(Article for September 2012 issue Joburg’s Child and Cape Town’s Child magazines) Written by Tamarin Epstein, Educational Psychologist from PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre, in Bedfordview, Johannesburg. Contact details:info@psychmatters.co.za

  1. Why is it so important to teach your child self-reliance?As parents, one of our most important responsibilities is to prepare our children for adult life. As they grow and develop, children need to be encouraged to develop independence, at age-appropriate levels. Mastery of a task enhances a child’s physical and cognitive abilities. Independence-building is also vital in a child’s emotional development, building positive coping skills and self-esteem.
  2. At what age should a child be able to:All children are unique, and develop at varying rates. These are upper age limits, so should act as general guidelines. Adequate parental training, guidance and encouragement must be provided, in order to expect children to achieve these skills. Children born prematurely may take a little longer to achieve milestones, than their peers. If a child has not achieved a milestone, by the recommended age limit, with adequate training and support, consult a paediatrician or an Educational Psychologist.
    • Wipe his/her bottom? By age 5.
    • Dress himself?: By age 4.
    • Organise playdates himself: By age 10 (as long as the child understands that arrangements must be communicated to, and agreed on, by both their own and their friend’s parents, in advance).
    • Pack and unpack their bag for school: By age 9.
    • Make own lunch? By age 8 (if cooking, sharp knives and food processors are not required).
    • Do homework by himself? By age 10, a child should be able to complete homework tasks independently, and ask for guidance and support, when s/he needs it. A capable adult should be on hand, to provide this.


  1. What other vital tasks is it important for children to be able to do by themselves between the ages of 2 and 13.
    • Achieve day dryness (only wearing nappies at night) – by age 3.
    • Achieve night dryness (no nappies) – by age 4.
    • Wash his/her own face, brush teeth and hair, apply lotion/sunscreen to face and body: by age 5
    • Feed him/herself: by age 4.
    • Wash own hands: by age 4
    • Wash him/her body and hair properly in the bath/shower: by age 6.
    • Basic use of a telephone and cell phone (answering phone, talking on phone, and dialling emergency numbers): by age 5.
    • Know own name, surname, address and parent’s cell phone numbers: by age 5.


  2. What can go wrong when trying to teach your child self reliance– for example, the parent’s frustrations, the child’s reluctance or fear, or decision for which parents don’t approve? How does one manage these pitfalls?
    • Children can be reluctant to try, or oppositional – if they don’t trust their own abilities, if they believe that mastering the task will mean getting less parental attention, if they have less adaptable temperaments, or if they have emotional difficulties which make them feel insecure and behave in needy ways.Encourage your child to try, initially with help. Praise them on their efforts.
      Slowly phase out the help, while offering your child a small reward for finally achieving the task on their own. The reward will act as positive reinforcer, and should be something of interest and value to the child.

      Don’t be afraid to allow your child to struggle. If you always jump in and do it for them, you create and reinforce dependency. Rather, respond to their frustration by offering advice on how to do the task. Let them know how proud you are of them, with words of praise, cuddles and kisses.

      Accept messiness, especially at first. That there may be water on the floor, when a child is first learning to wash their own hands, or a messy kitchen, when a young child is preparing their own meals.

    • Children can use independence to push their boundaries – if they feel unfairly treated or restricted, in some way.

      Explain the boundary and your reasoning to your child. Be gentle, but firm, in insisting that this boundary is maintained. Explain to your child that s/he doesn’t have to agree with you, but must still respect your decisions.

    • Parents may feel overwhelmed by how much they still need to do for their children, especially if they are single parents and/or have more than one child.

      Ensure that your expectations of your child are reasonable and age-appropriate. Make sure that you have provided the child with adequate training and encouragement, before expecting them to achieve a task on their own. Try not to push or be critical, but rather encourage and support. Commend your child on the effort they are making, whether or not it yields actual results. Don’t negatively compare their achievements (or lack thereof) to their siblings, or other children. Every child is unique. There are no young adults still in nappies, who can’t pack their own bags. Your children will get there too, eventually. Be patient with them, and not build their (and your own) anxiety. Above all, pick your battles.

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