, they could switch one load of laundry to the dryer while you’re folding another load on the other side of the laundromat.

Send kids to the check-out line

Once kids have seen you purchase items at a store repeatedly, have them start being the ones to count and hand over the money. Show them how to check the amount on the register, count change, ask for a receipt, etc. When you’re ready, you can send them to check out on their own, while you wait by the exit.

Start them solo with one or two favorite locations

If there are certain small stores, restaurants, or other locations that you frequent, get to know and trust the workers and other regulars present there. Be friendly, introduce your kids to others, and learn the landscape well so you can come up with a safety plan if anything goes wrong. You can even explain to trusted owners or employees that your child might come in on their own soon. Then when you’re ready, have them go in by themselves for something small, like picking up a takeout order or placing a simple order.

Let kids lead a walk, while you follow at a distance

Once they know the rules of the street and can navigate their way around the neighborhood, you can let kids get a head start. As you become more and more comfortable, you can let them go further and further ahead. Maybe that means you trail them half a block behind, or maybe it’s three whole blocks—exactly how far will depend on your neighborhood, your kids’ ages and development, and your own family’s situation. Kids will have control over where they’re going, their pace, and how they interact with the community, but you’ll still be there to talk to any concerned neighbors or address any safety issues along the way.

Enlist kids in meal planning

When kids are ready to have more autonomy in the kitchen, you can also have them plan a meal and shop for groceries. If they’re not ready to shop completely alone, you can stand to the side while they try to retrieve what they need. Encourage them to ask employees when they can’t find something (you can wave and smile from a safe distance to show that it’s okay).

Have kids make phone calls

Kids can benefit from getting used to talking to customer service reps on the phone too. Next time you have a simple phone call to make—like asking a store what time they’re open until—you can have kids practice (on speakerphone the first time, if they want to). If you stick with it, soon they’ll be able to have more complicated phone interactions.

Let kids stay home alone for a brief time

Once they’re around elementary school age, you can help build kids’ independence by letting them stay in the house alone while you go out on a very short walk (start with 5 minutes and see how it goes). Show them how to call you on the phone in case they need anything, or how to contact a trusted neighbor or relative. Note that for longer errands and outings, you’ll need to consider what age is considered appropriate to be left unsupervised.

“Errands” within the house

For the very youngest set, you can start working on autonomy by sending kids to a different room or part of the house to find something or complete a simple task. For example, having them put away folded laundry in their bedroom, or tasking them with finding extra rolls of toilet paper in the closet. Toddlers and preschoolers will be super proud to accomplish these small tasks by themselves, and doing so will also give them a healthy outlet for their energy and curiosity!

Give kids a job—and stop reminding them to do it

Once you establish that kids are always in charge of setting the table, or putting away their clean clothes, for example, try to stop nagging them about it. Hold off on the reminders as long as you can, so you can give them some space and show them that you trust them to be responsible. Remember that mistakes help them learn—and that they’ll usually be proud to do a good job, if you just let them!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.