Parenting Towards Independence: Why I Want My Kids to "Grow and Go"
There’s been a lot of discussion in the media recently about how much independence is appropriate for kids, and at what age. From helicopter parents to free-range parents, and every degree in between, Canadians are grappling with the lack of hard-and-fast guidelines. While I don’t have a magic answer to the question “How much?” or “How soon?” I do want to offer you a new question that might help you arrive at your own answers. I think the real question is “What’s your end goal, as a parent?”
I often describe my job as “parenting my kids away from me.”
People sometimes look at me funny, when I say it. Maybe I should give my idea a snappier name, to legitimize it as a parenting philosophy. Perhaps the name “Grow and Go” would best capture my main goals for my kids.
Let me start by saying that I have three kids and I adore them - like super, duper adore them. I love them so much that, sometimes, I want to skip work and gather our whole family of five for an endless cuddle in the big bed forever. We’d need to get up to pee, obviously. And get snacks. And there would be feet in uncomfortable places. But you know that feeling? Like when your love for your kids is so big that it might swallow you whole. Our kids’ successes make us soar, and their hurts devastate us. Seeing your own child fall from a bike, or a skateboard, or belly flop into a pool can make parents sick to our stomachs with empathy pain, so big is our love.
Loving them as I do, you’d think my goal would be to keep them close. I actually have my eye on a different prize. My parenting project is to build grown ups from these little people. The way I see it, I am engaged in a 20+ year project of making, and growing three independent adults who will one day walk out my door, and into their bold, amazing futures. They’ll look back for me or their dad only because they want to, and only some of the time. We will treasure those times, shower them with hugs and kisses, and tell them we are proud. If they bring laundry, we might let them use our soap.
Productivity experts and coaches know that the most effective way to achieve a goal, is to “reverse engineer” it.
Reverse engineering means starting with your goal in mind, and then working backwards. Once you identify your goal, you figure out the steps and stages -- the tasks, skills or abilities -- that are necessary precursors to achieving your goal. So, for example, if your goal is to make a great presentation to sign a new client, you need to figure out what that client is after, which of their needs you can offer to meet, and what your presentation should contain in order to really “wow” the client. Before that, though, you need to learn how to use Power Point, hook up the projector, and so forth. Baby steps. Similarly, with deadlines, you know that if your final draft is due at the end of the week, you’d better get a draft of it to editing a day or two earlier. Your note-taking and research need to come even earlier, right? You make a step-by-step plan.
Think of raising your kids as a project. What’s your goal? For most parents, the goal is healthy, happy, well-adjusted, employed, and independent-living versions of our little ones.
This kind of thinking (identify your goal, and reverse-engineer the preceding steps and stages) has started to influence how I see all aspects of my kids’ development: physical, emotional, educational, psychological, social...all of it. We feed our growing kids in stages: from soft foods, to finger foods, to simple meals eaten with fork and spoon, and finally fork and knife. By high school, we expect them to cut their own steak and even teach them to cook it themselves.
If I want my Future Adults to be able to hold down jobs, I need to help them develop skills like responsibility, task management, problem-solving. If I hope my Future Adults will eat a variety of international cuisine, I won’t get them there by offering only raw carrots and cucumber slices to practice on. If I hope my Future Adults will feel confident using public transit to get around, I need to find opportunities for them to practice those skills first with me, and then in a graduated way, on their own.
In the classroom, teachers call this the “gradual release of responsibility,” and it’s how we teach every new skill, to either children or adults. it means practicing a new skill multiple times, while gradually transferring leadership from teacher to student:
How long your child needs to be at any one stage is for you to decide together. Maria Montessori famously said “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” It’s worth pointing out that she didn’t mean wait until the child actually can succeed. She was a fan of striving. Montessori believed that there was pride and self-confidence to be had from the wanting to do it, trying to do it, and believing that one can do it. If your goal is a Future Adult who makes good choices, then reverse engineer that back to baby steps: “Which shirt would you like to wear with these jeans today?” is one small step for a child, but such an important step on the journey towards making bigger and more significant decisions in high school, university and beyond.
I could have titled this article “Why I Let My Kids Ride the Bus.” Independence on transit is what started the recent firestorm in the press, after all. Deciding to allow my kids independence on the TTC was not something I took lightly. Using the Gradual Release of Responsibility method, we started by riding the TTC to school together. We walked up, down and all around our local subway station. We talked about how the same bus that goes up one side of the street, will eventually come back down the other side, doing a loop. We even took pictures of important features like the yellow platform line, the DWA and emergency call buttons. The next time, I went along for the ride, but let my kid lead the way, and narrate the trip. Our third trip, I shadowed behind and with silent “thumbs ups” from the other end of the subway car. When they said the magic words “I’ve got this!” I knew that they really did. And I did too. “Text me when you get there,” eventually turned into “Text me if you need me,” and “I’m so proud of the way you handle yourself, and make smart choices.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever really say “Whew! My work here is done.” Like all projects that are labours of love, we revisit our relationships with them forever. I do know that as guiding principles in my parenting journey, the concepts of reverse engineering from my goals, and the gradual release of responsibility, help me find my comfort zone, somewhere between the helicopter pad and the open range.
P.S. This just happened! ;)