Raising Independent Children
How to encourage your kids to let go and fly.
There are physical roots and wings and there are spiritual roots and wings, and sometimes they are both very intertwined. Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” – what busy mother has time to read a title that long? – focuses a little more on the physical part, encouraging parents to allow their children to take reasonable and generally accepted risks – like playing on the playground, riding a bike and learning to cross the street on their own.
Parents today are very fearful and Ms. Skenazy has become famous (she now even has a TV show) for encouraging parents to let go a little for the sake of their children’s physical, emotional and psychological survival. She cites the many benefits accruing to children who are allowed greater freedom to play including creativity, self-reliance, a sense of competence and important coping skills. I am a fan. But Ms. Skenazy deals mostly with young children. As they get older, the challenges get greater and the spiritual becomes more important.
Children need much more than physical roots and wings. They need spiritual ones as well. How can we provide our children with the basic spiritual tools to fly and give ourselves the tools we need to let them go?
The Torah says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife…” (Genesis, 2:24) The clear message here is that leaving parents is a child’s goal and job. Not only do we not want to get in the way of this process or impede it, we want to encourage it. We want to be our children’s ally in this crucial journey. We want to raise mature, capable, responsible adults, not permanent children.
Here are some tools that may help:
1. Don’t try to control your children or hang on too tightly. (I have a friend who desperately wanted to keep her children close and wouldn’t leave them alone. They all moved as far away as possible. I, on the other hand, tried to encourage independence and I can’t get them to leave my side!)
We may feel more threatened as our children get older because the illusion of control is disappearing before our very eyes. This is the time to remind ourselves that it was always an illusion. When our children are young we think that we have control. That makes this confrontation with reality starker. Sometimes we react by trying to hold on even tighter. This is not a healthy response. Our children need to know that we are on their side and that we have their back. We need to know that the Almighty has our back, that He is on our side and that it’s okay (no essential) to let go.
2. We need to recognize and support their individuality and their unique path. They are different from us (even when they appear so similar) and they have their own way to looking at life, their own strengths and their own weaknesses. We need to support “their” journey – even, or especially, when it may be very different from ours. We should free them from our expectations of who and what they should be and encourage them as they struggle to discover and fulfill their goals and ambitions.
3. It is helpful to give our children a strong sense of place which gives them stability and security. They need to feel secure in their place in the family. I highly recommend family trips as a way of accomplishing this – despite all the fights and threats to “turn the car around and go back home” (does anyone ever really do that?) – they create lasting memories and deepen the connection. Additionally, Tevye was on to something when he sang about “tradition”. We can create lasting memories and warm feelings and a sense of place through our holiday celebrations. Particular foods and customs (Tevye may not have sung about this but in my family we save the chocolate mousse cake for Passover so that the delicious taste is inextricably linked with the holiday) create a familiarity that our children will crave and remember (one very assimilated guest began reminiscing about times with his grandmother upon smelling about Shabbos cholent). We want to give them a sense of their place in the community – this is usually accomplished through giving, through involvement with local charitable organizations and through hands-on acts of kindness (packing and delivering food to the poor for Shabbos is an example). We want to communicate a sense of their place in the Jewish people as well. This is reinforced through learning, through trips to Israel, and through further emphasis on our Jewish heritage. (i.e. more eating!)
4. To help our children grow and fly, we should give them responsibilities – chores, cooking, shopping etc. It may mean that things won’t get done they way we want them to (It probably will mean that!) and that everything will take a lot longer but it is important for their growth. A corollary to this is not to rescue our kids, despite the overwhelming temptation. It is very destructive for them and robs them of the opportunity to learn from challenging situations. As all businessmen know, you learn a lot more from failure than you do from success.
5. We should encourage them to find a mentor or role model that they can turn to in times of trouble or just for advice about life’s tough decisions. It can be us but it doesn’t have to be and, if it isn’t, we shouldn’t be jealous. We should just be glad they have found someone they trust.
6. In Jewish understanding, friends are not just companions for movies and tennis but people who have our best interests at heart and, even more importantly, will tell us if we are going astray, if we haven’t forgotten our moral compass, if we are losing ourselves. We should encourage our children to find friends like that, real friends who will be there for them when times are tough and who are unafraid to speak up if they are losing their way.
7. We need to recognize our changing role in the lives of our children as they get older. They still need us but we should give advice when asked (their interest in our input will decrease in proportion to the frequency with which we offer it!). We need to give them space.
8. Lastly (and firstly!) we must never forget or neglect the power of prayer. We may push the baby bird out of the nest but we have the confidence of knowing they are riding on the wings of eagles. Prayer is our ultimate parenting tool and our ultimate comfort and reassurance as we face this terrifying new phase.