Those of you who’ve read my book Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting know that my husband and I fostered our kids’ autonomy and independence in a number of ways, including involving them in family vacation discussions, assisting them—as age-appropriate--to work out their own solutions to various problems and disputes, giving them—again age-appropriate—freedom to ride bikes in the neighborhood, run lemonade stands a block from home, advocate for themselves with teachers, and make some of their own decisions. Sometimes the clothes didn’t match, or they waited to the last minute to file college applications, but we thought it was important for them to learn independence and autonomy as they grew. Sometimes their choices led to bad decisions, but they were able to learn from the consequences when the stakes were relatively small. We worked very hard to keep our children safe and teach them to be aware of their own safety, but we tried not to over-manage their lives.
Now comes mounting scientific evidence that overzealous parenting and protection can do real harm. Psychologists and educators see it as one factor fueling a surge in the number of children and young adults being diagnosed with anxiety disorders. I recommend The Overprotected American Child by Andrea Petersen in the June 1, 2018 Wall Street Journal. She reports that a survey of 31,000 college students found that the number diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems more than doubled between 2008 and 2017. And another study shows that the parenting behavior that had the strongest impact of any kind was granting autonomy, defined as parental encouragement of children’s opinions and solutions to problems. More autonomy led to less anxiety. And for children who are predisposed to be anxious, overprotecting reinforces their impression of the world as a dangerous place and their powerlessness.
Lack of autonomy and independence can also stymie development of self-confidence and lead children to defer to their parents for decision-making even as adults. Of course, children mature and develop skills at different rates and that needs to be factored in when deciding how much independence and freedom they should be allowed. But a four-year-old is certainly old enough to choose clothes, pick bedtime stories, and choose from a restaurant menu. And by ten or eleven, most kids have learned to safely cross the street and can be trusted to walk to school or to a nearby friend’s house without adult supervision.
As parents, we need to encourage independence in small, low-stakes situations in order to help our children develop the skills, including decision-making, that they will need as adults. Encourage them to participate in discussions about their path toward independence and what they feel ready for. As one expert points out, they automatically start to make better decisions because they are thinking, rather than just acting.
In granting new freedoms, both parents obviously must be on the same page, but it’s also helpful if a group of parents in the neighborhood or among the kids’ circle of friends get on the same page as well. That way there’s less likely to be finger-pointing at the “lax parent” or resentment between kids about what they have and are allowed to do.
If we teach our children to be on their own in age-appropriate ways, we teach them that the world isn’t something to be anxious about, but a place they are fully capable of navigating. The ultimate goal of parenting is to have our children be totally autonomous before they leave for college or the workplace. Of course, the results of their decisions won’t always be what we wish but they will learn from the experience and choose more wisely in the future. With the independence to make your own decisions comes the right to make a wrong decision. As difficult as it can be for us parents to allow our children that freedom, even in the early stages, it’s the only way they can become fully functioning, successful adults. And isn’t that what we all want for our children?
Mary Waldmann's expertise as a speech writer and media expert spans over 30 years including among other roles Public Affairs Director for the US Department of Commerce during the Reagan Administration. She is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.
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