“There are two lasting gifts we can give our children-
one is roots; the other is wings.”
Responsibility is a major component of parenthood. The health, safety, and education of our children is in our hands and sometimes we feel compelled to just take over their lives. It’s tempting to carry them lest they fall, to do things for them that we’re afraid they can’t manage. However, since the goal of parenting is to produce a confident, educated, independent adult, we have to maintain a delicate balance between control and freedom, between supporting and smothering. Let your child do “anything, anytime” and he feels confused and abandoned. Exercise too much parental control, make too many choices for him, and your child not only becomes overly dependent, turning to you to solve every minor mishap, but resents you for being so controlling. Proverbs 22:6 says “train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” We’re to lay the foundation so that in adulthood our children will know how to make wise decisions and live their own lives.
Raising an independent child requires time, patience, and trust, but it is possible. In order to be independent your child needs skill and self-confidence. And he needs to acknowledge and accept his responsibilities. Sound impossible? The secret is to begin early. There are basically five stages of independence. These stages can be seen in your child’s progress toward accomplishing even the most ordinary daily tasks. They also form the structure of his progress from baby to toddler to child to adolescent. For some tasks the stages will all be completed in a week. For other tasks each stage may last a week to several months.
Stage 1- You do everything. When your child is a baby you are totally responsible for him. You feed him, clothe him, rock him to sleep, keep him out of danger. His only “choices” may be letting you know that he is hungry or unhappy. As your child learns new skills this stage will be repeated, but for shorter time periods. You may only have to show a toddler something once before he quickly says “me do it!”
Stage 2. You provide help as needed. As he gets older you can serve as helper, but you need to allow your child to do as much as possible for himself. It means waiting patiently while your toddler puts on his shoes, then tying them, slowly, while he watches, so he’ll soon be ready to do that, too. It means watching him try five times to put his books on the shelf, but not interfering unless he asks for help. This is often a difficult transition for parents. There are so many times when it is so much easier and faster to “do it yourself”.
Stage 3. You watch. Soon you only monitor your child’s activities. You supervise while your child picks up his toys, brushes his teeth, gets his pajamas, etc. You watch while he does his homework. You watch him set the table. You may even be in another room and monitor a task by listening. This is sometimes a tough transition for the child. He may ask for help with a task you know he can do independently. He may refuse to do something and say it’s “too hard”. This behavior may simply reflect a longing to spend more time with you. Make sure that as your child’s independence increases, you are developing your relationship in other areas.
Stage 4. You ask. Next you move to the stage where you ask your child if he did his homework, brushed his teeth, fed the dog, etc. You know your child is capable of completing the things you ask him to do, but you’re not sure he remembers to do them, or wants to.
Stage 5. You trust. Finally, you expect certain tasks to be completed and you trust your child to do them. You’re sure he has the time and skills, and he acknowledges his responsibility. Now leave him alone. This last stage is usually the hardest one for parents to accept. Often it’s difficult to know when to “let go”. However, you’ll know you’re interfering if your child lets out a huge sigh and says “I know Mom!”
Once you understand the stages of independence you can build small steps toward that independence into your child’s daily life. Keep in mind that many of the stages will overlap. You may be helping with homework, trusting him to make his bed, and asking him if he fed the dog, all in the same week. You may know that he can fix his own bicycle, but he can’t yet be trusted to cook a meal. He can skate like a pro, but still forgets to wear his helmet. It’s a delicate balance, supporting without smothering, but if you want to raise an independent child, you have to try.