Promoting Independent Thinking in Children

How to Cultivate Autonomy

From choosing an ice cream flavor to choosing a career path, our lives are colored by our ability to make decisions and think for ourselves. Autonomy is a marker of adulthood, and it’s a skill that parents can begin cultivating in their children from the start. To get more insight into this process, we spoke with Hillary Mossburg, a licensed professional counselor and mental health service provider at Henegar Counseling Center.

Start Early

Children begin developing a strong sense of self early on, as anyone who has lived through the “terrible twos” stage of parenthood knows full well. In order to make more complex decisions later in life, young kids need to be involved in decision-making processes to develop their confidence, empathy, and curiosity over time. For little ones, start small by offering two options, such as which snack to eat or which shirt to wear. As they grow older, kids can be “helpers” for age-appropriate tasks, like putting away toys or setting the table for dinner. While putting away groceries seems like a chore to adults, similar tasks encourage children to take pride in their work and feel valued for their contributions. Overcontrolling a child’s behavior, on the other hand, limits a child’s opportunity to explore and may make it more difficult for them to navigate obstacles later on.

child placing a large puzzle piece onto wall

Start the Conversation

Inevitably some decisions are best left to trustworthy guardians, but don’t shy away from conversations with your kiddo about why you make the choices you make. Children can still learn how to make thoughtful choices when they see that behavior modeled in adults. Talking through problem-solving provides a framework for children to learn critical-thinking skills. Even playtime, movie nights, and reading together can provide opportunities to introduce your children to different viewpoints. Whether through novels or playing make-believe, encouraging your child to consume stories with diverse perspectives helps them develop empathy and become more considerate thinkers.

Step Back

Once you’ve laid the foundation for your child to feel confident in facing the world, the next step is also the hardest: step back. While it’s natural to want to shield your child from discomfort, setting your children up for long-term success means navigating obstacles in a way that empowers your child to persevere through difficulty. Failure is one of life’s most powerful teachers, and providing a safe space for your child to make mistakes is a way to communicate that you believe in them and are committed to supporting them. When facing an issue, consider asking your child if they want counsel on a situation or just a listening ear and encouragement. At the end of the day, be patient with yourself and your child as you navigate the road to independence. Prioritize connection over perfection – after all, it’s only spilled milk.


Q. What language helps build confidence in kids?

A. Recognize efforts more than outcome. If your child is struggling, address the concerning behavior while acknowledging the good behavior, even if it’s small. Be mindful of how you talk about others who are different than you or who you disagree with. Speak of others with dignity, separating the person from their action or belief. This will help your child develop empathy for others while forming a belief that you can be different than someone but still worthy and respected.

Q. What challenges might parents face in this process?

A. Parents can encourage independent thinking by asking their children questions about their thoughts, perspectives, and hopes, but this may lead to hearing an idea that you, as the parent, don’t agree with. Perhaps their perspective stirs up feelings of anger, fear, or sadness. Reacting out of these emotions can easily shut down the conversation. However, if you can stay in the conversation with a posture of curiosity and openness, you’ll have the opportunity to understand what matters to your child and learn about who they are growing up to be.

Q. What advice would you give to a parent who is feeling anxious about watching their child struggle?

A. It’s okay to feel sad, disappointed, or frustrated with your child in their struggles. Showing them how to regulate these emotions helps them know they are not alone and demonstrates how to grow through difficulty. Examine your own relationship with failure – is this an area of growth for you as well? Approaching your anxiousness with curiosity helps you step back as a parent and consider what’s best for your child. However, if the anxiety is leading to avoidance, isolation, or placing unnecessary fear onto your child, it would be a good idea to reach out for help, talk with your partner or a trusted friend, or consider therapy.

Picture of Hilary Mossburg

Hilary Mossburg

LPC-MHSP, Henegar Counseling Center

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