Encouraging independence in your children

Every parent wants to be protective of their children, but, how protective is too protective? Could you actually be smothering your child?

We can learn a lot from the parenting skills of birds. When it comes time for a baby bird to leave the nest, the parent will often push it out.

We humans frequently do the opposite and overprotect our young. Yet, sometimes, allowing our children independence to experience hardship and supporting them through it can be one of the greatest gifts we can offer.

Johnny Cash wrote the hit song A Boy named Sue which tells of a father who, before being imprisoned, named his newborn son Sue. The father’s reasoning was that because he wouldn’t be able to protect his son from within a prison, he had to provide an environment where his son would be forced to learn to protect himself.

Like hand calluses from physical labour, it’s usually the things that initially seem harsh that can protect us by making us stronger. I’m not advocating teasing, nor am I suggesting renaming your child with a deliberately inappropriate name. What I am talking about is helping your child develop resilience to life’s stressors so they can learn to bounce back from hardship.

What is resilience?

Resilience is a psychological term referring to a person’s ability to bounce back from difficult times or recover from distress.

Resilience has intrigued psychologists as to why some people can experience a setback and recover, while a similar setback may scar another person for the rest of their life.

Much research has been done into the area to discover the key ingredients, and nothing destroys resilience faster than wrapping a child in cotton wool. Alternatively, encouraging children to be independent helps foster resilience.

How can you encourage your child to be independent and build their resilience?

Practical examples include letting them:

  • walk to school (or, if you are too far away and you drive your child, drop them off a short distance from school and let them walk)
  • catch the school bus
  • make their own lunch
  • be responsible for doing their assignment and accepting the associated costs if they choose not to
  • answer the home phone
  • pay for a newspaper while you stand and watch from just outside the shop entrance
  • resist talking for your child when another adult asks them a question.

Using the above examples as a guide only, come up with some ideas that are suitable for your child. The challenges you choose for your child will depend on your child’s age and situation, and therefore some of the above examples may not be appropriate.

Why develop resilience?

The aim of developing resilience by giving your child independence is to let your child experience hardship in a controlled fashion so that they foster a belief in themselves that they can cope with setbacks. Your role is to prevent yourself from going immediately to their aid when they experience this mild hardship.

What degree of hardship should your child be exposed to before you step in and rescue? The rule for knowing when to intervene is when the situation threatens your child’s immediate safety. Otherwise stand back, give your child their independence and allow them to learn. This is probably the hardest thing for a parent to do.

I recall the first time I let my young daughter, who was seven years old at the time, go into the shop by herself and buy a carton of milk. As I stood outside the shop waiting for her, a million thoughts of all the things that could go wrong flashed through my mind. Then after a few short minutes, which seemed like an eternity, my daughter triumphantly appeared clutching both the carton of milk and the change.

Encouraging your child to be independent and step out of the nest will be one of the hardest things you do as a parent.

However, if you don’t give your child some sense of independence, you are basically communicating to them that they are weak, and you don’t believe they can cope.

A child who has a realistic degree of independence and is encouraged by their parents to exercise this independence will more likely be resilient to life’s obstacles. Giving the gift of resilience to your child is a gift you cannot put a price on.

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