When is the right age for our children to become “independent”? There’s no clear answer for this, but we hope that it is sometime before the age of 30 (fingers crossed). It’s easy to look ahead and picture our kids as independent adults, but how we get from here to there can be a bit blurry. When is too much independence and responsibility, too much? What’s just enough?
The measure of independence of our children should be this: Never do for a child what he can do for himself. Child psychiatrist Rudolph Dreikurs used this phrase as a way of helping parents distinguish that line between helpful and harmful.
How can doing too much for our children be harmful? Well, we need to ask how our children interpret our actions, not what our intentions are. We help our kids and do things for them that they could do for themselves with the intention of letting them know how loved and cherished they are, to make their lives a little easier, maybe even to foster our own feelings of being “good” parents. But what do the kids take away from our actions? Instead of recognizing our intentions, they are more likely to start to see themselves as incapable, as inferior, as somehow not good enough.
All human beings want to feel that they matter, that they are important. Just think about how pleased a two year old is when he helps you sweep the floor, or when your six year old finally learns how to tie her own shoes. If we don’t give children a chance to see themselves as capable, they never really develop the confidence they need to tackle even bigger challenges and grow into the true independence they need to be fully functioning adults. We all need to believe that we can handle what life throws our way, and by doing too much for our kids, they pick up the message that they really aren’t able to handle challenges, that they really do need us to stand between them and adversity. They need to experience their own capacity to meet problems head on and decide on a solution. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they should be left, unprepared, to deal with challenges beyond their abilities. But it does mean that if they don’t have the chance to do some things for themselves, and if that list of things doesn’t grow as they develop more abilities and competencies, that their self-images will suffer and they will never experience true confidence and pride in being truly independent.
So ask yourself: is there something that I am doing for my children that they could be doing for themselves? It might be something small, like putting their dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them on the table, or it might be something bigger, like dealing with the consequences of handing an assignment in late. Children tend to strive for whatever bar they perceive we have set for them, whether it’s very high or very low. Don’t discourage them by setting that bar too low; push your kids to stretch to the outer limits of what they are capable of. They may surprise you…and themselves!