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Parenting Independent Kids

Posted Nov 06 2008 11:39pm

Lately I've been thinking about the virtue of Independence in relation to children, my children, and my goals as a parent. I want my kids to grow up virtuous and therefore happy, and independence of thought and action is necessary for them to achieve their own happiness. And also for them to move out of my house one day.

Children are necessarily dependent creatures. It's in their contracts. But after their first few months of life, they become and can and should be independent to the extent that they have physically and emotionally matured and are becoming more rational. The sometimes tricky part for the parent (and by "parent" I mean me) is figuring out an appropriate dependence/independence ratio which of course must be adjusted day by day and sometimes minute by minute. Throw in an extra toddler and things get really interesting.

There are two ways that independence is important--independence of thought and independence of action.


First, the Thinking

Independence of thought means that the child, just like grown up human beings, needs to view reality for himself, make his own judgments, etc. When babies first get here, they aren't up on the local customs and it's the job of mom and dad to help them get certain things straight. So around the time they start speaking (about a year) and are beginning to be conceptual, mom and dad spend a lot of time naming things. Baby points and says "Dat?" and Mom says "Dog" or "Computer" or "Enormous Pile of Laundry." This technique works well in that Baby gets to learn his native language and also learns to trust that his parents will answer his questions.

When Baby becomes a little more sophisticated, he will demonstrate independence of thought. One of the best ways you can see this is by the mistakes the child makes. (Ayn Rand of course explains this epistemological development process much better than I can in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and there is a great chapter on this in OPAR, too.) One of my son's famous examples of this was a confusion of motorcycle and bicycle. Motorcycle stuck in his head first and therefore, for a time, all vehicles with two wheels were motorcycles. (I used to call the pack of neighborhood kids on their trikes and bikes "Heck's Angels".)

So there you go. The neurons are firing and there is evidence. But you, the parent, are still in the habit of naming things and pointing them out and explaining. Because, you know, you've been doing it for months. Most children will show or tell you (loudly) when your assistance is neither required nor desired. When that happens to me I stop, back off a bit and then think, "Okay. He doesn't need me to do that for him anymore." Little by little as the child takes over these functions for himself, the parent steps back and lets go. (Or should.)

Now that my son is 5.5 which is technically school age most places, his thought processes are so independent as to verge on a super power. I am wrong, wrong, wrong, and fortunately for me he has been placed on this earth to tell me so. :o) I find the Socratic Method to be useful with him now. I can't be directive or prescriptive when passing along information that I think he might want or need to know (which should be obvious because I'm ever so wrong). So what I try to do now is help him see the answer for himself by helping him use the evidence of his senses to correct his errors. It's a good approach for us.

We try not to substitute our judgments for his (and hers, too--I tend to think in terms of Ryan still. As she gets older I will be broken of that habit). So many times I have observed the following scenario on a playground: Child falls down and begins to cry. Parent says "That didn't hurt! You're fine!" Child cries harder. Why? Because the kid is hurt and now also mad at their parent for not believing them.

This is an example of a parent getting in the way of their child's evaluation of reality. Repetition of this scenario (and others) only serves to stunt the child's independent thought processes because he will eventually learn that what he is thinking or feeling isn't valid or worthy and will automatically substitute an adult's evaluation as his own. Not ideal for child or parent.

There really is a time when kids think their parents are omniscient, because compared to them we know so much and seem to have all the answers quickly. We can read and do complicated things like drive a car and find the frozen waffles at the grocery store. It really must seem amazing to a small child. We've all heard about The Moment--the moment when a child realizes their parents are fallible human beings and not gods. I want that realization to be a soft landing for my kids rather than an unpleasant whomp! so I make sure that they get to see me thinking about things. "I don't really know why that is. Let's read a book to find out." In demonstrating the process of learning, they get to see that I don't know everything (although it is darn near, because I am awful smart) and they learn how to learn for themselves.

(By the way, a better way to handle the above scenario is to acknowledge the child's evaluation: "Oh, that must have hurt when you fell down! I hope you're feeling better soon!" If the kid isn't truly injured, the tears will dry up quickly.)


Independence of Action

The challenge I'm facing right now, with my son anyway, is more in the realm of action. In other words, my son prefers for me or my husband to do things for him that really he could handle himself (sometimes with assistance). With some children, this never really becomes an issue because the child by temperament is willing to fight you to the death for the ability to buckle his own seatbelt or pour his own milk or wipe up a spill. Anyone who thinks children have fleeting attention spans and wimpy stamina have never encountered such a creature as the "I Can Do It My Ownself" kid (that was my mantra as a child, I'm told).

