July 4th marks Independence Day in the USA, and we celebrate with cookouts and fireworks. Independence is important to us as adults, but we sometimes don’t recognize how important it is to children. When children are born, parents are often overwhelmed by how dependent they are to meet all of their needs. But with each passing month, each new skill learned, they are growing their independence. Children grow up and they assert their independence early, saying, “I do it.” This is the essence of the child/parent dynamic. The parent shelters and teaches the child until the child is able to care for self and the parent must let go a little bit at a time. Sounds easy right? Wrong. It’s not easy, because while a child’s process of growing up comes naturally, the cycle of parenting-first holding tight, then loosening up, then letting go-is not a natural process. It can be painful.
So, how can we learn to loosen up? Here are some ideas:
- When your child is little and they are approaching a milestone, let them try. They are not going to hit their mouth the first 100 times they try to use a spoon, but they need the practice in order to get there. You can always put them in the bathtub afterwards.
- If it isn’t going to hurt anyone, let them do things wrong, so that they can figure out on their own how to fix them. Let them put the puzzle piece in the wrong place. They will soon discover it doesn’t fit. This offers them the opportunity to learn how to problem solve, a vital skill for everyone.
- Expect your children to help with age-appropriate chores. This sends the message that they are an important contributing member of the family. It also says that you have confidence they can achieve what you have asked. Bear in mind you will need to give simple and clear instructions. Do not get frustrated if they take too long or do it in a way you would not-this will send the opposite message.
- Allow your child to express themselves creatively and emotionally. Creative expression helps them find their own unique identities. Being able to say if they are unhappy or angry without being disrespectful is an important thing to learn.
- Balance your desire to help your child gain independence with the need to supervise.
- At milestone ages, offer up certain things they are now responsible for. For example, “now that you are age 8, you are old enough to get up with an alarm clock.”
- Pay attention to your habits. Are you always setting out their clothes for them out of habit? Could they do this task?
- Respect their right to privacy. Knock before you enter their room.
- When they do something new on their own, praise them for it.
- Respect their right to be a part of decisions about their own bodies. As hard as it is-don’t insist they hug Uncle Joe. Instead, say something like “Tell Uncle Joe goodbye, he’s about to leave.” They need to know they can choose whether to hug or not.
- When they go to the doctor, involve them in the discussion about what medications they might take. As they get older, encourage them to ask what the side effects are and if there is a risk for addiction. If they are shy, you ask the questions, but include them in the conversation.
- When your child asks you what you think they should do, try not to just give them an answer. Help them figure it out. Ask what they are considering doing and if they think that will work.
These are a few ways we can support our children in achieving their independence. Someday, we will be able to see what productive, kind adults they are and know that we had a part in making that happen. Stay strong! Happy Independence Day!