Cultivating Your Children’s Independence at Home

Hauling their hampers to the laundry room.

Having effectively been “raised” at the camp I now direct — Camp Alleghany for Girls — I’ve long known the value of efficiently doing chores and taking care of my personal space and responsibilities.

Between camp’s expectation to keep a clean tent, and take care of your own hygiene, and our famous tent inspections, building chores and “doing your part” into the camp program is less about rigidity and more about just cultivating good roommates, equal and fair participants, and healthiness in body and mind.

In fact, of all the things that parents say to me after swooning over what a great time their girl(s) had at camp, the other thing they’re always remarking on is how she makes her bed, keeps her things organized, and just jumps in to get/do what she needs to around the house. Talk about a win-win.

The thing is, even though camp is amazing for kids, there’s no reason not to implement some very basic methods to get the same kinds of results at home. Not only is it healthy for your kids to learn this kind of independence and self-reliance, it’s healthy for the family. If everyone does their part, and can function independently, the risk isn’t that you won’t be needed. Instead this is about what you’ll gain — more time for the fun stuff!

If stress is lowered for everyone, and expectations and consequences are loving and clear, and everyone grows in personal responsibility, that means time to throw the ball, draw pictures, play family games, make a special treat together, take that family day trip or whatever else makes you happy.

As the mother of three active boys — translation: busy, physical, messy, sometimes forgetful, eager, and with a lot of interests — I quickly learned that if I’m going to wrangle this passel of little men and still do my job, have some me time, and not go crazy we needed a method to the madness. And above all, I wanted it to be simple, clear, matter-of-fact, and battle-free.

They Can Do It!

Beginning in the fall of 2020, two of my three boys were in 100% online school. As of this writing, they’re now physically at school two days a week, and doing online learning the other three days. While I’m privileged to have the help of my parents so that I can work from home, there are still plenty of times when I need to work while I’m at home with the boys, and they’re either doing school work, or need to keep themselves occupied.

In one of the silver linings to the trying pandemic year, having everyone at home most of the time gave me the opportunity to really get this independence going in my boys.

Even if life goes back to normal soon, I think what I learned can be easily adopted by any parents, any time, much to your family’s happiness! For me it was a simple matter of breaking things down into six categories:

  • Self-Care
  • Chores
  • Lunch
  • Schoolwork
  • Personal Laundry
  • Outdoors

Me, Myself, and I

At this stage my oldest brushes his teeth on his own, but we help the two younger ones still since that is the dentist recommendation.

However, they shower on their own, even my 4-year old Noah. My husband Matt checks that all the soap is rinsed from Noah’s hair, but even he can do it all on his own. The boys can all comb their hair after showers or when readying for the day.

They mostly pick out their own clothes — I might make executive decision for special occasions — and even choose layers when it’s colder.

We’re actually getting pretty independent on the hygiene front!

Many Hands Make Light Work

Last spring when everything shut down, we started our kids — then in 3rd grade and younger — on some basic chores that I knew they could easily do. The truth is, I’ve found, kids want to help! They want a purpose. And if its a chore they can easily master, and easily remember time-wise (like always setting the table before dinner, or always putting their clothes in the hamper at bedtime), the repetition soon becomes habit.

Here’s a fun video I did with my boys last spring touting the merits of camp’s “Inspection” only translated to home life.

Really, many chores that are part of camp Inspection easily  translate to home life — cleaning up your personal space, sweeping up, putting things back, and more.

And with all of the Shreckhises all of the sudden piled up around each other all the time last spring, you better believe my kids were helping with chores. I may have hated this pandemic year on so many levels, but in getting my kids on board with chores, it was a Godsend!

Chow Time!

Before last fall, typically I prepped my boys’ lunches to take to school. But I began to think last fall with all-virtual school, and observing them at home so much more, that they were more than capable of putting together their own lunches and snacks if they were only guided in what to do, and the process was made easy for them.

