This past week, I spoke to a group of young women in Salt Lake City. Before the fireside, I heard some of the mothers talking among themselves.
“I used to let my kids walk downtown when they were 10,” an older woman said, laughing. “And I stayed home! You just couldn’t do that now.”
This conversation struck a chord with me. My two little toddlers have suddenly turned into independent mischief-makers over the past few weeks, and I’ve struggled trying to find the balance between being a “helicopter parent” who is constantly hovering over her children (which I’m genetically programmed to be) and giving them full rein of the house. Or street.
My husband and I are living in Salt Lake temporarily while our home is being built in Utah County. The other day, I was down in our little basement apartment making dinner. Suddenly, the “white noise” of my children’s laughter and general playing stopped and the house became eerily quiet, which, as every parent knows, is not a good sign.
I quickly put down the dinner dishes and walked out into the family room.
Just then, I heard the door to the outside slam shut, and I noticed the door that opens to our living area standing ajar. I ran upstairs and pushed the outside door open, and there in the driveway happily riding their little Lightning McQueen cars and running around were my two boys.
“You CANNOT go outside by yourselves!” I yelled, mostly to my oldest, while shooing them inside. Even though the parking lot is gated, cars come and go all the time, and just as I was herding them indoors, one pulled in and had to stop for my 18-month-old to toddle toward me.
What would have happened had I not gone out of the kitchen to check on them? I instantly thought. Flashes of all the times I’ve let them play on their own, or go down the slide without assistance, or walk beside me instead of riding in the stroller when we’re downtown shot through my mind. How can I teach my children independence without being neglectful or putting them in danger?
Parenting expert Dr. William Sears gives some great advice on how to ease toddlers into independence in an article on his website, AskDrSears.com.
“As with so many aspects of discipline, it's a question of balance, giving the child enough slack to become independent, yet keeping the connection,” he says. “Mother does not let the child go off entirely on his own” — (er, I’m going to insert the word knowingly here) — “nor does she keep him hanging onto her apron strings because of her own fears or need for his continuing dependence.”
Sears offers several analogies for encouraging exploration — within safe boundaries.
“As your child is struggling for a comfortable independence, you become a facilitator. You are like a battery charger when the little dynamo needs emotional refueling the child needs to maintain the connection while increasing the distance. Your job as facilitator is to help the child achieve that balance.”
Something we do to “recharge” our attachment batteries during the day is floor playtime. This isn’t always easy for me to do, but I never regret spending time racing cars with my boys or putting together a puzzle for the zillionth time. We also have story time and lullabies at night, during which all four of us squish into my son’s twin bed and have family snuggle time.
Teaching a child — and parent — independence takes time, and a child actually goes through three stages on his way to becoming an “emotionally healthy person,” according to Sears' article.
The first is the dependent stage, or the “You do it for me” stage. This is during the infant months when the baby is completely reliant upon its parents for everything.
The second stage is the independent stage, or the “I’ll do it myself” stage, typically during the toddler years, when the child wants to do everything himself, without the help of his parents.
The third, “most mature” stage is interdependence, or the “We can do it” stage. “The child has the drive to accomplish a feat by himself but has the wisdom to ask for help to do it better,” Sears writes.
“Interdependence means the parent and child need each other to bring out the best in each other," Sears says in the article. "Without your child challenging you as he goes through each stage, you wouldn't develop the skills necessary to parent him. Here's where the connected pair shines. They help each other be the best for each other.”
The time a child spends close to Mom and Dad, recharging his batteries and being reminded of their confidence in him, will actually provide the wings he needs to soar on his own.
For more information on teaching children interdependence, or to read more of Sears’ article, see “Helping a Toddler Ease into Independence” on AskDrSears.com.