Fostering independence through connection and respect.
Independence. The apparent need for children to be as independent as possible from their caregivers, as early as possible, is littered throughout our western social norms, parenting advice and educational & child care establishments. It starts early with some "experts" advocating for very young babies to be independently self soothing to sleep. The internet is full of "age appropriate" lists of things that your child should be independently doing by a particular age. This is especially true as a young child approaches a school start and the "school readiness" mantras kick into gear. The clear, yet often unspoken, threat is that should your child not be meeting independence criteria then they will be failing, you will have failed as a parent and that will leave them disadvantaged in life. Inevitably this leads to tension between child and caregivers. Well meaning and caring parents find themselves locked in a battle with their children to force independence. This battle is driven primarily by fear and the fear of judgement, either of the child or the caregiver. It drives a coach and horses through our connection with our children, and is at odds with building respectful relationships with them.
So, how can we foster independence in our children in a way that builds connection with them and respects their individual journeys? Every child is unique and on their own timeline. With this in mind it is helpful, I think, to start by asking a few simple questions:
Does my child want to learn this skill right now?
Does my child have the precursor skills to develop this skill?
Is this skill developmentally appropriate for my child?
Would it be beneficial to my child to learn this skill later?
Who really benefits from my child learning this skill, my child or someone else?
What are the real life problems (as opposed to fear driven possible problems) that may result due to not having this skill, or not having it right now?
Can these real life problems be managed in a different way, or with different solutions?
Does this skill REALLY need to be learned right now, or maybe even at all?
By asking these questions we start to create some space between the fear and perceived demand, and the actual execution of the learning of the skill.
We know that children learn anything, utilising intrinsic motivation, when something is interesting, useful, relevant or needed and when they are developmentally ready. This frequently will not look like socially touted norms and lists. As connected, respectful parents we want to continue to offer support and assistance until the child is developmentally ready, and is intrinsically motivated, to start to take on new skills themselves. All the while we want to foster open, non-judgemental and developmentally appropriate conversation reassuring them of our support, whilst keeping explicit the notion that we trust they will make those steps when they are ready. We can also reassure them that we will problem solve with them and help them gain those skills, when they are ready. In this way we are supporting from below to allow them to stretch themselves, rather than dragging them forward. When children feel they have a solid foundation and are appropriately supported, they do naturally want to participate independently in and with the world around them, as they see modelled by the adults/society. We can, and should, trust them.
Many will claim that children will never acquire a particular skill if we don't make them or force them. This can appear on the surface to be true. However, this is almost always levied when a teacher/caregiver is imposing a skill timeline before a child is developmentally ready and before the skill is relevant, interesting, needed or useful to the child. It is important as caregivers though that we remain alert, open and responsive to signs (verbal or non-verbal) that our children are ready for more independence. I recently talked to a friend who was recalling, with some frustration, his experience. His loving, caring parents, who with the very best of intentions by wanting to help and support their child, continued to do skills for him even when he was ready to take on more independence himself. This created a situation where my friend felt dependant and where his own self belief and confidence was undermined. It is a highly nuanced position we are looking to achieve; of support from below, whilst empowering our children to stretch forwards when they are ready.
Neuro-divergent children, or those children whose developmental journey may vary even more than "typical" children, are particularly vulnerable to externally imposed timelines and pressures. When skills are listed as "age appropriate" as opposed to "developmentally appropriate" this mismatch becomes even more of an issue. This is then exacerbated in a school environment which is heavily age centric and is an environment which demands conformity. As a result these children often become even more resistant to the coercive forces on them. I experienced this first hand with my eldest child. The first seven years of their life seemed like an endless battle to meet socially expected milestones and externally imposed expectations. They never felt accepted, never got to that solid foundation where they felt confident themselves to make a step forwards, never felt "enough", were always in deficit, always something else that someone was imposing on them. And I felt it too. The sinking dread when one milestone was finally met only to be replaced by another that felt so remotely out of reach, and a gargantuan hill to climb. It is only when I started to ask the questions above, when I started to remove the, frankly inappropriate, age based expectations and changed the entire environment, that we turned a corner. By focusing on connection and respect. By creating an environment that met their needs. By accepting my child for who they were, and being unconditionally supportive whilst remaining open and responsive to their cues for more independence, did they start to thrive. But the change came from me, first and foremost. I had to find the courage to change my attachment to the social "norms" and expectations. I needed to decide to be motivated by love and connection, and not fear. I needed to focus on honouring the child I had in front of me. Only by putting connection and respect at the heart of my mindset, and our lives, could we truly start to thrive.
If you have enjoyed this blog, and do not want to miss any new ones, please do subscribe to my new blog notifications. The Facebook algorithms are a constant dance and limit the reach of my posts to my own page likers/followers. I am not engaging with the dance. By subscribing here, you can ensure you will no longer miss a new post! And if you don't want to subscribe that's fine too!