So first my husband Matt and I started with what makes up a healthy meal, and what growing kids needs to have energy and to feel good, and how this differed from treats and special occasion foods, like cakes or candy. We went over, in age-appropriate language of course, why you need protein or vegetables or fat or fruits for your brain and body, and just to feel good.

Then it was up to me to make that easy for them to practice.

I reorganized the fridge and labeled baskets in it with “Protein,” “Vegetables,” etc. I added a sign to the fridge door reminding them how much of each category they should choose, plus a white board listing what tonight’s dinner is, and the available lunch options in each category that week.

I helped them out the first couple weeks, and so quickly they had it down, even my youngest, then not quite four-years-old! Now it’s second nature to them. Even on weekends if they’re hungry for lunch and for whatever reason it’s not going to be a family sit down that day, they can easily — and confidently —  do it on their own.

Readin’, Ritin’, and Rithmatic

When it comes to supervising our kids’ school work, obviously parents have an interest in making sure it’s getting done, and in evaluating any problem areas before they get worse.

At the same time, who needs homework battles, or all day battles in the case of so much on-screen school?

I wanted to strategically step away from monitoring their school work for two reasons.

First, kids need to LOVE learning. That’s what needs to be cultivated. Not the end result, the grade, the approval, the conformity, whatever.

Yes, we want success, skill building, accomplishment, but kids need to like learning for their own reasons, to feel pulled to it and confident about it, and to get it done as one aspect of their personal self-responsibility. It’s a clearly stated expectation.

Secondly, loving learning means self-monitoring. They have independent assignments and need to get a grasp on how to manage that. No time like the present!

Of course kids have different personalities, and different strengths. For example, my oldest, Mason is strictly type A — he wants to get it all done and is very motivated.

My middle child, Ellis, on the other hand, needs a mix of play and imagination in his process. It’s tempting to see his penchant for playing with toys under his desk when he’s supposed to be doing work as avoidance, but it may just be the way he integrates information. Conformity to a rigid ideal isn’t the ideal outcome — the ideal outcome is that he’s motivated to learn.

By setting manageable expectations for him, and nurturing his own style, I see that he’s gotten a lot better over these months at keeping on task, or returning to the task more readily. Honestly one motivator is that he sees that when Mason finishes his work he can start playing free and clear and he’s motivated to get there, too.

We don’t actually monitor their schoolwork in terms of making them prove they did a stated assignment. We operate on trust, and loving communication — taking an interest in their subject matter, following along with class emails, knowing what they’re learning, having an idea what the assignment was, and letting that evolve to just a fun dinner time conversation, or engaging when the subject comes up naturally.

IF I was to find out later that, say, my child had been less than candid, or fudged the truth, that would be a new lesson to tackle about honesty and honor. Better to face that now, when they’re young and internalize these lessons more fully. But what we’re finding is that they want to be their best selves, they want to manage their little corner of life…if we let them.

The Great Outdoors

I’m a big proponent of a classic childhood, of letting kids play outdoors on their own. My kids are old hands at it, so this is nothing new for us. But we still encourage plenty of outside time…without me.

Do you remember when we were young? The standard refrain from parents was, “Go outside and play.” Boy does that ring true!

I don’t struggle with this one — more the opposite, getting them to come back in.

But one little trick that you might find handy that we employed on top of regular outdoor time is the “100 Mile Club.”  Mason and Ellis are both participating in the at-home version of 100 Mile Club this year (it’s typically a school-based program). Last spring when school shut down Mason, who had been doing the club at school, desperately wanted to continue. So we tracked a mile in our neighborhood and Mason started running on his own. Then Ellis wanted in, and now even 4-year-old Noah has got a mile of his own!

Part of gaining greater responsibility, as well as being a part of family, is helping each other out. Mason, a 10-year-old fourth grader, knows to keep an eye on his brothers and takes pride in this important responsibility. We have a very safe and quiet neighborhood that we’re grateful for, but Mason still knows to keep his eyes and ears out for his buddies!

