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Promoting Independence: How to raise an independent child without pushing too far too fast

A small part of you enjoyed it when your kids would cling to your leg when you dropped them off for the first few days of school.  It’s nice to feel that our children need us.  But now, as they get older, you want to help them loosen their grip without pushing them to let go too quickly. 

Finding a balance is the first step to promoting independence, while honoring the need all of us have to be connected to others.

While there’s no blueprint for how to raise your kids to be successfully independent, here are a few suggestions for fostering healthy independence without pushing children to grow up too fast.

Attachment is not the enemy – For decades, studies have continually shown that the best predictor for how well a child turns out is if he had secure attachment to at least one person.  Repeated, predictable, sensitive care from a caregiver who’s tuned in to the way the child feels lets the child know that his emotional and physical needs will be seen and met.  These experiences wire the brain in optimal ways in terms of mental health and the capacity for healthy relationships—including how your child can provide secure attachment to your future grandchildren!  So one of the very best things you can do to promote independence is to leave no doubt in your child’s mind about your love and constancy.

Don’t push too hard or too soon – Research from a variety of perspectives reveals that when we push our children to be independent before they’re ready, it can often be counterproductive, making them more dependent instead.  For example, if a toddler is afraid to be alone at bedtime, and the parent forces him to do so, the feeling of fear once the parent closes the door may amplify.  The next night, this fear and panic and dependence are even greater because, while you may have been ready for that move toward independence, your child was not.  When children are afraid and their parents push them too hard too soon, they will often feel flooded with uncomfortable emotions and bodily sensations.  The science is very clear that when children feel safe and secure, they will move toward independence, a concept known in research as the “Secure Base” phenomenon.

But push a little – In his research on temperament, Jerome Kagan demonstrated that there’s a line we must walk in terms of how far we push our kids outside of their comfort zone in order to successfully promote independence.  As I said, if parents push too hard, the child becomes more resistant to independence.  Think about how a nervous system that’s overcome with anxiety will try even harder to avoid those feelings in the future. But if parents don’t push at all, the child will stay confined within her comfort zone and won’t overcome her discomfort and fear about taking on new independence or a new experience.  Dr. Kagan found that when parents push their children gently, incrementally, and with lots of support, children learn to tolerate more, and begin to have experiences that let them feel stronger and more independent.  For example, when I wanted to help my son not feel so fearful about going to the bathroom or upstairs without me, I would sing loudly so he could hear I was close, but not right next to him.  He was able to tolerate going off by himself for a few minutes if he could hear me, and in time, he saw that he could feel comfortable doing these things without me.

Find the sweet spot – In the end, then, it’s okay to push a little hard, but it shouldn’t be TOO hard.  For example, I’m a big fan of sleepaway camp once kids are old enough.  Parents will often ask me, “How do I know if my kid is ready?”  Here’s what I say:  If you think your child will be a little homesick, but you expect her to return having had a wonderful experience and wanting to go back, then it’s a great time to let her stretch and overcome.  But if you think that stretching is going to be traumatic and cause your child to be more fearful and less independent, then sleepaway camp may have to wait another summer or two.

Treat each child as an individual – The sweet spot and timing may be different for each child.  Each of my two oldest sons, for example, went to camp at age nine.  One of them would’ve been ready regardless, simply because of his temperament.  The other, though, might not have been able had I not provided lots of secure base-building and nurturing incrementally as he took steps toward independence early on. The key is to give all of our kids the experience of being able to tolerate something difficult in a way that they get to conquer their uneasy feelings so that they can expand what they’re able to handle in the future.  This is resilience!


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Mom, I Know What I'm Doing

Yesterday my eight-year-old was making a smoothie.   He’s been making one every day for the last week and now takes pride in his “smoothie-making mastery.”  These repeated experiences, along with the delicious products of his efforts, have made him confident in his ability, and the science of neural plasticity confirms his due confidence.  The brain changes – yes, actually physically changes – from repeated experiences, so his memory has now been wired for how to make a good smoothie. And yet, even though I know this, when I hear the blender going longer than what I think is the right amount of time – twenty seconds can be a very long time, by the way – my reaction is to step in and say, “Luke, that’s probably long enough.  Should you turn it off?”

He says, “Mom, I know what I’m doing.  I like it really smooth and creamy, and the trick is to let it blend a little longer so the ice isn’t as chunky.”

Then I have to respond, “You’re right.  I’m sorry to mess with the Smoothie Master.”

We learn best from doing.  But ask yourself:  Do you step in and help when your kids don’t need help?  When they ask for assistance, could still do it themselves?  How often do you request that they do something your way, when the way they’re doing it is fine (just different)?  Do you do things for them that they could do for themselves?  You probably do at times when you don’t even realize it, just like I did yesterday with my smoothie intrusiveness.

Sometimes we need to lend a hand because we’re on a schedule and we need them to finish something so we can get out the door quickly and peacefully.  Sometimes we need to assist because our child is getting too frustrated and they need help.  Sometimes we should step in because they need to learn the right way to do something – like when they need to learn that “flushing doesn’t actually CLEAN the toilet.  You need to use actual cleaning supplies.”

But sometimes we’re stepping in because it makes things easier on us or them.  And of course that’s a good reason at times, but not all the time.  Sometimes we are taking over because we’re being too particular or controlling, or we underestimate them and their ability to do something or handle the struggle and frustration of working through it. Just be thoughtful about why and when to butt in, to rescue, to assist.  They know what they’re doing lots of times.  In those moments, the problem can be that we don’t know what we’re doing.