[Week 37 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
What does it mean to be independent?
A basic definition of independent is to be free from the rule of others. In other nuances of the definition, independent can mean not influenced by others or not needing to work for a living. For this discussion, I am using the first and more common understanding of the word. However, there is also the crucial implication that an independent person rules himself.
Being independent should not be confused with being isolated socially or economically. Having the ability or prerogative to make one’s own decisions does not preclude cooperation. Being independent does not limit a person to doing everything by himself for himself.
Can children be independent?
One of my most important parenting realizations was that, on one hand, children are inherently independent. They are free agents, free to choose how to respond to the world around them. On the other hand, they benefit greatly from being protected from themselves and from the world at large.
Obviously, young children are not equipped to take care of themselves. At first they do not even have the physical capability to appropriately feed or clothe themselves, regardless of how they choose to act. Over time, children gain skill at basic daily tasks, but would hard pressed to survive without the help of adults.
Thus, there is tension between the mental independence and the rational possibility of total physical and social independence. Children are always free to think for themselves, as no one can really force someone to think a certain way. Along the same lines, children are always free to choose how to respond to what is happening to or around them.
The bottom line is there is only persuasion of one sort or another to motivate children. Children need to be shown both what they are capable of and what they shouldn’t do. Then they need to be persuaded to act accordingly. It is part of a parent’s role to persuade children to learn self-control and make good decisions, while fostering the growth of independence.
What does self-control have to do with independence?
A child who does not grow in self-control will be limited in independence for a couple of reasons. For one thing, anyone ruled by passions is not in charge of his own life. There is a false sense of freedom in giving free reign to moods or emotions. In fact, people often afterward say things like “oh, I wasn’t myself.” What they really mean is they weren’t being in charge of themselves.
On another level, such lack of self-control allows someone to be ruled by others. Out of control emotions and reactions are the invisible strings that other people may pull, wittingly or not.
This is not to say feelings and emotions are bad or shouldn’t ever influence us. They are an important part of experiencing life. They just supposed to be balanced with clear thinking and a gathering of important facts. Being ruled by passion is like always driving with the gas pedal all the way to the floor board and saying it makes sense because the gas is in the tank!
Parenting is more than providing food and clothes
If parenting was just about providing basic physical needs for children, then orphanages would be great places. However, parenting is supposed to be a synthesis of loving relationship, provision, and guidance. It is the parents’ job to guide with motivation suitable to each child and the given circumstances. To do this well requires a very intertwined and deeply communicative relationship.
Application of motivation works best if parents approach their responsibility-based authority as something to wean their children from. This also works best when parents begin efforts to motivate their children at a young age. When a child learns self-control at a young age, he will be able to be independent sooner. It will be incremental and situational, but it will be appreciated by both parents and children. The home will be happier.
In the younger years, learning self-control will be synonymous with obeying the parents. The key is that obedience is not about placating a capricious parent, but rather about bringing peace to the home and the child. It is not about tyranny, but about forming habits that will make future independence possible.
Maturity versus independence
It is true that at some point the children will become adults and be self-responsible, period. As I discussed in How Your Attitude Toward Maturity Affects Your Child, maturity is about a state of potential. As adults they have full potential to be independent, but can still choose not to be.
The goal of parenting is that by the time adulthood is reached independence will be natural and relatively comfortable. This does not preclude asking for wise counsel, as none of us should outgrow that. What is means is that a person knows how to go through the decision making process and take action.
The legality of independence complicates things. Laws limit how independent a parent can let a child be under certain ages. While this can be frustrating, it can be managed. If the child is guided to grow in responsible independence in the home, the legal limits will not be as humiliating or counterproductive when young adulthood is entered.
The laws give the impression that at a certain age people are magically independent. Of course, laws are made to try to keep all adults in a state of perpetual childhood in a way, too, with people in power acting like everyone’s parent. That can be a perverse comfort to frustrated young adults. Their leashes will be longer after a given age, but they will still have a leash that can be yanked at any moment.
No matter the laws, we all know that adults are really responsible for themselves. Laws do not absolve anyone from responsibility. Laws cannot change hearts and minds. They cannot make people less independent in the most important way. This is what we need to teach our children.
Independence is a state of mind and a choice. It is about thinking for ourselves and being creative with the opportunities we have. It is about understanding the responsibility of making decisions. To make the most of independence you have to rule yourself.