Friday, November 22, 2019

"You Want Your Children To Be Independent, Then It Terrifies You When They Are"

My mother once told me, "You want your children to be independent, then it terrifies you when they are." I was a teenager at the time, and while I don't recall the exact circumstances, I'm sure I'd just done something that had terrified her. At the time, I took it in as information, something that was perhaps true, although not particularly useful, but now, having been a parent and having been around thousands of parents, I know she was expressing something that comes pretty close to being universal.

If there is anything we wish for our children it is that they grow up to be their own people, free, capable, autonomous, and independent. In the counterbalance, however, there are the other things we value on their behalf, traits like empathy (with the ability to draw boundaries), courtesy (albeit not servility), thriftiness (stopping short of stinginess), caution (without timidity), outgoingness (but with a well-adjusted social filter), industriousness (with an understanding of balance), and kindness (without being a pushover). The list is long and complicated and all of us at one time or another have found ourselves attempting to instill these kinds of traits in our children, even if we ourselves are still finding our own way.

The truth is that independence is a pure good even if it doesn't necessarily lead to pure good. But without it, without the freedom to make mistakes, to learn the often hard lessons that lead to the internalization of traits like courtesy and caution and thrift, children are left to learn them later in life, as teenagers or young adults, when the consequences of their inevitable mistakes are likely to be far more dire than they would have been had the mistakes been made, had the learning happened, when they were children.

We've all heard people express the sentiment that kids can't be trusted with freedom and autonomy, that without our adult vigilance and control, they will use any freedom and autonomy they have to do "stupid things." And, indeed, these critics can point to any number of examples from the real world, usually of teenagers making bad choices. But that is a faulty conclusion.

I would counter with the assertion that those bad choices are, in fact, a direct result of having had limited experience with freedom and autonomy up to that point. Too many teens and young adults have spent their childhoods being controlled by our institutions and our parenting, being told where to go and what to do. In those rare moments when allowed a bit of freedom, they of course make mistakes. Mistakes that are necessary to learning how to live with freedom. All too often, we see these mistakes, these bad choices, as confirmation that they simply cannot be trusted with freedom, but the truth is that they are merely a sign of inexperience.

Better, I think, if we really want our children to grow up to be their own people, free, capable, autonomous, and independent, we must allow them to experience freedom from an early age, to be allowed to make the mistakes necessary for learning what freedom is really all about. We must let them fall down and to be there to pick them back up, because that is the single most important lesson we can learn through freedom: independence means nothing unless it's balanced with interdependence.

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