The Power of Independence

Our son is less than three months from turning eight. He is reaching that age where he is really leaving the “little boy” stage behind and moving towards that stage of being an older child, desiring independence and freedom. My attempts to help him are often met with, “I can do it, Mommy!” Though more and more frequently “Mommy” is being dropped for “Mom”.

It happens to all children – they grow up and become more independent, and deep down I know this is a good thing. One of my goals for both of our children is that we will raise them to be confident and independent – not afraid of hard work, and not relying on others to do for them, what they themselves are capable of doing. I can see this goal of mine being shaped slowly month by month, year by year, right before my eyes. It comes with a somewhat bittersweet feeling that is of course pride, but also that tug of the heart that comes with knowing that your child needs you a little bit less with each passing year.

We have noticed a large increase in our son’s confidence and independence this past year, but especially within the last few months. He often turns down my offers of getting his breakfast, drinks or snacks, instead desiring to do it himself. Granted, sometimes it’s because he wants to choose a snack of chips and chocolate instead of my healthier alternative! But, overall, it’s just because he can, and wants, to do it himself.

Not only does he want to do things for himself, but I find he is taking on more responsibility within the home as well. He is doing more chores, with a more willing attitude. And he increasingly wants to help others. For example, a few weeks ago I took our son for one final day of snowboarding this season. It happened to be my birthday as well. We had lunch at the cafeteria and as we waited in line for our food, he suddenly directed me, “Mom, go find us a seat. I’ll bring the food over. It’s your surprise for your birthday!” I admit that visions of our lunch being splattered across the floor flashed through my mind. But I was so touched at the offer that I complied, and not only did he handle the tray filled with food like a champion, but he went to the cashier and paid for the meal all by himself (with a gift card I had given him to use).

When we are driving home from running errands, our son will often ask me to stop the car as soon as the house is in view and let him walk the rest of the way – he likes the feeling of walking home by himself. To his still-seven year old mind, it’s a huge adventure walking down the street by himself. I know that the day will soon come when he starts taking off on his bike for solo adventures, much as I did as a child. And I know I will feel like most parents do – anxious for his safe return, wondering did I make the right decision, allowing him to go alone? But I will let him go.

Despite the fact that general crime and child-related crime rates (including abductions) are the lowest they have been since the 1970s, we are living in an age of fear-based parenting. While I certainly don’t believe in the “helicopter parenting” attitude that seems to be the norm today, the flip side of that is, sometimes I am left wondering, “What do people think? Do they think I’m a bad mother just because I let him walk two blocks by himself?” When I was his age I walked to and from school, or friend’s houses, by myself all the time – and they were all several blocks away. When I grew up, crime rates were statistically higher, but children had far more freedom.

Our son is getting to that age where he is no longer comfortable going into the woman’s washroom with me. As a parent, I feel I need to respect that. And so, while I admit I wait outside the door – I have started letting him go to the men’s room alone. Yet, just a few weeks ago at our local McDonald’s, I had a complete stranger question my decision. I was flabbergasted as this person asked me, “Well what if someone is in there and hurts him?” I had no answer.

As parents, we wish that we could protect our children from everything, that we could raise our children in a certain world, but we can’t. And this isn’t anything new – every generation of parents before us have faced cultural/social turmoil and uncertainty. Every generation of parents have felt fear for the world their children are growing up in. However, we seem to be the most fearful generation of them all, despite some of the lowest statistical rates of risk. I blame it largely on the media – thanks to the huge prevalence of television, radio and social media in our lives today, we are bombarded daily by parenting horror stories in a way that our predecessors never were. These stories only increase our feelings of fear.

I find this fearful mentality only hinders children – we hold them back from doing what they are truly ready and capable of doing, because of our own anxieties, or sometimes even from the fear of judgement from others. Children then pick up on this fear, and become more afraid to do things on their own. This leads to feelings of incapability and dependence.  Studies have long shown that children learn best through doing – and while those studies were mostly conducted in the context of school academics, I think that philosophy applies to life experiences as well. The best way to teach children independence and responsibility is through giving them the freedom to try.

In so doing we will both gain two very valuable things – confidence and pride, as we realize their ability.

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