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Raising Independent Kids

In The Blog by Dr James Wellborn

One goal of parenting is to raise independent and self-sufficient kids.  When parents talk about having independent kids it really means having their kids be able to support themselves, make good decisions and deal with challenges.  You can’t be independent if you have to rely on others for money, get yourself arrested (or thrown out of your apartment) or are overwhelmed by the stress of things not going your way.  This means kids need to learn how to make good decisions.

What’s a parent to do?

Independence is earned.  Independence is not a basic human right.  Kids earn independence by how they behave and the judgment they exhibit (till they reach 18 and then they are on their own).  Independence is about being self-sufficient.  Independence is about making your own decisions.  It is about knowing how to make good choices.  Emphasize the importance of being responsible for themselves.  Help your kid understand that independence is being able to take care of yourself and stand on your own two feet.  (Turning 18 doesn’t magically make it happen).  Make sure they know that greater independence will be based on the choices and decisions they make.  The more responsible and self-sufficient they are, the more independence they will be allowed.

Trust equals independence.  Trustworthy kids earn the opportunity to make their own decisions.  Kids tend to miss this connection.  They don’t realize that when they can’t be trusted to remember to take out the garbage, there is no reason to trust that they will remember to not do drugs.  (OK, there really isn’t a direct link between garbage and drug use but it is fun to make outrageous associations now and again just to watch them sputter and be rendered speechless.)  Seriously though, talk a lot about trust..  When they act trustworthy make sure you increase their independence in choosing and making decisions for themselves.

Practice makes perfect.  Independence is about choice.  In order to learn how to make good choices, kids need to have opportunities to choose and make decisions.  Give them lots of chances to make choices and decisions for themselves.  Help them learn how to weigh the pros and cons of options and alternatives.  To do this . . .

Start small.  If you give kids more independence than they can handle, you are setting them up for failure.  Don’t throw them in the deep end of the pool to see if they can swim.  Provide opportunities for your kid to choose and make decisions in small ways, e.g., what to wear, how when they want to study, etc.  Gradually increase the importance of the choices.  Then, help your kid . . .

Connect the dots.  Be sure your kid recognizes that decisions about small things affect the opportunities you will give them to make decisions about big things.  Trying to get away with things with supervision does not give you confidence they can handle independence without supervision.  They need to know that opportunities like hanging out with friends unsupervised is based on how well they make decisions and choices when they ARE supervised.

Character counts.  A value system provides the framework for making choices and decisions.  Independent people are hard-working, conscientious and self-sufficient.  Make sure you emphasize the importance of character.

Give them chances to succeed (and fail).  If you wait until you are absolutely certain they can handle independence you will be well into your declining years.  There is value in giving your kid (limited) independence even if you think it will end in (mild) problems.  When it goes well you can commend them on being trustworthy and self-reliant.  When they screw it up, you get the opportunity to say “Look, you obviously aren’t ready to be that independent.”  Then you can talk to them about . . .”

Analyzing where they went wrong.  There is a lot your kid can learn from making bad decisions and poor choices.  After they mess up, sit down and review their decision making process.  Talk about risks, character, trust and responsibility.  Then problem solve how they can make better choices and good decisions.

Preparing your kid to be an independent (and happy and successful) adult is a step-by-step process.  Give them lots of practice making their own decisions, gradually increase their opportunities to choose based on how responsible and trustworthy they are and use their poor choices as an opportunity to learn how to do better next time.

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