The independence of childhood that many of us grew up with has now been replaced with consistent monitoring in order to keep our kids safe and reduce our level of anxiety as parents. This parental anxiety is being driven by beliefs that the world is fraught with danger and risk. The message that we are conveying to our children is that they cannot be trusted to do almost anything: safely cross a street, talk to an adult, or settle an argument with a peer.
But these are skills that are just as critical as literacy or numeracy, and we are failing our children by not fostering them early in life.
As a guidance counsellor in schools, I often observed children who had internalised a sense of incompetence. I’ve seen them in classrooms, on playgrounds and on sports teams. They often have a pessimistic outlook on life saying things like “I can’t do it” or “I’m not gonna be able to do that”. They can be fearful and reluctant to even try saying things like “No, I’m afraid and don’t want to do that”. Undoubtedly some of these children were born with cautious or apprehensive temperaments. For others, I can see why they haven’t developed a sense of competence by observing their parents who are anxious, worried, overly protective and intrusive. They intervene at the first suggestion of difficulties apparently concerned that these challenges and possible failures will damage their child’s confidence and self-esteem.
These parents frequently perceive danger everywhere and communicate that idea to their children. They prohibit their children from taking even benign risks and linger over them swooping in at the first sign of distress, frustration or potential injury. They are, of course, well-intentioned and believe they are doing what is best for their child. What they are doing is unconsciously conveying the message that the world is a dangerous place and that they don’t believe their children are capable of handling that, which undermines their children’s confidence, sense of competence and willingness to take appropriate risks.
As parents, it is our responsibility to provide many opportunities for our children to develop autonomy, competence and self-mastery as these attributes strengthen their resilience, sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.
When children believe that they can succeed in mastering a skill and learning new things, even if it is as simple as dressing themselves, doing up buttons or getting their own breakfast, they are more likely to develop grit by persevering towards reaching their goal, learning from their mistakes and not giving up when something doesn’t work out the way they’d hoped.
When we allow our children to take risks, experience failure and get frustrated, we provide them with opportunities to develop skills of resilience and coping within a safe, loving, and supportive environment.
You can implement the following three simple strategies to foster your child’s independence.
- Provide scaffolding for them
When we think about scaffolding, it’s often in reference to the construction of buildings. We see the scaffolding go up to support the building whilst it’s being built, and then the scaffolding gets taken away once it’s finished. This is the same thing we can do for our kids when we provide them with just enough support when they are learning, practising and applying new skills and information, so they tackle different challenges confidently. It allows them to move from their current level of understanding and skill to a more advanced one.
- Encourage risk-taking
Encourage your child to try new things, do things in a different way, change strategies if something isn’t working and take small risks with you there as a support and safety net just in case, they need some extra help. They need to develop the skills to make sensible decisions and manage risks for themselves, of course, the risks need to be age-appropriate for your children, such as climbing a tree or the supervised use of tools such as hammers and nails. It is much better for them to learn how to manage risks when they’re younger than when they are sixteen and thinking of getting into a car with a friend who has been drinking.
- Respect their opinions
By listening to children’s ideas and respecting their opinions, we can help them develop their sense of autonomy and mastery. Respecting their opinions demonstrates to them that what they think and say matters, that they can have input in the world around them and be in control of certain things. I am not saying that you always have to acquiesce with their opinions, simply acknowledge them and thank them for sharing their ideas. This enables them to feel heard, valued and respected.
By providing our children with opportunities to experience mastery, competence and autonomy, we are fostering their critical thinking, problem-solving and independence which are all skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
Kari Sutton is an educator, speaker and author who has helped over 25,000 children, parents, and educators with evidence-based strategies, tools and approaches to foster children’s positive mental health and plant the seeds of resilience, emotional wellbeing and mental fitness in our children.