Much as we love our children, the ultimate goal of parenthood is to get them launched. We all want to raise independent, self-sufficient human beings. However, little attention is given to the details of accomplishing this goal. What is the best route to take between helpless infancy and independent adulthood?
Independence is best built gradually. We want to build such skills as making sound decisions, caring for one’s own needs, taking action to meet goals, being responsible for one’s own actions, and seeking out the information we need to guide choices. None of these things will develop magically or over night, however. Kids need a range of experiences, from simple to complex, in order to learn these skills. Let’s take a quick look at each of these areas.
The ability to make wise decisions, like most of these skills, begins in small ways. We wouldn’t dream of turning our young adults loose with out training or instruction in how to weigh alternatives, but many of us neglect the beginnings of the process. Small children need to be allowed to make decisions as soon as they are capable of choosing between two things. This can begin in such simple ways as “Do you want your red or your blue shirt today?” and “It’s your turn to choose whether we have corn or green beans for supper.” Help the child to see the differences, advantages and disadvantages of each choice, and then allow the kid to choose. Be sure to only offer acceptable choices (or at least ones that you are willing to live with!) so that the child has no chance of making “the wrong choice.” As the young one grows, you can allow more and more freedom on increasingly important choices.
Goal setting and attainment is another important part of developing independence. Goal setting can begin in small ways, as well. Asking your child what he or she would like to accomplish before lunch and making a plan to do so will happen long before your child is ready to set larger goals for weeks, months, or entire years. You can also help your child set goals for behavior changes, as well. If there is an objectionable behavior, count its frequency, then set a realistic goal together to reduce it. Be sure to offer a meaningful reward when goals are met, too. For some children, this external reward is an important step in learning that these skills are rewarding in and of themselves.
Children learn to care for their own needs by experience and practice. It’s a common trap for parents to do things for their children long after the youngster has the ability to accomplish the same tasks, simply because it’s quicker or easier. However, time spent while kids are young to teach them how to do personal and household tasks is well-spent. Most young children are very motivated to be more mature, and will try very hard to learn these skills. Plus, when the child does finally become proficient, you will have eased your own burden in many ways.
Responsibility for one’s own actions also begins during infancy and toddlerhood. We take time to teach youngsters the meaning of the word NO and help them understand how to stay safe in the world. This skill sometimes breaks down in later childhood, though. It’s easy to undermine all of the hard work we have put in by doing such things as finishing last minute homework for kids, typing reports for them, allowing them to break a previous commitment to make a new and more attractive one, and so forth. If we want children to be responsible, we have to insist that they are responsible all the time and not just in certain situations.
The last skill is finding information that is needed. When children have questions or need to find information, we have a choice of helping the child pursue the needed answers or telling them outright. Of course, it’s quicker and easier to just tell them what they want to know, and the second choice is to find the information out for them. And naturally, this isn’t the best choice for helping them grow and develop. Not only do they need to learn to use reference tools, they also need to gain enough confidence to talk to sales clerks, call up businesses to get information, make appointments and reservations, and so forth. Standing by for moral support is sometimes even more difficult than doing the task ourselves, and it’s easy to cave in when the child protests that he or she is frightened or otherwise not able to accomplish the goal. However, this is another skill that does not magically appear when needed in young adults. The groundwork is laid long before,
when children are made to order their own food at restaurants, ask questions of sales people, and call companies to get the information they want.
So yes, it is more work to raise independent children, but the long-term payoff is well worth the effort. You can take steps right now to help guide your child to independence, no matter what his or her age.