In many ways we humans are always striving to do things on our own, right from the start. Babies insist on holding a bottle or picking up food themselves. Toddlers emphatically announce, "Me do it." The preschool years are a time of burgeoning growth as children gain the intellectual, verbal, and social-emotional skills to tackle more tasks on their own. But how do you balance your child's desire for independence with his need for safety and limits?
This issue is one that doesn't go away as your child gets older but continues to emerge and grow. Think of sleepovers, extracurricular activities, teen dating, sports, and perhaps the scariest of all — handing over the car keys to your teen driver. The communication and relationship style you develop when your child is a preschooler will continue to inform your parenting for many years to come.
It's hard as parents to strike that balance of loving your child and wanting to keep them safe, of doing things for them and making life easier for them and knowing that, in the end, that's more a disservice than a plus. While we want nurture, support, teach, and provide for our children, we also need to provide opportunities for learning that come from making mistakes.
Pick Your Battles
In fact, letting children learn from their mistakes helps build resilience and is essential to raising a confident, capable, happy, and successful adult. So we need to find a way to "let go" along the way, to encourage them to be independent. It's a long process; they don’t just turn 18 and know what to do when they go to college or get a job. So for us, the key challenge is how to let go with grace and how to empower your kids to make the right choices as they grow.
One way is by picking your battles. This is true for your preschooler, middle schooler and-- Lord knows --for your teens! In many cases, it's okay — and even desirable — to let your kids make decisions. Parents always get the final say in matters of safety, health, and well-being, but even your preschooler can help make many small decisions, such as which book to read at bed time or which movie to watch at family movie night.
Show Some Flexibility
One of the simplest ways to foster independence and help develop critical thinking skills is by offering choices you both can live with. Predictability and consistency help children feel safe, but rigidity can cause them to bristle at any age. So if it's not a safety issue, be willing to make changes and accommodate some requests--these small gestures build a spirit of good will and cooperation within your family.
You'll want that good connection that compromise brings, because by middle school the time you spend together as a family changes. Sports and extracurricular activities start to take precedence, and there is increased importance for your teen to hang out with his friends. As children are taking on more responsibility and greater independence in school and social situations, they are also experiencing tremendous emotional and physical changes.
Teens want and need some privacy and freedom--that means they tell us less, have more secrets, and even lie to create space for themselves. As they push for space and independence, our ignorance of the ins and outs of their days, of their friends and how they are feeling can be hard and worrisome. We all hear the stories and read the papers and know that this is a time when kids can make some not-so-great choices.
But that's ok--we have to let them make mistakes because it's often during times when things aren't working out or pose a challenge that our kids have the opportunity to develop coping and resilience skills. Further, children that don't have opportunities to fail or struggle and recover have lower self-confidence, tend to be more fearful of failure and are less willing to try new things because they don't know how they will handle it. So praise your tween as much for her efforts as for her accomplishments. If she makes a mistake, help her get back on track but don't do it for her. Coping skills are like muscles; we don't know how strong they truly are until we need to use them.
Let Go Of The Reins
As our teens age up new challenges occur: driving, dating, even working. New issues continuously pop up for our kids—like getting in a serious relationship and the pressure to have sex, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, staying out later—and just being a little more adventurous.
This is when we have to accept that we are no longer able to protect our teens from some of life's dangers. We still have influence and make our family rules based on our own values, but our ability to make these choices for them is minimal. So we have to hope and trust that we have prepared our kids to understand and manage these new risks. And that can seem like a big leap of faith.
But we have to let go of the reins so the teenager can learn how to use them by himself. Starting slow is okay. First, allow your teen to take on some new decision-making responsibilities about school schedules or social plans. Let them use all of the knowledge you’ve imparted by extending some trust. When possible and not an issue of safety, support their choices—even when you disagree—so they can make mistakes while still having a support system available to help them recover.
Let Teens Make Their Choices
Teens often need to learn the hard way by paying for the consequences of their decisions. Let them stumble and persevere as much as possible because from here the changes roll on with college or leaving home to live apart from the family. Providing opportunities to develop skills of resilience and coping within a safe, loving, and supportive environment are the best way to prepare children for life's challenges.
By the time your teen hits senior year, we as parents need to stop being managers and become mentors. Our job is to be available for advice and guidance, as opposed to being authority figures and caretakers. This is how we encourage our teens to learn how to live independently--to determine who they want and need to be.
Our job is to stay meaningfully connected and available to our teens as they move onto adulthood. While it can be heart-wrenching and terrifying, by letting go with love and respect, hopefully, our teens will remember that we are always in their corner.