Encouraging children towards independence

(2012 May Family Magazine)

Jeanie Chan

To learn to fly, a baby bird must leave its nest. To transform into a butterfly, the caterpillar must break its cocoon. To allow children to grow, parents must let them go to learn on their own. However, this is easier said than done.

“Letting go” means allowing children to learn to “shoulder their own tasks” according to their age and stage of development, so that they are responsible for their actions and the corresponding consequences. This article aims at elaborating on the meaning and practice of “letting go” at the different stages of growth, and exploring the difficulties and the mindset of parents during that process.

Babies in the nest

From infancy to childhood, from a baby to a toddler, from using a bottle to eating with utensils, these are all healthy developments to the delight of every parent. Children are growing into independent individuals. As they learn their daily tasks of eating, toilet training, walking, talking and the like, they are getting closer to expressing their autonomy. During this process, parents are continually “letting go”: children only learn to eat on their own when not spoon-fed, and walk on their own when not held.


When schooling starts, children need a regular routine to help them cope with homework and other requirements from school. In this stage, they should develop competence in self-care. In the lower elementary stage, children should be able to complete daily tasks of grooming, changing, bathing, and so on. However, parents nowadays arrange countless extra-curricular activities for their children, and fill their schedules with tutoring, sports, music lessons, language classes, etc. Within this hurried life, what should be the children’s responsibility end up being done by parents or domestic helpers for the sake of speed and quality. Thus, this gives rise to ridiculous cases of children not being able to tie their own shoelaces at the age of eight, or not able to wash their hair at the age of ten.

Children need plenty of guidance, supervision and, at times, companionship while studying. Yet, this is not equivalent to parents dominating or even doing the work for them. It is the children’s responsibility to complete their homework and projects, and parents should only provide guidance. An all-too-common scenario has parents finishing their children’s assignments to meet deadlines because time for homework is taken by excessive extracurricular activities, or too much time spent watching television or playing on the computer. Not only will children learn to shirk responsibility, they even falsely regard homework as their parents’ duty!


Flapping their wings

During middle and high school, children are at the adolescence stage. Parents unwittingly continue the pattern of treating their children as if they were still in elementary school by expecting them to simply obey and follow rules. They overlook the fact that at this growth stage, children are pursuing independence and developing their identities. Some parents resent and resist this change, while others are confused about their teenagers’ style of dress and habits of studying, socializing (e.g. staying up late and chatting online), and forms of entertainment (e.g. playing video games and falling for teen idols). Though they are motivated by love, parents unwisely monitor their children with unwarranted tight supervision to keep them on track. But excessive control leads to undesirable consequences of active rebellion, passive lying and feigning obedience, or forgo independence with over-reliance on parents. It is not an easy task to “let go” at this stage. The following are guidelines to successfully maneuver through this adolescent period.

First of all, parents should focus on broad principles, rather than detailed specifics. Every family has its own core values on different issues, such as religion, courtship and marriage, money and materialism and so on. These are all-important life issues that need parental guidance. Parents have to declare their standards, while permitting children to raise questions. Having open discussions leads to better mutual understanding and cooperation. Daily details, such as choice of clothes and time management, should be left to the children to manage on their own. Over-insistence often becomes nagging, which can strain the parent-child relationship.

Second of all, your children should be given the opportunity to make certain decisions for themselves. The parent’s role is that of a guide, to lead them in understanding the principles, but also to allow them to take responsibility for their decisions on matters that does not place them in physical or moral danger. They should be allowed to choose their extra-curricular activities and manage a small amount of their own money. For example, if your child wants a brand name schoolbag, you can discuss and compare with them the design, durability and price of brand name schoolbags with the more economical ones. If he/she makes the decision to buy the brand name bag, let him/her pay the price difference. Throughout this process, you can teach your children how to make wise choices when facing constraints, and to be responsible for the choices made.

Moreover, children have to share family responsibilities, such as household chores, simple cooking, taking care of luggage when travelling and the like. This can, on one hand, affirm them of their ability and maturity, and on the other, give them training.

The most important element is to build and maintain a good relationship with your children. It is a supportive rather than an oppositional relationship, reassuring them that open discussion is possible in every circumstance. Aside from some routine supervision, spend more time to chat and have fun with your children. A healthy relationship will open the door for your children to come to you when they face struggles and difficulties, to confide in you, and to walk hand in hand with you.

Soaring in the sky

Letting children learn to be more independent prepares them to leave home for college and career development. Some parents worry about their children to the extent that even when the children are studying abroad, they will make trips overseas to clean up and cook for them! Some families deliberately limit their children to universities close to home, so their children can bring back dirty laundry and restock with the week’s food supply. Some parents even choose and register classes for their college student. All of the above are signs of not “letting go”, and such parents earn themselves the title of “helicopter parents”, hovering over their children. Children at this stage of life face solemn life issues such as college course selections that will determine their career paths, mate selection and marriage, etc. As they make these important decisions, it is fitting for parents to be their consultants and companions, providing guidance, advice and support, instead of making the final decisions for them.

To be honest, do children really need such micro-managing parents? Perhaps parents are overly worried and protective out of fear – fear for children’s failure in facing difficulties, fear of children ending up mediocre. Parents want to arrange for their children a comfortable future with a good education, financial security, and a worry-free life. But the most valuable lessons for our children are the ones they learn when facing failures. Perseverance and resilience are character traits our children can form if they learn to handle failures at a young age. They will take a greater blow and be all the more vulnerable, if they only begin to face struggles in their thirties as working professionals.

“Letting go” is a lesson of trust and faith for parents. As parents let go and trust their children’s ability to handle life, it will establish their children’s confidence. To Christian parents, we also have to trust that our children belong to God and He will care for them. Letting our children go is a profound lesson of growth for all parents.

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