How in an age of helicopter parenting can we as parents give our kids the necessary opportunity to be independent? Even in the same family, one kid can by much more naturally independent than his/her sibling. Birth order? Nature? Whatever the older one has absorbed from having had to break in first-time over-protective parents? The second is often the product of benign neglect, which unwittingly breeds independence. The question remains, how does one make way for this independence?
As your children grow up their relationship to risk changes. How will you teach them to be sensible without crippling them? Staying home isn’t the answer, nor (as time goes on) is forbidding them to do things. So how do you achieve the correct balance between teaching your child to hold your hand and look both ways before crossing the street and being terrified of crossing the street? We all want our children to be independent enough to take reasonable risks, and prudent enough to avoid obvious danger. We want them to be confident and not fearful, and we are their first and most important teachers.
Have you ever noticed that when little kids fall—really hard knocks aside—they almost always look around to find their parents before deciding just how badly hurt they are? A skinned knee is not a broken leg. Next time you’re at the playground, do an informal study. My bet is that you’ll see a direct correlation between a calm parental reaction to a fall and less crying. It’s a correlation worth considering the next time you fire up your helicopter and swoop down to rescue your child from a “mean” friend or a “bad” teacher.
There is a clear link between how you teach your children to respond to their inevitable tumbles and how self-confident and independent they will be. If my child knows that he can get back up on his own when goes down, he will be much more likely to risk more falls in the future.
If your child is afraid of something, even something he wasn’t afraid of last month, don’t dismiss his fear or belittle it. You may know that his fear is wildly irrational, and he probably does too. But let him know that you understand and that you have confidence in his ability to overcome whatever it is that he’s afraid of. If he knows you believe in him, he will believe in himself.
Part of this complicated parental task has to do with how our parents raised us. When I first became a father, the last thing I thought about—or wanted to think about—was how my parents raised me. My pronouncements about how “I’ll never do that to my children.” were still too fresh. Then, with puzzling inevitability, I was repeating the very things I swore I would never do or say.
My ten-year-old son would come home at 5:00 after school and soccer practice. He was hungry and, foolish child, wanted to eat something. “But don’t eat too much,” I’d say, “You’ll ruin your dinner.” The admonition was as absurd coming from me as it was coming from my mother and yet, decades later, there it was.
My father loved being outside and if he ever came home and found me inside on a sunny day, he’d say something like, “How can you stay inside on a day like this?” and make it clear that I needed to get going. As I write this, the sky is blue, the sun is out, and I’m twitchy.
Like so much of what we come to understand about raising children, common sense trumps theory. My experience of “becoming my parents” is hardly unique. We teach our children with everything we say and do. They read us—our moods, our quirks and, yes, our fears. The trick, I think, is to remember that and to act as if it matters. I may be terrified of the ocean and watching my little girl dive in may be nearly paralyzing. But when she comes up for air she’s going to be looking at me to see how she should feel about the whole thing.
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