One of my goals as a parent is to raise an independent individual. I firmly believe that part of my responsibility as a parent is to encourage my child to be an independent thinker, a problem solver, and a life-long learner. I also want each of my children to carry with him/her basic life skills and habits that will make his/her adult life easier.
But what does that look like when you have very young children? Believe it or not, it is a great place to start thinking this way. It is easy as a mom to want to step in and help our child through each situation. There will be times when that is necessary, but I believe that our society as a whole has encouraged parents to jump in and help much too easily.
In a four year old, this usually involves teaching them independence in dressing themselves, taking care of their own toys, taking responsibility for putting things away that they get out, etc. In an eight year old it will look like taking responsibility for not finishing homework, learning to do some expected chores, taking initiative, etc. It will look different in each age and for each child, but we should always be instilling independence in our children. Part of our job as parents is to gently push them to the next level of independence.
College students ask their parents (and they do it!) to step in and make excuses for their missed homework. Why? Because their parents did it when they were eight, and ten, and fifteen. Adult children have to be reminded to pay their bills. They do not know how to research solutions for caring for their car, buying a house, purchasing insurance, etc. Young adults are often bailed out of financial predicaments due to poor choices, because a parent would rather just pay the bill then let their child learn a good financial lesson. As a rule, our society has not been raising independent adults.
Here are some things to think about as we try to raise independent children:
1. The easiest way is not always the best.
It is easier, as parents, to do things ourselves. Whether that is in the kitchen, in the toy room, or homework, it takes more work as a parent to walk our children through the process than to do it ourselves.
Many times when we are walking out the door, as I grab my kids’ coats and shoes, I think it would be much faster to put on all three children’s coats and shoes than to wait for my son to put them on himself.
It is easier to pick up the toys myself than to teach my two-year-old that if she takes something out, it is her responsibility to put it away.
It is much quicker to peel the potato myself than to painstakingly teach my four year old how to do it safely.
As a mom I am not looking for the easy way. I am looking 20 years down the road and thinking about what will make my child’s life easier. Hands down, teaching him independence now is the best way.
2. They will learn from mistakes in a safe environment.
A couple of months ago we were heading outside to play and my son did not want to put a coat on. I knew it was cold out, but rather than make it a battle I decided to let this be a learning opportunity for him. I let him know that I thought he needed it but that he could make that choice. We went outside and within just a few minutes he realized that he had made a wrong choice. In a very non-threatening way, he learned that there was a consequence to his decision. He got cold.
This may seem almost silly to you. But there is a problem when as parents we dictate every minute detail of our children’s lives. If they cannot experiment safely and make decisions that might hurt them in a small way, they will never learn how to make decisions. They will end up having this learning process when they are older and the consequences are much more serious.
3. They will learn to not give up.
Some children are, by nature, individualists. They want to do everything on their own and never want help. Other children crave the easy way out. My children, and I would guess this is the case for most, sometimes alternate between these two extremes. There are times when the independent streak comes out, and there are other times when they suddenly want to be very babyish and have Mommy do everything for them.
When our children encounter frustration with a toy or a homework assignment, it is easy to simply solve the problem ourselves. I often have to consciously stop myself and let them try and figure it out on their own. They need to get frustrated sometimes. That is how they learn to solve problems. That is how they learn not to give up when something gets difficult. When my son is twenty-five, he should not be running to a teacher or a boss or a parent to figure out every single one of his little problems. That may seem like a farfetched conclusion, but that mentality starts when they are young.
Teaching independence is not the easy way. Do not let any one deceive you in that. It takes much more effort, time, and patience on the part of the parent to do this. But we need to take the focus off the now and think fifteen, twenty years down the road.
Our churches, communities, and society at large do not need individuals that only know how to be micro-managed and follow directions. They need individuals that can think independently, can problem-solve, and can learn whatever they need to and not give up. Make sure that is what your children are. Our children are our future.