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Don’t Raise Independent Children

As human beings, we are social creatures incapable of being truly independent.

Key points

  • Children who are raised to be "independent" may instead simply choose to depend on pop culture or their peers instead.
  • Children's peers, as well as pop culture, do not have their best interests at heart. Therefore these can be harmful sources for them to rely on.
  • Instead of teaching "independence" which fosters disconnection, teach "self-reliance." This gives children confidence in their own abilities.
Source: STILLFX/Shutterstock

In my first parenting book, Positive Pushing, I wrote a section titled “Raise an Independent Child” in which I recommended that parents should allow their children to gain independence from them as soon as possible. They should give their children the freedom to become their own people and navigate the world on their own. I remember embracing my own advice when I became a father and doing everything I could to encourage my daughters to venture out into the world without me.

Well, folks, I was wrong and I retract everything I said back then. Now you might be thinking: “Wait a minute! I shouldn’t teach my kids to be independent? But I don’t want them to depend on me the rest of their lives. That sounds like a recipe for adult disaster!” So, let me explain.

Human beings are social creatures

I realized that independence is an illusion. As human beings, we are social creatures incapable of being truly independent. Rather, we depend on others all the time. The key here is who we are dependent on.

If you foster what you believe is "independence" in your children, what you are really doing is detaching yourself from your children. In this disconnected state, your children will seek out others to become dependent on for their values and attitudes about themselves and the world, support and validation, and a sense of connectedness.

Here’s the problem: The two most likely groups that your children will glom onto are their peers and our popular culture. And let me say right now and unequivocally that you don’t want either of these to be whom your children become dependent on. Why?

Peers don't have your kids' best interests at heart

Let’s start with peers. They seem like a good group because they include friends, schoolmates, and teammates. Peers talk the same language and share similar experiences.

At the same time, though peers may like your children, they are still fundamentally selfish beings driven to satisfy their own needs and goals. They simply don’t have our children’s best interests at heart. Plus, peers don’t necessarily know what is best for your children. And, as we all know, peers also have limited executive functioning capabilities and don’t always make good decisions.

Popular culture can manipulate children for profit

Now, let’s talk about popular culture. As I described in my second parenting book, Your Children Are Under Attack, popular culture is no friend of your children. It cares about one thing and one thing only: making money. And it will say and do anything to that manipulative end.

This influence that popular culture has over children has only grown with the rise of social media, which now acts as a direct and ever-present conduit into the minds of young people. Popular culture wants your children to become dependent on them because it means that it can shape how they think of themselves, the values they come to embrace, and the decisions they make, none of which will be in your children’s best interests.

How to reframe independence

I hope I’ve made it clear to you that independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At the same time, dependence isn’t a particularly desirable endgame either. But dependence has gotten a bad rap.

When most people think about dependence they think of children who never grow up, who become those “boomerang” kids who, after graduating from college, end up living at home because they seem in capable of assuming the mantel of adulthood and taking care of themselves.

Let me reframe dependence and independence in ways that should be more palatable to you and that provides you with an endgame that will actually serve your children well as they develop toward adulthood.

I think about dependence in a far more positive light. I see it as your children being connected to you. Children don’t often know what to think, feel, or do in situations they are faced with in their young lives. So, they look elsewhere for guidance in how to react to those situations. In this light, dependence is really about counting on you to provide them with the advice and direction they need to make the best decisions for themselves. So, the bottom line is to not release your children into the wild until you are confident that they can find a healthy individual or group to which they can become dependent on.

Now for independence. Instead of raising independent children, I want you to raise self-reliant children. You might think that I’m just parsing words and that they mean the same thing. But I would argue that they are very different in their meaning and their impact on children.

Independence is defined as being “free from outside control.” As I argued above, that’s just not going to happen for young people. Plus, the focus of the meaning is on forces outside of your children.

By contrast, self-reliance means being “confident in your own abilities and able to do things for yourself.” Expanding on that definition, I see self-reliance as children developing an essential set of life tools:

  • Cognitive (e.g., information gathering, analysis, decision-making);
  • Emotional (e.g., regulation of sadness, frustration, anger);
  • Behavioral (e.g., studying, working);
  • Interpersonal (e.g., social skills, teamwork, communication); and
  • Practical (e.g., do their laundry, cook meals, manage their finances).

They can use these tools to survive outside of the safe harbor of family and home. And, unlike independence, the focus of the meaning is on your children’s capabilities and belief in their ability to act on their world.

In sum, here’s my advice for you. Keep your children dependent on you (in the sense of having them stay connected to you) while giving them all the tools they need to rely on themselves as they transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.

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