Building independence

By Maria Libby | Nov 12, 2015

If you are a mother, you probably experienced the phenomenon of suddenly noticing a lot of pregnant women in the course of your daily comings and goings when you became pregnant — likely more than you had ever noticed before. I feel the same thing is happening regarding this idea of raising independent children. I have been acutely aware and interested in it as an educator, and I am noticing it everywhere I turn. In book titles, documentary movies, and in articles from the New York Times to NPR. It is a topic of interest across the nation because of a growing awareness that in an effort to protect our children from the once normal trials and tribulations of life, parents (and I include myself here) have potentially deprived them of the opportunity to develop resilience, coping mechanisms, and independence — qualities they are going to need to navigate the adult world with confidence and competence.

Our community is no exception, and in my nearly two decades as an educator in our school systems, I have seen the evidence all around me. In some cases it was a parent who blamed the teacher, the coach, or the school for their child’s behavior or it was the one who did their children’s school projects. I know I have been guilty as a parent as well — begrudgingly editing my son’s college papers on occasion. Schools are also guilty, not allowing students the independence they are clearly capable of out of fear that someone will not behave appropriately. We all need to reflect on how we can shift the balance to allowing our children to make mistakes, be responsible for their actions, and learn how to cope with adversity. These things seem rare today and it worries me.

Could we be confusing love for our children with wanting a “perfect” childhood for them? Are we so invested in a child’s success that we give them too many answers instead of leaving the work of learning to students? Are parents confusing their own sense of self with the apparent success of our children? I question this in myself every time I see my son’s college stickers on my back windshield. Somehow we have come to believe that our children’s performance is a reflection of our own. So we push and prod and help and catch and defend and do for our children in the hopes that it will lead to their success. And a benefit is that it makes us feel better about ourselves. What will lead to their success, however, comes from struggle and failure. That is how children learn self-reliance, resilience, fortitude, and the ability to cope with adversity. None of which they can attain if someone else is paving the way their whole lives. A book I read recently, "How to Raise an Adult," describes the significant rise in mental health issues on college campuses due to this very phenomenon. Students are depressed and anxious when left to their own devices because they have no skills in how to navigate life. They have developed no sense of self.

If we want our children/students to grow up to be strong and capable adults, we need to let them stumble and fall and pick themselves back up. Think of the analogy of a baby learning to walk. When they tumble off balance, we don’t pick them back up immediately. We let them figure it out. We let them practice. We are patient with the process. They all eventually get it. For some reason, many of us don’t let our teens have the same developmental luxury. We don’t let them stumble and fall. We are swooping in, making sure they don’t fall, or denying that they fell, or blaming someone else for their fall. Ironically enough, what is best for them is to let them stumble and fall and learn how to get back up. Yes, at times they may need a hand, but they need practice in order to learn how to do it on their own. Otherwise they won’t learn the skills they will most definitely need as adults.

My college-age son arrived in Spain a day ago. He bought his plane tickets and secured himself a place to stay for the week before his program began. I was happy he took care of these things with no involvement on my part. However he called the day after he arrived, a little homesick, unsure of his ability to communicate or find a grocery store, having not secured any international calling plans, and he was alone. I offered him encouragement and faith in his ability to figure it out, thinking the whole time, “What a great opportunity to develop some coping skills!” He called the next day and said he had figured it out. It required that he talk in broken Spanish to numerous people and do a lot of walking, but he did it. I could hear the renewed confidence in his voice. I was glad I hadn’t figured it out for him.

I hosted a Parent Forum on the topic of parenting and independence a few weeks ago that was well attended and engaging. I believe parents and the school system need to work together to foster independence in our children. We need to look for opportunities to do this and I’d encourage us all to start now. At home, it could be as simple as having your teenager make his or her own doctor appointment or having your younger child help do the dishes. Within a school, it might look like more choice for what to learn or how to demonstrate it. It might look like taking a more active role in a classroom and leading the learning. It might look like an open campus for some. It may be messy. Our children might flail and fail. But don’t pick them up. Have faith they can get up on their own and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves in a developmentally appropriate way. If they do, be proud that you are giving them a valuable gift. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

If you want an additional resource, check out Stanford University’s Resiliency Project. I find it inspiring. Also keep an eye out for a potential screening of “Most Likely to Succeed” at Strom later this year. Finally, we have three seniors working on a project about the benefits of failure and fostering independence, so hopefully you will continue to hear about this topic from the schools!

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Comments (1)
Posted by: David Pingree Jackson | Nov 16, 2015 08:56

You are so right!

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