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The Boomerang Effect of Teaching Independence

Photograph by Getty Images

As a kid, I remember one of the biggest insults was being called a copycat. It meant you were so unoriginal, so unknowing and plain that you had to imitate someone else in order to be included and to matter. However, I always wanted to arrive at something, at an idea or stance on my own because it felt right in my mind.

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And now as a mother to a 4.5-year-old boy, helping this tiny human find his way, l want my son to want that too. I want him to think for himself and do his own thing. Actually, that’s exactly what I told him back at the start of the Pre-K school year: Do your own thing, sweet potato. He was telling me about one of his buddies, who we’ll call Jake, and how he was following Jake around that day and “doing everything he did.” This included asking me for the same snack that Jake claimed he was going to have afterschool as well. (Chocolate cookies and lemonade? Call me Simon Cowell, because it’s a no from me.)

By the third day of hearing about the “I’m doing what that kid’s doing” trend, I decided to have a quick word with my son. I told him that it was definitely fun to play and laugh with friends, but it was also cool to decide to do your own thing, make your own choices instead of copying what a buddy does. He listened and nodded, and days later happily told me that he chose purple as the color with which to draw his rocket ship because, “I was doing my own thing, Mom!”

Doing your own thing isn’t about dismissing everyone else’s thing.

But what’s a parenting lesson if it’s doesn’t boomerang back and slap you right in the face?

Cut to a play date a few weekends ago. My son and I went over to his good homey Brian’s house. Although these two boys are always laughing and giddy together, I noticed this time around that my kid was being downright bossy. He was telling Brian what to do and where the trains must go and how the cars must drive and, basically, that things need to happen exactly as he dictates. I intervened after the fourth bossy-pants directive, reminding my son that we were guests at Brian’s house, playing with Brian’s toys. And that’s when the boomerang came wheeling around the corner: “But, Mom, I’m doing my own thing!”

Damn you, words.

Instead of trying to repackage my teachable moment right then and there—it would have been a clumsy attempt, at best—I turned to Brian’s mother and told her what was happening: I’m trying to raise a leader, not a sheep. She smiled, somewhat relieved, and it all came gushing out. She, too, was walking that wobbly line between grooming independent-thinking assertiveness and instilling domineering aggressiveness. She was trying to figure out how to encourage her son to speak up and not allow friends to push him into corners and under shadows.

They’re so young and new and unvarnished, these kids, the very definition of impressionable; how do you get them to understand that voicing your opinion doesn’t mean steamrolling over someone else’s? Doing your own thing isn’t about dismissing everyone else’s thing. Maybe it’s talking to them about consequence. If your bossy behavior leaves a friend feeling hurt, shut down or shamed into silence, then you’re not being bold—you’re being a bully.

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As Brian’s mother and I wrapped up our conversation (we concluded that parenting is just a series of tough calls—hashtag surprise!), I heard my son give his friend yet another order. This time a fully-formed comeback found its way to my lips: “Hey, bud, remember to make room for Brian to do his own thing too.” My son listened and nodded. “I know, Mom,” he said. “I will.” Listen, the only thing that stopped me from moonwalking out of the room was the fear of catching a flying boomerang to the back of the head.

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