Empowering Independence While Remaining Safe
Jay M. Greenfeld, Ph.D., C. Psych.
As our world continues to change both with the current trends in 2021 and the anomaly of the current pandemicís ongoing restriction changes, what appears to remain the same is our childrenís need and desire for independence. The desire for independence begins at a very early age and not solely at sixteen in pursuit of a driverís license. As parents, we want to give our children the roots to grow and wings to fly as high as they can. However, it often comes with the commitment to let go and how different that can look at different stages of life. The toddler seeking to pour the milk himself, or brush her teeth by herself, or oddly enough at two years old, becoming insistent on turning the TV on by himself. The desire to do things ìmyselfî begins right out of the starting gates and only expands exponentially from there. It evolves to the pre-teen wanting to go to the park with just their friends and becomes adamant on the parents staying home, to the growing teenager who wants to bike to the mall just to hang out with friends.
As difficult as it can be sometimes to see your children grow into independent people in what seems like light speed, the truth of the matter is for their own well-being, their own understanding of the world, and their ability to increase their resilience, they need to be doing things on their own and we have to be able to trust them to do so (safely), if it that means failure along the way.
We foster their independence by first accepting that we need to grant them the opportunity to try it out at a very early age. They will learn more by failure than by not trying at all. So when you they ask to help bake, cook supper, change a light bulb or the batteries in some random toy, or rake the leaves- it may be less convenient, may create more of a mess, but you are empowering them with skills that will breed confidence. It is crucial to not just let them try things on their own so they learn from failure, but more so collaboratively show them how to do the task and then inform them to try it on their own. Express how proud you are of them for trying AND have them express their feelings to see how proud they are of themselves. Then take the opportunity to celebrate each little accomplishment at first to foster excitement for trying, for effort, for growth. It is very easy, especially as toddlers are navigating their new world to do the little things for them, but the key is we want to help them see that not only will they struggle at times, but they can also overcome that struggle by persevering without our help. Every experience you can create in which you first teach them and then give them the opportunity to accomplish the task on their own, you are fostering their independence.
As your toddlers become school age and teenagers, the ask only gets bigger; taking bikes to the park, going to the store on their own, taking the car when they obtain their driverís license or even taking a flight on their own to meet relatives or friends in a different city. The key is realizing that not all children can be treated the same way in your home when it comes to their independence because certain children are more ready at different stages which is also evident when it comes to babysitting. Not all twelve year olds are independent enough to babysit regardless of their birth year. Thus, the parental figures that are providing the guidance and independence need to openly discuss and agree on what is most appropriate for each child as they grow while openly communicating what is safe so trust can be earned.
As your children become teenagers the fundamentals to their independence is trust and honesty, if they cannot establish those two core components, they are sending you the message that they are not ready to be independent. Therefore, start small; having them bike or walk to the store and buy a few items then bring you the receipt and the change. Have them go to the park with their friends and when you tell them a time to be home by, give them the opportunity to follow through. The more evidence they can give you that they are ready and not going to be dishonest about what they are doing, where they are going and returning home on time, the more likely you are to expand their independence and foster the confidence they will have when leaving your house, ensuring they remain safe when doing so.
Despite our desire to want our children to have independence (as sad as it is, regardless of their age), one crucial component is also helping them understand what is safe. They may feel that because they visit a certain park every week, it is familiar, it is comfortable, it is like a home away from home, which does not mean it is always the safest. Teaching them what to be aware of, what is not safe, and what is the most responsible to thing to do when they do not feel safe will help them feel empowered. There are enough reasons to feel anxious in the uncertain world we are living in, the key is to focus on what will help lead our children to feel less anxious and less naive about the world around them. Be honest and direct with them about what is safe, what areas of the city are safest and how that can change based on the hour or time of day. Be direct with them when expressing the realistic and honest impact of substances and the path that can create. Your adolescent children may tell you ìthey knowî, but do they? Ask them to explain to you what their understanding is of safety; who is safe, who can be trusted and what to when they do not feel safe. Having a plan of action is essential both preventatively and in response to anything that may occur. The more open and direct you can be as a parent, the increased likelihood your children will feel comfortable to express their thoughts on safety, independence, and how they aim to navigate their lives and the changing world around them.
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