From the very second our children arrive in this world, our gut instinct as parents is to protect, care and, at least in the physical sense (and for some in the literal), shelter them. These precious, fragile little beings immediately become our everything, and vice versa. But at some point our guidance needs to become a balance of nurturing and encouraging freedom and individuality.
With that being said, the question is raised: How do we start teaching our little birds how to fly? When our instincts are to be warm and loving toward our children, the idea of giving them a push toward doing things on their own can feel a little cold. But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be.
“Fostering independence begins in infancy,” says parenting coach Maggie Stevens, author of The Parent Fix: When Parents Change, Kids Change (Familius, 2014). “It begins with love and building a strong parent/child relationship. It is a parent’s responsibility to love a child unconditionally, creating a safe haven where the child can feel secure. The independent child arises from a secure home environment. Unconditional love allows a parent to lift a child high and independence takes over when the parent steps back as the child begins to flap his wings.”
The way in which we encourage freedom and self-sufficiency to our children will change over the years as they get older, but one thing remains the same, the lesson starts in the home.
Babies & Toddlers
The world becomes very interesting to babies early on in life, as their vision sharpens and they begin to notice the world around them. With that sense of wonder comes the desire to learn more, and their sense of independence starts to take shape.
“Babies are wired to explore their world using their senses,” says Richard Rende, Ph.D., author of Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World (TarcherPerigee, 2015). “Babies use movement to guide their exploration – sitting up, crawling, trying to walk – and this is their first taste of independence. They go off on their own, and then they come back. A metaphor for the rest of their life. Movement is the essence in the first year of life and should be encouraged as much as possible.”
At this age independence is all in what we, as adults, might consider the “little things,” but are a big deal to little ones. Learning to walk is, of course, a monumental moment in a baby’s life, feeling that sense of power over their legs and feet and truly being able to take one step at a time, while something like giving up a beloved pacifier or other attachment item might be deemed more subtle.
And those “terrible two” moments when you feel like your child is testing your patience in every way imaginable? It’s frustrating and seemingly impossible to get through without ripping your hair out, but breathe deep, because experimenting with limits is all part of the process of discovering independence.
“Toddlers want to be hands-on explorers and learners,” says Rende. “They want to go off on their own and manipulate objects, climb, run and try to figure things out on their own without boundaries.”
It’s an exciting time to watch our children develop their own opinions, likes and dislikes, even if those ideas don’t always mesh so well with our own. But their burgeoning personalities can tell us a lot about how they will fare on their own – whether they’re excited to take the lead on a task at home or happy to let mom and dad tend to their every whim.
“School-aged children should be nurtured to explore their own interests, begin to take on some reasonable responsibilities in collaboration with family members, spend time with friends and other people,” says Rende.
This is a time when those drop-off playdates should become a lot easier, when separating from parents becomes less of an issue than perhaps the way it was during those first months of daycare or preschool. But if your child still feels uneasy about these situations, remember that no two kids are alike and everyone develops at different speeds.
“No child learns to walk at the same time just as no child learns to read the same day/month/year as their siblings,” says Stevens. “The key is to help your child meet their needs – sometimes labeled as fears – and then they will let you know when they can handle a situation. For example, if your child needs you to walk them to school, do it until she feels secure. She will tell you when she feels comfortable walking alone or with a friend. If there is a problem with friends or a teacher, listen to your child and then ask how you can help. Or make possible suggestions. But always listen first. Your child will tell you when you are needed to step in.”
Stevens offers up a great anecdote from her own family of her children joking that it was time for her to don her “angry mom” shirt. In essence it was their way of asking for her help in handling a school or teacher issue. By demonstrating how these situations can be resolved appropriately, her children were then able to eventually manage these themselves.
“Children naturally want to be independent,” she reminds us. “The important thing to remember is that they need to learn how to do it.”
Is there any stage of parenting more terrifying than the teen years? As a parent it’s easy to be torn between wanting to keep them safely close and looking forward to watching them forge their own path. But is there any reason you can’t do both? While teens may act like they don’t want anything to do with mom and dad, this is the time when they need guidance and maybe a nudge in the right direction the most.
“Teenagers should be allowed to start making their own choices (and experience their own consequences) in the context of proper conversation and guidance with parents,” says Rende. “Let them test things out – sports, music, arts, cooking – so they get a sense that they can navigate their own life.”
He also advises that kids of this age should be encouraged to map out what they want in life, as opposed to what their parents have in mind for them.
“Always try to instill a growth mind-set and optimism,” says Rende. “A sense that they can always try to make something in their life better. To cultivate this model and encourage problem solving and a ‘can-do’ spirit, rather than negativity and critiquing.”
Stevens concurs that criticism won’t get you anywhere in terms of helping your teen find their own path and encourages parents to release their own judgments and expectations. Rather, be positive in what your child sets out to do.
“Sometimes parents’ own fears of failure arise when a child needs their support,” she says. “When as a parent you can let go of convincing, correcting, controlling and trying to change your child, you release ownership of your child. That is when the independent child thrives!”