Thursday, October 26, 2023

Becoming The Courageous Parent Every Child Needs

One of the striking things about Icelandic society (from where I've just returned after a week's participation with International Play Iceland) is that on any given day, one sees children who appear to be under 10 years old out an about in the city without adult supervision: walking to and from school, shopping, hanging out with friends. You likewise find relatively young people in positions of responsibility. I spoke with a 21 year old who manages a chain of toy stores, an 18 year old restaurant manager, and generally interacted with more seemingly self-sufficient teenagers in the course of my day-to-day life there than I have in the past year at home.

From the day our children are born, they are destined to become independent from us. Not only do we know this is inevitable, but according to a recent University of Michigan survey 74 percent of parents with children between 5-8 report they "make a point" to have their children do things for themselves, while nearly 85 percent of parents with 9-11 year olds agree that their children benefit from unsupervised free time.

And they're not wrong. Research consistently shows that experience with real independence fosters self-confidence, resilience, problem-solving, and good mental health. Most of us also tend to agree with the idea of allowing our children more and more independence, gradually, with the expectation that by the time they're 18 or 21 or whatever that they will be fully capable of thriving on their own. 

My mother used to say, "You want them to be independent, then you're terrified when they are." She isn't alone. While most parents in the survey voice opinions in favor childhood independence, far fewer, the survey finds, follow through with actually permitting it.

"Most parents endorse the idea that children benefit from free time without parent supervision, and say they allow their child to do things themselves. But parents' descriptions of what their child actually does independently suggests a sizable gap between parent attitudes and actions. Less than half of parents said their child 5-8 years old regularly engages in independent activities under their parent's direction, such as answering questions at a doctor's appointment, placing an order at a restaurant or other places of business, or fixing their own snack. This suggests some parents may be missing opportunities to guide their children in these "building block" tasks of autonomy. This pattern continues for older children (9-11 years old), where relatively few parents reported that their child stays home for a short period or spends time with friends without adult direction . . . This (poll) suggest parents may be unintentionally restricting their child's path to independence."

The survey identifies parental fear as the primary cause of this disconnect. 

There are undoubtedly neighborhoods in the US in which you wouldn't want your child walking the streets unsupervised, and Iceland has a notoriously low crime rate, but the truth is that most of us live in places that are every bit as safe as downtown Reykjavik. But even if we aren't about to start sending our four-year-olds into the streets willy-nilly, this fear seems to seep into places where it is entirely unwarranted. Awhile back, I spoke with an admissions representative from a major university. She told me that over the past couple decades, they have had to introduce basic life skills courses because too many of their incoming freshmen didn't know how to do such basic things as use a can opener, operate a washing machine, or prepare a basic meal for themselves. Not to mention how crippling it can be to not have experience interacting independently with adults. What was most striking about these independent Icelandic teenagers was simply the eye-contact, the confidence with which they interacted with me, which was unlike the socially awkward teens I encounter elsewhere.

This poll likewise found that not only are American parents afraid for their children's safety, but are equally afraid that they will be judged if they do allow their young children independence, and are especially concerned about being criticized should something happen to them while exercising that independence. This is reinforced by the fact that some municipalities enforce criminal penalties against parents who leave their children without "adequate supervision," a vague criteria at best.

All of this harms our children, contributing, no doubt, to the surge in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression we've seen in recent decades, as well as the lack of self-confidence, resilience, and the ability to solve problems that inevitably go with this loss of childhood independence.

According to Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and director of Let Grow, an organization committed to making it "easy, normal and legal to give kids back some independence," the way forward is baby steps. Parents can start, for instance, by showing their children how to do basic things for themselves, like operating a can opener or washing machine or preparing their own snack, then stepping back as they struggle, perhaps even leaving the room. This might mean return to the occasional mess, maybe even a minor injury, but this is all part of learning to be independent. 

Over time, as parents practice stepping back, the miracle is their children are revealed to be not only competent and conscientious, but also increasingly courageous about tackling even more independence. And as Lenore points out, as the children grow in courage, so too grow their parents.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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