So, I spent about two and half years trying to make this into more than it is. It is a blog post with some references and it fulfills my purpose. It states what I find most important to me in guiding my parenting.
I know implementing principles involves tons of individual judgement and I deeply appreciate that every kid is unique and parents know their kids best. These are the principles that I find most fundamentally valuable, the ones that I notice most when I mess up and find most powerful when I nail them. I hope they are useful to you. Please do leave a comment and let me know.
Foundational Elements of Parenting for Independence
The challenges of parenting—especially parenting well—become pressing as soon as a mother gives birth. There is a new life, a child, who urgently needs parental care to survive. Children are dependent. They are born utterly incapable of surviving even a few days without parenting, but their dependent status changes. Newborns rapidly become toddlers who are filled with a desire to be independent. That desire only intensifies as they grow to adulthood. Parents can nurture or hinder this process. They can raise children to think for themselves or they can dampen that independent drive and nurture dependence on peers or authority. Parenting for independence involves four key elements: granting children freedom consistent with their given stage of development; helping children learn to reflect on their efforts and successes; teaching children to recognize and effectively engage their personal temperaments; and fostering good communication skills, primarily by modeling them in one's own life.
Environment of Freedom
Of course parents cannot control the whole world, but they do have vast control over the environment of their children. For example, parents don't choose the weather, but they choose their response. If there are freezing temperatures, they fully clothe their infants, but what about a toddler who demands his swimsuit or a teenager who spent his whole allowance on a single pair of designer jeans instead of including a new coat? It is often easier to fully dress the toddler or buy the teenager's clothes, however, children need immense amounts of practice to become independent. Independence is not just turning a child loose to do his own thing, children need guidance—they need to learn the vast array of skills necessary to become independent adults. It is a parent's responsibility to ensure that learning opportunities are both safe and developmentally appropriate. Toddlers can safely choose clothing color, style, and accessories (including extra clothing like that swimsuit), but not to ignore dangerous temperatures. The school age child can try going out into a snowy front yard in a swim suit, warmth isn't far away. The teenager can find out that designer jeans don't look quite so nice when wearing an older coat to keep warm. Parents are constantly making choices about what choices to offer. Only by practicing independent actions though, within this developmentally appropriate framework, can a child learn to do for themselves. For each stage of development, children need an environment in which they are free to do for themselves whatever they are capable of safely doing for themselves; this is essential to developing both the physical and cognitive skills required for independence.
Assuming that a parent wants to offer the best environment to foster such growth, how can a parent create the kind of environment that nurtures independence? In the infant through preschool years, children focus on mastering the skills of using their bodies to effectively move, speak, and manipulate objects. They are self-motivated and enthusiastic learners. Maria Montessori, as both an educator and researcher, wrote extensively on the powerful results of modifying the environment to allow children to learn through exploring a rich, safe classroom. For example, shelves in such a classroom are easily accessible and stocked with inviting, age-appropriate materials. Children learn from attempting to put the wrong shape in a puzzle or from spilling a bit when trying to pour water; reality shows them what doesn't work. Modifying the environment does not mean purchasing separately packaged drinks to avoid the pouring task; it is key that children are offered every developmentally appropriate opportunity to learn. There are numerous books applying her methods to the home environment as well.
As children grow beyond the preschool years, parents have the ever changing job of modifying the child's responsibilities to best nurture growth. The first time a kindergartner folds his clothes, the shirt pile will likely bulge and lean. Even the twentieth time he gets ready for bed, he will probably need a reminder to brush his teeth. Just so, a ten year old's challenge with completing chores or a teenager's efforts driving and caring for a car are going to present choices to parents regarding the level of their involvement. The parenting process requires both teaching skills and gradually removing supports thus nurturing more independent actions. This process is made easier by acknowledging that it is almost always more work to help a child learn to do for himself than it is to do for him. Anything a child can safely and developmentally-appropriately do for himself offers a learning opportunity for the child, and parenting for independence focuses parenting actions on offering a wealth of such opportunities.
Parents As Mirrors
Children need to learn to reflect on their accomplishments to help them see their progress toward full independence. It is difficult for a child to notice his own growth; he needs help. He needs someone to point out examples that he does not see on his own. If children do not think they are efficacious, their motivation for further effort will be sapped because they will not give themselves credit for growth. For example, if a child does not notice improvement in his math skills, he may feel that the next unit is a useless effort. The parents can provide detailed, descriptive observations of real growth that children have accomplished, but often don't notice. This factual evidence is not evaluative (i.e., it is reality based, not the parent's opinion). In their book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish recommend describing what you see and feel instead of generic praise like "good job". This allows a child to reflect on the reality of what they've accomplished, not an evaluation of its worth.
