Raise Self-Reliant Children
Give your children what they need to rely on themselves.
Posted September 24, 2018
In a recent post, I made the seemingly heretical statement that parents shouldn’t raise independent children. I hopefully explained myself adequately and provided a reasonable justification for what sounds like, at first blush, an absurd statement. I also made the distinction between raising children who are independent (again, not a good thing) and children who are self-reliant (a very good thing). This article will focus on how parents can actually do that.
As a reminder from the last article, this is how I think about self-reliance. 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).
Clearly, self-reliance should be an essential focus in parents’ efforts to raise their children. Self-reliance is not something that your children can gain on their own. They have neither the perspective nor the experience to develop self-reliance separately from you. Rather, it is a gift you give your children that they will cherish and benefit from for their entire lives.
You can provide your children with several essential ingredients for gaining self-reliance.
- Give your children love and respect which give your children the sense of security that allows them to explore and take risks.
- Show confidence in your children’s capabilities, thus enabling them to internalize the faith you have in them and develop an enduring sense of competence for themselves.
- Teach them that they have control over their lives.
- Provide them with guidance and then the freedom to make their own choices and decisions (and mistakes).
- Show them what their responsibilities are, that they must accept those responsibilities, and then you must hold them accountable for actions.
Be the Parent
One thing you absolutely must do that precedes almost everything is be the parent! It’s your job, and it’s your relationship with your children. If you assume your role as the parent, your children can more easily assume their role as the children. Being your child’s friend—which isn’t your job—can create additional dependence because they have the added responsibilities of having an “equal” relationship with you. Knowing that you are the parent and they are the children establishes clear boundaries, roles, and responsibilities that enable them to pursue their job—which is to progressively gain self-reliance.
Your role as a parent involves, initially, providing structure for your children’s lives in the form of boundaries, expectations, and consequences. Then, as your children grow, the role changes to one of increasingly placing the onus for their lives on their shoulders. Their transition involves a shift from micromanaging (yes, you must micromanage your children’s lives until they have the experiences and skills to micromanage their own lives), to managing, to simply giving feedback to your children about their lives. This evolution means giving your children more options and decisions, fewer boundaries, expectations, and consequences, and more freedom to determine the course of their lives.
One of your tasks as the parent is to teach your children about responsibility. The best way to ensure that you and your children assume the appropriate responsibilities is for each of you to know what your responsibilities are. If you and your children have a clear understanding of what is expected of each of you, then it will be easier to stay within the confines of those responsibilities. You should sit down with them and outline each of your responsibilities within age-appropriate boundaries.
Make a list of what you as a parent will be doing to support your children. Be sure to solicit feedback from them about what they believe you can do to help them. Encourage your children to tell you if they think a particular responsibility should not be yours. When this occurs, be sure they offer adequate justification and show you how they will assume that responsibility.
Then, make a list of what your children’s responsibilities should be. Before you share your thoughts with them, have them describe what they will need to do to succeed. If you feel your children have missed some important responsibilities, suggest what they might be and see if they agree.
Next, identify people who will have responsibilities in your children’s lives, such as teachers, instructors, or coaches. List what responsibilities they should have (if possible, these people should take part in this process).
There should also be consequences for not fulfilling responsibilities. Ideally, there should be consequences for both your children and you, but it is probably unrealistic for your children to “punish” you in some way (though there are certainly some parents who could use a “time-out” every once in a while). The best consequences are those that remove something of importance to your children and give them the control to get it back by acting appropriately.
This process provides absolute clarity to both you and your children about what your “jobs” are. It also allows for no confusion at a later point when either of you step over the line and assume the other’s responsibilities or neglects their or their own.
Many parts of our culture send a message to children that nothing is their fault. Whether rationalizing criminal behavior as owing entirely to a difficult upbringing, looking for scapegoats on which to blame misfortune, or faulting others for their failures, children are constantly told that they do not need to be responsible for their actions. Yet, the ability of children to hold themselves accountable for their actions is a critical part of becoming self-reliant.
The reluctance of children to take responsibility for their actions is based on their desire to protect themselves from failure. By avoiding accountability, children protect their self-esteem from having to accept that they failed because of something about themselves. By blaming outside factors, such as other people, bad luck, or unfairness, children can safeguard their self-worth from harm.
Parents sometimes sabotage the opportunity for their children to learn accountability in the way they comfort their children after a failure. In attempting to relieve the disappointment that inevitably accompanies failure, you might find yourself trying to placate your children by pointing out external reasons for their poor grade or goof in a recital. Though this might provide them with some temporary emotional relief, it prevents them from taking responsibility for their efforts. It also removes your children’s ability to learn why they failed and to change their actions in the future. Says Allison Armstrong, a coauthor of The Children and the Machine, “Yet parents often feel they should try to spare their children disappointment. In the mistaken belief that the perfect childhood is obstacle-free, some parents unknowingly sabotage their children’s progress toward growth and self-reliance.”
You can facilitate your children’s accountability for their successes and failures by actively pointing out the connection between their actions and their outcomes. The healthy way to soothe your children’s negative emotions is to show them how to produce a different, more positive outcome in the future. With this approach, your children have both the perception that they can effect a better result at the next opportunity, and that they possess the specific means to do so.
Early in your children’s lives, you need to keep them on a fairly short “leash” to ensure their safety. You always keep an eye on them when they are playing and you never allow them to wander too far away from you. This care builds your children’s sense of security by teaching them that they have a safe place to which to return if they venture too far and that you are there to protect them when needed.
There is, however, a fine line between a sense of security and a sense of dependence. When your children have established their sense of security, you must then encourage them to explore the world beyond the safety net that you provide. This “push out of the nest” allows your children to take the first steps toward self-reliance by enabling them to test their own capabilities in the “real world” and to find a sense of security within themselves. With more experiences through exploration beyond your immediate grasp, your children will gain confidence in their internalized sense of security, which will further encourage them to explore more on their own well.
You can foster their exploration by actively encouraging your children to explore the unknown within age-appropriate limits. For example, you can ask your two-year-old to get a ball that you placed around the side of your house. You can have your seven-year-old ride their bike to their friend’s house two blocks away. Or you can allow your 14-year-old to go on a camping trip in the mountains with several of their friends (assuming they have some camping experience). Encouraging these types of exploratory opportunities may make you uncomfortable, but they are essential experiences for your children’s evolution to self-reliance.
You can also identify situations that cause your children some fear and encourage them to face their fear and explore the situation. You can do this by talking to your children about the fear, providing another perspective that reduces the fear, and offering them skills that might neutralize their fear. If needed, you can also accompany your children the first time they face the situation and give them guidance on how to master the fear, then allow them to face the situation on their own in the future.
You can also communicate positive messages about exploration. Whether visiting a museum, allowing your children to go to the park alone, or watching a scary movie, you can convey to your children that exploration is a fun and exciting experience that should be sought out and relished. If you express positive emotions about exploration with your children, they are more likely to adopt those same beliefs and emotions that will encourage them to further explore their world and their limits.
Self-reliance is partially about instilling in your children a belief in their own capabilities. But for that belief to be grounded in reality, they need actual skills and capabilities. So, one of your central responsibilities is to teach them the skills necessary to be self-reliant. I’m referring to the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, interpersonal, and practical skills that will enable your children to “survive in the wild.” Though all of these skills are important, these days I’ve been placing a great deal of emphasis on the practical skills that are required just to function as an adult because without them, “making it” outside of your home will be impossible. Some of these skills include:
- Financial management (e.g., saving and spending wisely; creating and managing a budget; paying bills)
- Housekeeping (e.g., grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes)
- Auto maintenance (e.g., change a flat tire, add oil and windshield fluid, jumpstart a dead battery)
- Basic home repairs (e.g., use of tools such as a hammer, screwdriver, and pliers, replacing a light bulb, resetting the fuse box, painting a room, fixing a running toilet)
From what I’ve been told by parents of children who have moved out of the house (and stayed out!), one of their greatest sources of pride is simply seeing their children live successfully on their own and navigate the increasingly complex world in which they find themselves (i.e., self-reliance). At the same time, they also get pleasure out of having their children continue to reach out to them for support, encouragement, and guidance (i.e., healthy dependence). So, well before your children approach that moment when they cross that threshold from childhood to adulthood, give a lot of thought about what it will take for them to make that transition successful. Then, take active steps to give your children every skill they need to become truly self-reliant.