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How Do We Raise Independent Adults?

Our role as parents is better suited for guidance and connection rather than hands-on efforts
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Dr. Kelly Moore leads a discussion

Sponsored by Eastiside Preparatory School

Of course I was going to be a fabulous parent. I was a parent educator, had spent all of my adult life working with children and teenagers, and I simply knew kids. I couldn’t wait.

Then I had children and I suddenly realized intellectual knowledge does not fully prepare one for emotional intensity of in vivo parenting. When my first child was little, my only goal was to take care of her and make sure she felt loved, secure, and attached. I had read a lot about attachment parenting and was certain it was the main goal of parenting. Then I went to a movie at the IMAX theater in Seattle's Pacific Science Center and viewed a movie about elephants and other wildlife and saw that animals approached parenting a little differently. They were actually readying their young to live apart from them—to live independently. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me at that point, but it was. I need to not only show my children that they are loved and connected to me but I also have to start preparing them to live without me?

Now that my children are teenagers, this concept is certainly more intuitive to me than it was when my kids were small children, but it still causes consternation for most of us. There is much talk about raising independent kids and how important it is to allow adolescents to start to see themselves as the burgeoning adults they are. Indeed it is the most important thing we can do as parents to prepare these young people for the world they are about to inherit.

However, it is not easy. Teenagers are not yet ready to be “independent.” They need us. They need to borrow our prefrontal cortices as theirs are still under development, they still need to see they are loved and connected, and did I mention the financial agreement we have with them? No, they are certainly not independent. But teenagers won’t let us continue to parent them the way we did when they were younger. They don’t want to be managed, they are trying on their wings and home is the testing ground. So the question becomes: how do we raise independent adults who are still so dependent?

If we err on one side, we are not providing the safe haven kids need. We are ignoring a fundamental need kids have to use adults to learn how to be adults. Alternatively, if we continue to hold on tightly to our role as parent the way we did when our kids were younger, we are in for some seri­ous chaffing with these housemates who yearn for freedom. Not to mention, we are not fulfilling our elephant obligation mentioned earlier—preparing them to live independently. As can be expected, many of us struggle between these two polars and find ourselves slightly (or not so slightly) tipped to one side of the independence boat.

One of the major problems is with the word “inde­pendence.” Teenagers are not and cannot be independent. I would argue none of us are. We are all deeply intercon­nected with one another and rely on each other for our survival. I would argue that what teenagers want and need is more aligned with autonomy than it is independence. While Webster’s Dictionary doesn’t completely bear out the distinction, there are practi­cal differences that can be helpful at home. Michael Riera, an author and parenting expert, refers often to this shift in relationship as changing from being a “manager” to being a “consultant.” A consultant doesn’t just leave his or her client to flounder for themselves nor do they micromanage every decision their client makes. A consultant provides structure and support but also turns over much responsibility of decision making to his or her client. A consultant guides, a manager controls.

The tricky thing is that sometimes we as par­ents feel like our job as manager is how we express our love to our kids. Making sure they don’t suffer too much, intervening at school at first glimpse of a struggle, or scrambling to manage their overly-hectic schedule. Our book club selection this year has been The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Lahey argues that most parents of our generation are “over parenting” and not allowing our kids to suffer from the natural consequences of trying something and failing at it. We are jumping in too soon to rescue them—and this is creating a generation of kids who lack con­fidence and resilience. They expect their parents to handle things and so, by default, they see themselves as helpless to deal with things on their own. Lahey argues for a more hands-off approach. Like Riera, she doesn’t advocate complete independence and sees the role of parent as crucial. She does argue, however, that our role as parent is better suited for guidance and connection rather than the hands on, managerial efforts she so frequently sees.

It is no wonder parenting teenagers is so confus­ing. Many of us start out wanting to be proficient par­ents. Okay, I’ll admit it, maybe even perfect parents. But parenting adolescents humbles all of us because there is simply no way to be perfect in this job. The best advice I can give (and advice I had to come by through my own trials and tribulations) is to simply pay attention and be willing to course correct when needed. You will certainly over parent a teenager at some point. When my son started fifth grade here, I found myself tidying up his cubby. I shared this with my older daughter who looked at me as though I was the most embarrassing human to walk the earth. Got it—no cleaning out cubbies. You will also under par­ent. During one of our trimester grade-level coffees a sixth-grade parent shared her hands-off approach to checking homework and three weeks later discovered her student had not handed in any homework. Got it—need to check in a little bit more. The key is to understand that we too must allow ourselves to fail and we must also know that the “sweet spot” for one child may not be the “sweet spot” for another. The road to independence is a bumpy one and certainly not linear and there is simply no way to do it per­fectly. The way I have learned how to navigate this road (and the most effective way I have seen others do it) is by paying attention, staying connected, mak­ing mistakes, and by being gentle but honest with yourself. Whatever path you choose, no matter how many mistakes you make, development will take over no matter what. Your kids will grow up, they will develop independence, and they will launch. I leave you with words of wisdom from Anna Quindlen in an essay she wrote entitled, “All My Babies Are Gone Now.” I draw on her words frequently—they help keep me grounded and remind me what this whole parenting thing is all about.

“Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me.”

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