"One wonders how such a simple process can have such a profound effect. And yet, day after day from our small descriptions our children learn what their strengths are: A child finds out that he can take a confusing mess of a room and turn it into a neat orderly room; that he can make a gift that's useful and gives pleasure; that he can hold the attention of an audience; that he can write a poem that's moving; that he is capable of being punctual, of exercising will power, of showing initiative, resourcefulness. All of that goes into his emotional bank and it can't be taken away. You can take away "good boy" by calling him "bad boy" the next day... These moments, when his best was affirmed, become life-long touchstones to which a child can return in times of doubt or discouragement. In the past he did something he was proud of. He has it within him to do it again."1
Verbal descriptions are one way to offer children evidence regarding growth and progress, but pictures can be even more powerful. For example, suppose a child is having difficulty with a manual skill like tying shoe laces. Composing a series of photos of him tackling manual skills with greater and greater success from infancy to the present can provide a powerful support for him to draw his own conclusions about his ability to succeed. Children form their conclusions about themselves based on their evaluation of their experiences, but it is easy for them to fail to recall progress. Parents can provide a mirror that helps the child reflect. With this assistance, the conclusions children form can provide them with powerful, core convictions that make them emotionally stable as adults. For example, the author provided her son with a cork board covered in pictures with the title: "moving with control". The pictures included him as an infant unable to hold up his head, crawling, writing wobbly lines, constructing puzzles, frosting a cake, and delicately holding a butterfly. After reflecting on the pictures of himself, he concluded: "I'm a person who: wants to learn new things, gets better at doing stuff with practice, can be safe with fragile things, can be pretty careful, works hard to learn AND wins at learning new things." Other topics could be more narrow, documenting a specific skill like hiking or gymnastics, or more broad such as "figuring things out". The power of this method is that the conclusion is formed by the child based on facts he evaluates first hand. These conclusions are not susceptible to others' approval. If the goal is a child that thinks for himself, evaluates reality, and makes his own choices without being dependent on others, providing him with visual and verbal evidence of his growth is a powerful tool toward that end. Children who have both the opportunity to take independent actions and are nurtured in noticing their progress are primed to approach life independently.
Temperament As a Given
While Aristotle describes the infant as a blank slate, that does not negate the fact that all people are born with different temperaments. Some babies respond to every touch, noise, or sound with a wail while others are curious or blasé in the same situation. Thus, while the slate may be blank (i.e., devoid of data) there are still different slates; at birth all children have different temperaments. A child who has been nurtured to develop independence benefits even more from parenting that helps him see that his temperament cannot be changed. The child who is naturally persistent can learn the skill of taking mental breaks to refocus, but cannot willfully change that persistent nature. The child who is naturally sensitive to physical stimuli can learn to bring headphones to block noise, but cannot choose to change that sensitive nature. Parents hinder independence if they encourage a child to fight against a given temperament; for example, by telling the persistent child not be stubborn. Parents help their children grow effectively by helping them recognize the nature of their temperament, and then teaching them skills for both dealing with related difficulties and tapping into related capacities.
Since temperament traits are not chosen, and thus not volitional, nothing about them is inherently good or bad. A child's temperament simply is and must be taken as the given starting point. (While temperament can change as children grow, they do not pick temperament traits; it’s the slate they are working with.) As Mary Sheedy Kurcinka states in her book, Raising Your Spirited Child:
"You don't get to choose your child's temperament, nor does your child, but you do make a big difference. It is you who helps your child understand his temperament, emphasizes his strengths, provides him with the guidance he needs to express himself appropriately, and gently nudges him forward... By adapting your parenting techniques to fit his temperament and his style, and teaching him the skills he needs, you help him to live cooperatively with others and to be all that he can be. To deny him his energy, his need for preparation before shifts, or any of his other temperamental traits is telling him 'don't be'- don't be who you are."2
Parents can best help their children in this area not by attempting to change an intense, persistent, or sensitive child, but by helping him acquire the skills necessary to harness his natural strengths.
Communication as Foundational
Finally, the method of communication between parent and child is itself a pivotal aspect of parenting for independence. Good communication skills allow parents to effectively communicate as they establish an environment of freedom, mirror a child's successes, and discuss temperament. They are also foundational for the child. Children need to learn good communication skills to function well as independent adults. Because children learn these skills mostly from their parents, their parents need to model such skills as a matter of course.
Good communication skills, like any skill, take a significant amount of practice and effort, but there are two guiding techniques that are useful at this broad level: active listening and observing comments.