My kid--well, let's just say that the lap of luxury suits him just fine, thank you very much! So getting him to be independent in his actions has been something about which we have had to be extremely aware, because old habits die hard with parents and children alike. When Baby is cold, mom and dad put a sweater on him. When Toddler/Preschooler is cold, mom and dad (should) help with putting arms in and getting the zipper started. When Kindergartener is cold, I think it's perfectly appropriate for him to locate his jacket and put it on himself, and if he needs help with buttons, then asking politely for that help. But if you haven't been paying attention to what reasonable expectations in terms of independence are, then you might find yourself dressing your Kindergartener from head to toe instead of assisting with the occasional fastener issue.

I have made many of these kinds of errors and the only thing I could have done to prevent them was to pay more attention. One day when he was 3.5, I allowed him to scream for 45 minutes because I finally, finally refused to remove his pants. Sweatpants. That were a size too big. There was absolutely no good reason for him not to handle that task himself. We had a few days of rule-setting and limit-testing and it's not been a problem since. If I had been encouraging more independence all along, then this issue would have been less frustrating for both of us. Instead, it turned into a Big Deal and we were both completely pissed off by the end of it.

And yet, while I aim to be vigilant about such things, I still find that we make mistakes in this area. One task that we are not quite up to snuff on here in our house is that of Project Completion. Oh, we love to begin projects and work on them, but we (and I mean the adults, too) are often very slack in the Follow Through To The Finish portion of the program. This applies to household projects like taking out the trash (final step = put a new trash bag in the can) and also applies to kid projects like markers (final step = locate all markers and caps and ensure that each marker has a cap and put them back in the bag). Our willingness to slack off at the end of tasks has really created some problems for us as parents. I have learned the hard way that Ryan is kind of counting on us to forget about the spill or mess that was made and therefore he is saved the effort of having to clean them up later. As with every. single. thing. about parenting, consistency is the key. When I insist that spills are removed promptly (and of course I assist him if necessary), then I get more cooperation.

Food is another issue. Apparently this child believes that I should happily prepare every food item to order and deliver it to him, fresh, hot, and artfully arranged on his Spider-Man plate. Oh, and now. I started to clue into this when he began complimenting me on how well I ran my "restaurant" and how "your restaurant, Mom" is his favorite place in the whole world to eat! Happy as I was to receive a compliment (a refreshing change from being told that I am wrong ), I realized that he was way overdue to be handling certain tasks for himself, such as getting a cup of water, sprinkling cheese on his own spaghetti and finding his own fork. To that end, I am pleased to announce that he made scrambled eggs almost all by himself last night and has been handling his own drink needs for weeks now. Sometimes a nudge out of the nest is a good thing. Fly, baby, fly. Sometimes that nudge is needed for mom and dad, too, but it gets complicated when the child doesn't nudge back.

Independent action isn't only relegated to the realm of domestic tasks and chores, however. It ties into the virtue of productiveness, too. It's so easy to unwittingly steal a child's chance for independent action by simply trying to help. Again, old habits die hard. When the child is an infant and drops a toy, the parent's job is to give the toy back. No question. But as the child gets older, then the parent needs to wait. Wait for some signal or clue that help is wanted by the child. Sometimes the best thing a parent can do for a child is to hold back. If the child is struggling with, say, a block tower that keeps toppling, resisting the urge to jump in and fix it for him gives him a chance to handle the task independently or to ask for assistance. It might be tough to break the habit and it certainly is difficult to watch the child get frustrated. But a child who is not allowed to experience frustration and, yes, failure, will never feel satisfaction and pride when he does succeed. A child never allowed to feel frustrated is a child with a parent full of frustration because their kid won't fix his own sandwich or fold his socks.


The Dance

Gus Van Horn recently remarked (in the comments section of this post ): ". . . the single most important thing a parent has to be careful of when raising a child: resisting the temptation to be an intermediary between his mind and reality." How well-put is that? And so true.

It is tempting and if the parent is not cognizant of the importance of allowing--insisting--the child interact with reality independently, then a detrimental and extremely frustrating cycle of parent-child interaction can develop and ultimately everyone suffers. A good way to determine if the independence balance is out of whack is if someone is unhappy.

Parenting for independence requires constant re-evaluation of your own actions and words in the context of each child's developmental maturity, temperament, needs of the moment, mood, overall physical health (a sick child needs more help with otherwise simple tasks), growth spurts, and so much more. It's an intricate dance--the parent in the lead, the child learning the steps--with the ultimate goal that each dancer will be stepping in sync but also apart when the music stops.

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