When my son and his friends turned ten, it felt like they began receiving a message from the universe telling them that it was time to fall in love with bike-riding. Seemingly overnight, my son started coming home from school, throwing down his books, and hopping on his bicycle to meet his friends to ride and ride for hours. They got so much joy out of going up and down hills, building ramps for trick riding, and using bikes as their first form of independent transportation. This was also one of my son’s initial forays into branching out on his own. He’d always been a very cautious, slow-to-warm observer, and that sometimes concerned me. I was pleased to see him be an active participant in the things his friends were doing. So it was a good day for both of us when he started to ride his bike.
Turns out, according to leading experts, this age group is known for being quite independent. So my son was literally following the messages that the universe was sending his way.
My daughter, on the other hand, apparently started receiving messages from the universe about independence a whole lot earlier than my son. I’ll never forget catching her standing on top of the toilet seat at 15-months while reaching over into the sink as she washed her face using my good facial cream. It was hysterical and scary at the same time. How did she climb up on the toilet, grab my lotion, reach the faucet, and turn on the water without me hearing a thing? And without hurting herself? Well, kudos to the universe once again, because child development experts note that most 15-month- olds are no longer content cruising around a small area. They are now driven to explore the larger world with their ever-improving mobility. And yes, that included the top of the toilet.
Interestingly, my daughter, who is now 20, still does adventurous things on her own without always considering the possible risks involved, while my son is still quite reserved and careful. It’s a testament to the different temperaments that siblings possess and to the varying developmental paths that they can travel.
But the challenges you face as your children start to separate from you and their different methods of doing so can be quite dizzying.
So how do you:
- balance the joy of watching the inevitable growth and maturity of your children with the inner struggle of worry and possible sadness as you face letting go?
- know how to respond to each child’s unique way of separating according to his own individual temperament? The parenting techniques that worked for my son may not have worked for my daughter and what works for the neighbor’s child of the same age may not work for yours.
- appreciate the benefits that come with fostering independence in your children?
Learn about Child Development
Understanding what is normal for each age and stage of your children’s lives is key. Children may start separating early (like my 15-month-old giving herself a facial while standing on the toilet!). They learn to be autonomous by showing their independence. One way is with a chorus of “I can do it myself.” Another is with a constant stream of “No, no, no!” By testing the boundaries of your authority, they get to find out where you end and they begin. Children go in and out of stages of development and your job as a parent is to be aware of each stage and learn how to handle it all in an emotionally healthy way and with realistic expectations. (Beware: this desire for autonomy repeats during adolescence).
While deciding how to respond to his demands to separate, it is important to think about your child and you – there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. As my daughter matured, she really wanted me to listen and empathize and she wanted to talk a lot. My son needed me to listen but did not share much and when he did share he needed me to respond with concise, fact-based responses. If I had tried to respond to either of them with a fixed approach, it would have been a disaster. Parents need to consider age, maturity, the emotion of the moment, your mood at the time, your temperament, and your child’s temperament when figuring out how far to let kids go and how quickly.
Benefits of Letting Go
It’s natural to want to hold on, protect, or even control your kids. But allowing them appropriate independence is good for their confidence, their social skills, their self-esteem, and their motivation. It also gives them a feeling of being in control and helps to form their inner compass. You get the pleasure of relating to your children in new ways so that you and your relationship with them grow as they mature. And you have the opportunity to get glimpses of the adult they will become.
How Does a Parent Put it All Together?
With the path toward independence being so individual, how exactly do you know when to loosen the reins and when to tighten up the ropes, so to speak, when a child asks for freedom?
Let’s say your 6-year-old gets invited to a sleepover for the first time: Consider if your child is eager about the invitation, has an elaborate bedtime routine, or regularly needs your comfort in the middle of the night. Is he familiar and comfortable with the friend? Do you know the other child’s family and its rules? Think about how you will react if he gets scared and needs to come home early. These types of considerations will help you to assess what level of independence your child and you are ready for. If you decide that your child is not ready, you could arrange for an extra-long play-date or have the sleepover at your house. This same model can be used for all the steps along the way to full independence.
Much of parenting is about letting go and allowing children to succeed by providing caring guidelines and thoughtful limit-setting. The art of parenting involves not letting go too soon before children are ready, while resisting the temptation to hold on when they are mature enough to spread their wings. Finding this balance will help them flourish with competency, control, and confidence.
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