From my window I can see kids being picked up from school. In almost every case, as soon as the children meet their parents, they hand over their backpacks for the parents to carry.
When I watch parents dropping their children for school in the morning, frequently the parents exit the car to help their children don their backpacks for the short, very short, walk to the school door.
After concerts in various venues, the parking lot is filled with parents carrying instrument cases.
At our local Easter egg hunt, parents actually found and retrieved eggs for their children . . . what the heck?
What is wrong with this picture?
As parents, it is our job to raise independent people. This is not a “nice to have” as they say of knowledge of C++ in job descriptions; following our primary job of keeping them safe, we are here to raise independent people.
And before too many of you focus on the word “safe,” let me assure you that in the parenthood game, “safe” means keeping them alive to reach adulthood. It does not mean preventing every scratch, bruise, emotional disruption, broken bone, poor decision and purple hair streak. “Safe” means alive and as fully functioning as possible.
How do many of us get this wrong? Why are the adult parents of college students washing the laundry of their adult children? Why are the adult parents of young adults making their lunches? Why are the adult parents of adult children packing their sports gear for the state championship game? We went wrong somewhere.
I am not a psychologist, and I don’t play one on TV, but too many of us wait too long to begin inculcating independence in our children, and I contend that it’s a bad thing all around. It’s wrong to relieve children of their own responsibilities for so long that they don’t realize that doing their laundry is not actually your job. It’s wrong to keep track of their possessions in such detail that they don’t know where their own cleats are stored and blame Mom or Dad when they are still wet from yesterday’s game. It’s wrong to teach our kids that they can’t complete their homework without a parent sitting next to them to cheer them through each sentence.
We are selling our kids short by withholding obvious opportunities for them to grow and understand independence. We are making their independence more difficult by stealing what should be their learning opportunities; we are teaching our children that parents are more servants than guides, nearly without purpose beyond meeting their needs.
Trying to start independence training when our kids are 18 and we are sick of making lunches for them every day is a difficult task. If we begin independence training when our kids are one or two and gently steer them as each month passes, they learn that independence is not a punishment, but a natural part of their lives. Though the actual responsibility of independence is heavier as they grow, they will manage it with more confidence if they have learned since birth that independence is not optional.
Though I had the advantage of a great deal of exposure to children and babies before I had my first child, there were details I never considered. One of my office mates told me that she made a big mistake with her first child. They accidentally taught her that she had to be danced to sleep every night.
Many newborns fall asleep nursing or eating, and it can be duck soup to transfer them to the crib without awakening them. However, each day they gain strength and can resist falling asleep. Before long, my friend’s husband was dancing their daughter for 45 minutes to get her to sleep each night. Who would have guessed that this was an early step to independence that the parents were tripping over? It did not occur to me until that minute that babies had to learn to fall asleep after being put into their cribs awake. It was an astonishing revelation, but a fortuitous one.
I remembered this lesson when my children were born. With each, I started placing them in their cribs awake to teach them to put themselves to sleep. Particularly when holding a little baby is such a joy, this was not easy for me, but I had my coworker’s story haunting me and was able to persevere. The children did not all enjoy the experience, but they quickly mastered this early skill.
Having been alerted, I found many, many similar baby steps toward independence before the children were even a year old. When you keep independence in mind, you see opportunities everywhere. For example, there was no reason for me to run into the nursery as soon as I noticed my child was awake. If he or she was content talking and playing alone in the crib, I should not interrupt. This was another display of independence; children should be able to play alone. Usually by the logical end of naptime, I was ready to see my children again, but I tried not to interrupt learning opportunities like this.
I was able to read a great deal and learn from other parents as long as I kept my independence goal as my guiding star, many aspects of parenthood became less difficult. For example, from playgroups, playgrounds, and family gatherings, I observed that parents and supervisors of children talk to playing children a great deal, and much of what they say is suggestions: Put the red one on next, don’t you want to play with that truck now? Dig over here by me, wouldn’t it look better with the blue next to the green? Why don’t you like the red shovel? Granny just gave you that one.
Without danger anywhere about, we don’t need to say much at all when our children are playing. Let them move from toy to toy as they want, rather than following your suggestions. This is another baby step. It may seem to us that they are spending too much time playing with the box rather than the truck, but that is a choice they made; we don’t need to direct them to something else. This somewhat silly example is another early example of independence and our interference is teaching them that the parent is necessary all the time, even when playing in a sandbox, the opposite of what we want.
I’m going out on a limb here to say that every fully mobile three-year-old should carry his or her own backpack all the way to and all the way from school. And once they start school, no parent should carry their backpacks, instruments, sports bags or clothing. As young as four or five, children should be the primary packers of their bags for school the next day, with perhaps a validation from parents, and not long after, kids should be fully and independently packing school, sports, art, and any other supplies they need. This is junior independence. Yes, they are going to make annoying, embarrassing and frustrating mistakes, but managing their way out of those mistakes is part of the process too.
It is very easy to take complete charge of a very young child and make all their decisions, but if we want fifteen-year-olds who can make decisions, manage their own possessions, and ask for help when they need it, the best way is to start encouraging or permitting independence when that child is a few months old. You can still teach independence later in life, but it is more difficult.
So, after indulging in this rant, am I in a position to say that my own children, products of this wonderfully enlightened process, are completely independent and perfectly balanced as intended? They have challenges as does everyone else, but I feel we both profited from having the independence goal constantly before us.
It prevented me from adopting all of my children’s’ problems and decisions as my own and often prevented my children from blaming me for their problems and decisions. Are they more independent than children raised without independence as a constant goal? I don’t know and don’t want to know; it really isn’t a competition.