Over the summer my mother-in-law from England came to stay with us. As an ‘outsider’ one of the things she commented on was how independent the kids had become.I’d never really thought it as strange or unusual that my five year old makes his own lunch box, and gets himself out of the bath and into his PJs by himself. My nine-year-old daughter knows how to operate the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher, she knows her way around the kitchen and can whip up brownies or a batch of cupcakes completely unaided. Meanwhile the 11 year old catches a public bus from one side of the city to the other every day all on his own (after getting himself up, dressed and fed, his lunch box made the night before). He can also make a pretty decent cup of tea and mow the lawns.
A helicopter parent I am not. But neither am I some kind of organisational genius who is an expert at training little soldiers – far from it. Pushing my three kids towards greater independence is how I survive the daily juggle. I recently discovered I’m dyslexic, which has shed light on why I’ve often battled anxiety and depression, and why I struggle with schedules, timeliness and the daily round of household tasks. So you see for me, teaching my kids to help out and do things for themselves has been a matter of survival.
We’ve tried all sorts of things over the years to reduce stress levels, particularly in the morning. But nothing has ever helped as much as the kids learning to do things for themselves (make lunch boxes, get their own breakfast). Initially I only expected the eldest two to help out and make their own lunches, because hey, what’s so hard about buttering bread and putting snacks and fruit in a box? Little did I realise watching his older siblings do this would inspire the youngest to join in. That’s the nice thing about growing independence – it’s catching. It rubs off from the older kids onto the younger ones. Before you know it your not-quite-six year old is laying out his clothes ready for school and preparing his next-day lunch box as soon as he walks in the door – all the while feeling very proud of himself for being so grown up (bless him!).
While helping my kids learn to be independent and responsible is very helpful to me, my hope is that it’s also setting them up to be confident, motivated and self-sufficient young adults, as well as good flatmates, employees and spouses. The experts tell us true self-esteem is built by increasing a child’s level of mastery, a sense that he/she is capable – not by lavishing them with unearned praise. Children feel good about themselves when they can do stuff.
For a long time I felt a sense of underlying guilt that I didn’t do more for my kids – I’m the one who wrote Confessions of a Lazy Mother after all – but now I am finding that there is a whole lot of research to support my slightly hands-off approach. I adhere to the Nigel Latta school of thought where a bit of risk-taking (climbing trees, playing with sticks) or boredom never hurt anyone. I’ve never been one to hover under the tree warning, “Be careful, you’re gonna fall.” Subsequently my kids have probably spent more time at White Cross than is the norm, for injuries from donked heads to broken wrists to spider bites. But they are adventurous and active and not afraid to climb a tall tree. My pastor once said, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit.” In other words, bones heal faster than fearful hearts that are afraid to try for fear of falling.
What has all this got to do with growing independence? Everything actually. After all, I believe our whole job as parents is to prepare our children to face the big wide world. That world doesn’t come with safety pads. It can be scary. There are risks and challenges at every turn. People can be mean, jobs are hard to find and there is no maid service for most of us. We don’t do our kids any favours if we wrap them in cotton wool and wait on them hand and foot. Instead, I believe we need to equip them with the skills required to look after themselves and a healthy can-do attitude if they are going to be able to handle the knock-backs, tough breaks and plain hard work that life will throw at them.
I want to help them grow their independence and along with it, their true self-esteem – the knowledge that they can do stuff. That’s the theory anyway. I’m an imperfect practitioner, but I’m working on it. Of course, when it comes to growing independence we can’t just throw our children in at the deep end and leave them to fend for themselves. Helping kids gain the skills necessary for independence requires more work, initially, than simply doing everything for them. It is usually simpler, tidier and quicker in the short term to keep doing everything yourself because helping our kids learn to do things requires a rather large degree of patience. It means putting up with mess and imperfection; it means standing back and watching them fumble when it would be so much quicker to do it yourself. But in the long term growing independence reaps dividends for everyone – esteem-building skills and confidence for them, less work for us. Totally worth the effort, I believe.
Growing independence can be scary, not just for our kids but for us. Perhaps letting them go into the world is even scarier for us than it is for them. After all, for them it can feel like an adventure, a milestone, a sign they are growing up. But our hearts still remember them as a helpless newborn depending on us for everything (and we watch the news) so how can we possibly let them out of our sight?
We start slowly, slowly, bit by bit. Growing independence starts out small, with baby steps. We don’t simply shove them out the door at age 11 to catch a public bus across the city and hope for the best, if they’ve never gone anywhere on their own before. That would be madness. We have to practise, build up their confidence in their own competence, as well as our confidence in their trustworthiness and ability to manage themselves. Our eldest son started intermediate school at the beginning of this year. We agonised over which school to send him to – the local one two train stops away, or the one where all his friends were going that was a 30-minute bus ride across the city. In the end, we chose the one across town and he was confident he could manage the bus no problem. His confidence came from years of practise at getting himself places.
When he was seven, we started letting him go to the park at the end of our street on his own. At first he could go for 20 minutes, then he had to come back and check in. If he managed that, he could return for longer. Once we knew he could be trusted to manage himself and follow our rules we could let him go further afield, and for longer, gradually over time. He started biking or scootering to friends’ houses in the neighbourhood, with a call to mum when he’d safely arrived. As an early riser who liked to be at school early to play soccer, our son hated to wait around for the rest of us. So by his last two years at primary school he was walking to school and back on his own every day. The bus to intermediate was a logical step up for him, and he is managing himself brilliantly. He leaves the house every morning by 7.20am after making his lunch box the night before; he gets his breakfast often before the rest of the house is even stirring.
Our boy has come a long way since that first day when we let him walk two minutes down the street to the park. I still remember the warm fuzzy rush as I watched this same lad mow the lawns for the first time. It was his birthday and we were madly rushing to get things ready for his party. “Um, Dad, the lawns need a bit of a mow, don’t ya think?” the impudent birthday boy said. Dad (who was pressed for time and had a to-do list as long as his arm) retorted, “What, are you offering to do them, then?” “Okay!” the birthday boy replied, shocking and surprising us both. “I’ll do the lawns – just show me how!”
So Dad did. Off went number one son pushing the lawnmower round the backyard (on his birthday) with a proud look on his face that said, “I’m doing it!” Of course by the time Dad had shown him how to do the edges, how to empty the catcher and helped him go back over the spots he’d missed. Well, it would have been a whole lot quicker to have done it himself. But in the long run Dad is going to save himself a whole lot of work as our boy gets better and better at mowing the lawns. And our son is gaining a life skill and contributing to the family.That’s a parenting win, right there.
Teaching kids independence is an ongoing process. It benefits me in the short term by reducing the headless-chicken routine somewhat (and providing me with the occasional cup of child-brewed tea) – it helps them in the long term by giving them life skills and a sense of confidence that they can look after themselves. Everyone benefits, and one day my sons’ wives will thank me.