Active listening is the foundational communication skill. Active listening is the act of focusing attention on understanding another. Does the child see his parents listening to each other and actively trying to understand what is being said? Does the child experience intense listening? When he's telling a story, are his parents respectfully focusing eyes, torso, and mind on understanding him? It is a skill to actively listen without interruptions, seeking only clarification and understanding. Children cannot learn this skill without seeing it modeled and without lots of practice on their own. If a child cannot listen attentively, both his ability to gain knowledge and to interact with others effectively is hampered and, therefore, so is his ability to achieve independence. A child who cannot listen to instruction will not become an adult who can hear his customers' or manager's or friends’ needs. Active listening is required to gain accurate knowledge from others.
Communicating observations as factual comments allows children to focus on reality and form their own next actions. For example, saying "I see the ice cream on the counter," is an observation, not an evaluation or an accusation like an irate: "You left the ice cream on the counter!" Both forms of communicating will likely get the ice cream back to the freezer, but the former will help the child focus on reality and, ultimately, gain self discipline. This also applies to communicating feelings as personal facts, not accusations. For example: "I'm feeling frustrated!" versus "You frustrate me!". Commonly referred to as "I vs you" language, this skill focuses communication on facts. There is no argument about what a person is feeling. Parents are going to feel angry, hurt, sad, happy, silly, and all sorts of things related to a child's behavior. Communicating those emotions factually, and then helping children consider ways to handle whatever contributing factor was theirs, is respectful of their process of gradual independence. Accusatory language makes it harder to focus on facts and grow in independent self regulation.
In Learning As We Grow, the authors describe a teaching method which enhances this commenting technique and works equally well in parenting.
"There are different types of prompts we can give: direct or indirect, verbal or nonverbal. Unfortunately, what often happens is that we resort to very specific and direct prompts in order to get students to 'keep up’ with the pace of the classroom, and stay on-track with what they need to do. Anytime we use a direct prompt, however, we are removing the opportunity for thinking because we have directly told them what to do. This ultimately robs students of opportunities to develop the active listening skills, thinking skills, and problem solving skills that they need to be truly successful... Unlike traditional prompting methods that start with the most support and then fade over time, the strategy here is to start with the least specific prompt and move down the list to more direct prompts as necessary... Utilizing this progression ensures that the student gets significant opportunities to think about things, as opposed to being immediately told what to do. Over time, we should see that the levels of prompting further down the list are not required because the student is doing more thinking in response to less direct prompts.
[Least to most direct prompts]
• Verbal comment about the situation ('It looks like you're having a problem.')
• Indirect verbal prompt to think about possible solutions / actions ('I wonder what you might do about not having a piece of paper.')
• Verbalize a solution you might use ('If I didn't have a piece of paper, I would ask a friend if I could borrow one.')
• Provide the student two options to choose between ('Are you going to ask a friend to borrow a piece of paper, or will you be getting one from the tray on my desk?')
• Direct Nonverbal prompt (make sure you have student's attention by moving closer and getting on eye level) (Point to the paper tray on your desk.)
• Direct verbal prompt with nonverbal ('Get a piece of paper.' + point to paper tray)3
Parents can actively nurture independence by communicating in ways which help a child choose his own actions. Sometimes prompts are not enough and a parent must physically help a toddler go get a piece of paper, but the crucial point is that the child experiences gradually more and more independence. This is precisely analogous, in communication, to the first goal discussed. Parents nurture independence, in both communication and action, by gradually offering choices so that a child is free to do what they are safely and developmentally capable of doing alone.
Parents who want to raise an independent child are undertaking a significant challenge. It is much easier to raise an obedient child, yet as Maria Montessori said, "Discipline must come through liberty... We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined."4 Freeing children to make their own choices and to learn from those choices is essential to developing an independent orientation toward life. Such children are capable of innovating and making choices for themselves instead of looking to the authority of parents, peers, or (eventually) a manager or government. These children can also have the self confidence necessary to learn from mistakes because their parents have helped them see again and again how they have grown from mistakes in the past. Whatever path the child chooses, he will also have the communication skills necessary to effectively interact with others. Nurturing a child toward independence is difficult; it is also a profoundly joyous experience as parents see their child delight in the growing abilities which they have helped him discover.
The author wishes to acknowledge Andrew Miner and Craig Biddle for their help in editing this paper. She also acknowledges her son, Cameron Miner, who is both a spirited child and an excellent teacher.
1. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk
(New York: HarperCollins, 1980), p.184.
2. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Raising Your Spirited Child (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp.39-40.
3. Nicole Beurkens, Erin Roon, and Courtney Kowalczyk. Learning As We Grow, (Caledonia:
Horizons Developmental Remediation Center, 2009), pp.118-121.
4. Maria Montessori. The Montessori Method, (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), p.86.