Fresh and Clean

Which mom doesn’t want to outsource the laundry? Especially of boys?

As we entered 2021, having mastered plenty of chores and food management, I thought this would be a good time to tackle the biggie — do your own laundry! Fortunately when you teach your kids chores, and explain why they need to be responsible for themselves, they actually embrace new challenges willingly. Yay to that!

But it takes my work to get them there. So, I worked with them for a couple weeks making sure they understood how to sort, how much laundry was the right amount, when to do it, how to fold, all the details.

I had intended to hang some instruction signs up for them to be able to look at if I wasn’t there to help but they got it down pretty easily without me having to make the signs. So, I have to admit, one more thing off my plate means more time for me to connect with them in new and meaningful ways. And that is awesome!

Putting it all together

Remember that a lot of this came about because the pandemic year has meant juggling busy work days and busy at-home schooling days. Literally we have all been trying so hard to make it happen.

Well all that came home to roost recently when I was home with the kids on a day when multiple work things came up at once — you know the drill, texts are dinging and the emails are coming in and the phone is pinging and people want to Zoom and ten deadlines are converging at once…

Calgon take me away!

If only.

I told the boys I’d be on a couple of conference calls during the time they usually make and eat lunch. I also reminded them that it was their laundry day. Mason then reminded me he wanted to get a few miles in.

Okay. Here’s the amazing part. Very matter-of-factly we discussed the day’s priorities together and mapped out a sample timeline with school work, lunch, laundry, and running. This with a ten-year-old and almost seven-year-old.

I hurriedly added something about extra lunch options in the fridge and then made a bee-line for my conference calls.

“Love ya, gotta go!”

I knew that lunch would be no issue, but I sort of assumed I’d have to take over the laundry since that was a new task for them. I was prepared to be interrupted.

A few hours later I emerged from work to find that they’d finished their school work, finished their laundry, made and eaten a healthy lunch together, shared jokes from a joke book together during lunch that they wanted to tell me about, and then set out for a run, both earning three miles.

Then their youngest brother came home and they all went out to the backyard to play.

Am I dreaming here?

This is not a blog post about how great my kids are. They are great, of course — 🙂 — but this is the outcome of lots of time and effort that wasn’t easy and took my focus and I had to really stay determined about, but that is delivering results beyond my wildest dreams.

It IS possible to cultivate independence and self-reliance and family-participation in kids, even when you’re right there in the same house as your children. I believe if we expect that our children can do these things, they can. They will rise to the occasion, we just have to give them the occasion.

I’ve let my kids play outside without me so much this past year that they’re actually starting to problem solve on their own — and even comfort each other when one gets hurt. I’ve heard one of them start crying, and I’ll look out the window and instead of that child running toward the house for me, the other brothers are consoling him, and no one even comes inside. (Granted this doesn’t always happen, but I’ve observed it as a new growth pattern in them and frankly, I’m so proud!)

Preparing for Camp

Some parents have asked, “How can I prepare her to be away from home if she can’t go anywhere right now?” If she’s not at gymnastics or dance or Girl Scouts maybe she doesn’t get a chance to practice self-reliance and independence, or doesn’t have an option for a sleepover.

I say, don’t worry. Plenty of approaches like the ones listed above will set in motion her understanding of independence, which is the most important underlying feature of all. Does she understand why she should do these things? If so, you’re halfway there!

Sleepovers aren’t happening in most places right now, but if you have a family member or friend in your “bubble” you could practice a sleepover that way. If not, brainstorm tasks specific to your family life and invite her in to solving those problems or completing those tasks. She’ll feel confident and proud about what she can do on her own when given the chance. Then you can say “see how you have managed these things on your own, and how proud you feel? This is how you will feel when you are away at camp!”

If you have some other ideas about nurturing independence in kids I’d love to hear them. Either comment below, or send me an e-mail. Together we’ll help this next generation to be strong, capable, and ready to meet the challenges of their lives with grace, happiness, and compassion.


Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls