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Thoughts about teens, tweens, parenting and this adventure of living on Earth in the 21st century.

Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Independence Day reminder to parents: Kids just wanna be free

June 24, 2013

Flying free

It’s a bit early for 4th of July, but never too early to talk about independence, especially if you’ve got tweens or teens.

In my parenting workshops I often ask moms and dads: “What did you want more of from your parents?” Answers vary, but “independence” always tops the list along with “understanding” and “patience.” If that sounds familiar then you can understand why your kids probably want the same from you. Just like us, our kids are programmed to become independent.

The moment she emerges from the dark and narrow place, the infant begins exploring, compulsively gathering knowledge she’ll use on her journey. That journey is filled with unknowns and kids are easily overwhelmed. Since they must keep moving forward (the only direction Life goes), we offer reassurance: “You’re safe with me.” “I won’t let anything hurt you.” “Don’t worry. I’m here.” And we remain vigilant. Not because the world our kids inhabit is inherently evil or dangerous. It isn’t. We watch over them because our concern for their wellbeing is programmed into the deep recesses of our mammalian brain. We celebrate when they’re happy. We commiserate when they’ve experienced  loss. We fight for justice on their behalf. We do all within our power to keep away everything that is uncomfortable and unfortunate. Our kids aren’t even free to be bored!

Maybe we protect them too much.

Here’s where I make a pitch for a little old fashioned benign neglect, i.e., letting kids do things on their own with the real possibility of making mistakes and yes, even failing. Without benign neglect, 21st century kids don’t have a lot of independence to explore, get messy and mess up. Kids with over-functioning parents have trouble developing real self-esteem and self confidence. Without the freedom to experience frustration and (age-appropriate) risk-taking, tweens and teens miss major opportunities to process disappointment and build resilience.

Some questions to think about:

  • What’s the difference between a parent’s natural protectiveness and over-protectiveness?
  • On a 1-10 scale, how would you rate yourself as a parent? (1=I’m a totally hands-off parent, 10=I haven’t relaxed since the day my child was born!) Now ask your child to rate you. If there’s a wide discrepancy, talk about it.
  • In the past year, how has your child exhibited his or her growing independence? How have you responded?
  • How have you encouraged and helped your child become more independent?
  • In what ways might your fears (or the fears of your partner) be an obstacle to your child’s developing independence?

As our kids move toward young adulthood, maybe we should focus less on keeping them happy and more on helping them become independent thinkers with good judgment. In order to get there, they need ongoing opportunities to fly free.

Happy Birthday, America. Here’s to independence!

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