INTRODUCING CHILDREN TO INDEPENDENCE
Would you let your child take a job at age twelve and get married at fifteen? There was a time when society considered that perfectly normal.
Do you expect your children to still be asking your permission on major decisions when they’re fifty? There was a time when society considered that perfectly normal—and sometimes these were the same societies that married kids off as teenagers. Mostly to partners of the parents’ choice.
Parental reluctance to let go is a universal trait. In our own society, though, there are few universally accepted norms for deciding who’s old enough for what. Even many norms prescribed by law leave room for parental discretion. Unfortunately, parental discretion is skewed by personal feelings—sometimes by what-will-the-neighbors-think worries, but often by inability to look through images of the baby in the past and focus on the developing youth in the present.
The best way to help your kids—and yourself—grow up at the proper pace is by the slow-yet-steady approach.
Appreciate Opportunities for Incremental Growth
Even the most rapidly growing adolescent doesn’t literally gain three inches overnight. Nor can they touch their first steering wheel on Tuesday and get a driver’s license on Thursday. This doesn’t mean, though, that your response to the first “When can I drive?” inquiry should stop at “In about five years.” You can continue with, “What could you do right now to be ready then?” Even a ten-year-old might look up videos on safe driving, make a game of learning basic traffic laws, and find safe ways to practice maneuvering large objects.
Let Them Exercise Their Own Discretion
While kids obviously can’t be allowed to jump right into the big and the dangerous every time it catches their eye, they need opportunities to challenge themselves and stretch their comfort zones. So long as there’s no danger to life, limb, or law-abiding status, don’t be too quick to say, “You can’t try that, it’s too hard for you.” If you make every decision for your children until they’re twenty-one, don’t be surprised when they finish college and can’t think of any next step beyond coming home and living off your generosity.
Let Them Struggle a Bit
One norm our society does seem to agree on—unfortunately—is: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up and expect someone else to do it for you.” Which parents too often reinforce in a drive for efficiency and a reluctance to see children “suffer.” If there’s anything worse than, “You’re not old enough, and that’s that,” it’s, “That’s too hard for you; let me do it.”
Even if your kids scream in frustration because their shoe-tying or silverware-sorting is proving “impossible” to figure out, you have options besides rushing to the rescue:
- Show them how to take deep breaths to recalibrate.
- Offer gentle next-step encouragement without touching the work yourself.
- Suggest they do something else for a while, and leave the job unfinished until they’re refreshed and ready to try again.
And when they do proudly declare a new project “finished,” bite your tongue hard if the results look sloppy to you. Again, independence is not built on demands for overnight maturity. It’s built on “failing your way to success.”