Parenting is unique in that, if we do it right in the long run, we work ourselves out of a job. Our most important responsibility is to teach our kids how to develop into adults who don’t need us. Yet, in today’s protective culture, it can be hard to teach our foster or stepchildren the essential trait of self reliance. It’s a difficult lesson in part because we usually have to defer to biological parents or agency rules on parenting matters. Where we have leeway, however, we should concentrate on proactively teaching our kids how to navigate life on their own.
Worry about Actual Dangers, Not Our Feelings
One prime reason for the difficulty in raising self-sufficient kids is that letting our children learn self-reliance requires letting them be in situations that, to us risk-averse adults, feel unsafe. For example, this week is National Walk Bike & Roll to School Day, designed to encourage children to be more active and communities to build safer pathways to school. Most of the websites covering the topic tend to assume that adults will always be supervising children, as in most of their activities. Unfortunately, always-supervised children learn to rely more on adults rather than themselves. If we want our kids to be self-reliant, we have to learn to give our kids more independence, even if it feels somewhat risky.
I’m not encouraging unsafe behavior. Rather, we need to look logically at the risk. Too often, we base our decisions on our internal feelings rather than actual facts. For example, we worry more about letting children walk by themselves to school than driving them, even though more children are injured in car crashes than in walking alone somewhere. Maybe it’s because we feel more in control when we’re with them, or because we are more used to driving than letting our kids walk somewhere without us. Whatever the reason, we have to start thinking a bit outside our comfort zone if we want our kids to learn how to cope without our being always there.
Start as Early and Start Small
Of course, children have to grow into self-reliance. Young children can’t handle the same level of independence as older children or teens. Children who have suffered trauma can be set back in maturity and need more time to start working on a new skill such as independence. All kids, however, can learn some level of self-reliance even at a young age. We don’t try to teach tweens how to drive a car, for example, but they can learn how to ride a bicycle. The same principle applies to teaching self-reliance.
Even small decisions can help children develop a sense of independence as well as good habits they will eventually need to be successful as adults. Some good first steps could be letting younger kids make their own decisions about free time, school clothes, and the money in their piggy banks. Let older kids have more leeway about thing such as their room and staying overnight with friends. You may have to set limits, such as requiring that toys be cleaned up by a certain time, but give them as much discretion within those guidelines as you can.
We always gave our kids more responsibility for their own stuff as they grew up, such as doing their own laundry, and handling their budge for clothes and entertainment. We also let them take responsibility for their grades once they were in high school. If they needed help with a homework assignment, we were always glad to help, but we didn’t take responsibility for scheduling their time or keeping up with assignments. By the time they were adults, they had developed both the skills and muscle memory for most real world adult tasks.
Everyone Has A Chore
Children need to take on household duties from an early age. Household chores teach practical skills and important character traits, but they also help kids bond with other family members. Jessica Lacey suggests that we reframe chores as contributions to the household. I love this suggestion because I always found that the framing helped make foster children and stepchildren feel more part of the family. Instead of just issuing an edict that each child had a certain job, we could explain that, in a family, a lot of tasks go into making things run smoothly. Some tasks, such as paying the electric bill, only parents could do. But kids could handle other common or daily tasks, such as taking out the trash or feeding the pets, or as they get older, cooking family meals. The fact that their chores weren’t just made-up tasks, but were important to the whole family, made them feel more part of the “family team.” Of course, kids still complain, delay, and argue; there’s no magic formula for avoiding those developmental milestones. But phrasing chores in terms of being part of the family team does help.
Let Your Kids Figure It Out
Modern parents have a tendency to try to fix everything for our kids. If they are bored, we try to entertain them. If they have angst, we take them to therapy. If they are having trouble in school, we swing into action with teacher conferences or tutoring.
Therapy and entertainment and tutoring are all wonderful and important, but our kids don’t always need them. Some level of angst is both developmentally normal and inevitable. Boredom is unavoidable. Our kids need to figure out their own ways to cope with these ordinary problems. That exercise is an important part of developing problem-solving skills. Figuring things out on their own also helps them become more self-confident and less reliant on other people to solve their temporary problems.
Leave Room for Mistakes and Model Resilience
Humans learn by making mistakes. I wish we could help our kids learn simply by lecturing to them, but that’s not how human brains are wired. We all have to make our own mistakes and learn our own lessons. We always learn more from our failures than our successes. So don’t be surprised when your kids fail the first few times they make independent decisions, and don’t overreact. Human error is simply part of being human.
In fact, we need to admit to them when we make mistakes, both to reassure them that it’s normal, and to model how to bounce back. Failure is a part of life. If we can show them how to learn from failure instead of avoiding it, we will have given them a great gift on their journey to adulthood.
Focus on Effort, Not Results
When your kids succeed, it’s easy to celebrate with them. It’s a bit harder when their independence leads to mistakes. That’s when we need to focus on their attitude and effort, and genuinely praise them for those virtues. Lots of research shows that when children believe that they can improve, they can more easily overcome setbacks than children who focus on the outcome. Sometimes the more important lesson is not how to succeed, but how to handle coming up short.
So when our children don’t get the outcome they wanted, focus on the parts of the process that they got right. Then help your kids analyze what they can try next time or what strategies can help change what went wrong. If we help our kids focus on their attitude and things they can control, we’ll help them feel more in charge of their lives and by extension more self reliant.
Practice and Plan for Contingencies
When our kids are ready to take a step toward self-reliance, we should plan and practice with them. Again, teaching them to drive is a model. We don’t just put kids in the car by themselves the first time they drive. We ride with them as they practice.
Learning life skills in other areas should follow the same model. As this article about walking to school explains, it’s a good idea to start by walking with our kids. We can be sure that they know the route, the traffic laws, and the safest behaviors. By the time children are mature enough to make good decisions and walk by themselves, we will have helped them develop safe habits to go along with their independence.
Planning for contingencies also is important. When our kids were old enough to go out with their friends without us, we always went through the same discussion before they left the house. Did they know where to find us if the situation turned unsafe? Did they have spare cash for a taxi (or later, our Uber account)? Was their cell phone charged if they needed to call us? Of course, the kids often rolled their eyes at the routine, but it nevertheless helped all of us know that, if they needed the information, they had it available.
Not all of these techniques will work for all kids, and we don’t have to try all of them at once. The more often we can find a way, however, to implement them, the more success we will have raising independent children who grow into independent adults.