Whether you're the laid-back parent or the worrier, we all have concerns about letting our kids take their first steps toward independence. When is the right time to let them walk to school? How do we still keep them safe? How many more gray hairs will we get as a result?
Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist, author of Raising Cain and a featured expert on Hank Azaria's Fatherhood Web series, talks to mom.me about raising independent children and how parents can help their kids become emotionally well-adjusted teens.
How can we help our children become more independent while still keeping them safe?
Independence is something children earn through practice, by showing courage and by doing things on their own far away from their parents. Independence is not something you can build into your children if you are constantly looking over their shoulders; it is not something you can hand your child. You have to control your fears, open the door and let them walk out on their own. Of course, you can be sensible in choosing small challenges, programs, residential camps and trusted adults to guide your child when he or she is away from you. The important thing is to trust your child’s judgment and control your own anxiety. Very anxious parents transmit their fears to their children. That makes it tougher for them to develop their independence.
Would you consider free-range parenting to be a better philosophy over helicopter parenting, or should it be a mix of both?
I don’t find either of these terms useful. I dislike the term “helicopter parenting” because it is full of contempt for anxious parents (and we’re all anxious at times), and I thought that so-called “free-range” parenting was simply an attention-getting device to make a point about modern protective parenting. It isn’t really a practical philosophy. The truth is that we all parent somewhere in the middle, allowing our children more or less independence, depending on our values, and occasionally rescuing our kids when they are in danger. What all parents need to remember is that children do learn from experience, they are mostly cautious, they do grow more mature over time and they have some capacity—though not perfect—to assess risk. If parents focus only on the worst possible thing that could happen, their children will feel over-supervised and misunderstood. So be reasonable, remember that life is never perfectly safe; remember your child’s good choices and lighten up.
Bullying is a real problem in schools. How do we teach our kids to stand up for themselves without resorting to violence?
Bullying in school is real; it does happen and it can be terribly destructive for a victim. But love, support, friendship, altruism and empathy are also real in school; they are in evidence every day in every classroom. Children often stand up for one another and comfort one another. Children disapprove of bullying and they will, over time, marginalize and ultimately extrude a bully from the mainstream society of school. What parents need to do is support their children’s friendships, because it is your child’s friend who will be their ally in the moment that bullying occurs. It will be your child’s friend who empathizes with your child and tempers his or her response.
You write a lot about boys specifically. What can parents do early in boys’ lives to better support them so that they grow into emotionally well-adjusted teens?
We have to think of boy development as trustworthy. Parents need to remember that boys are every bit as sensitive as girls; they just show it differently because they are trying to look strong. That’s what they think is expected of them and what other boys will respect in them. That sometimes makes them difficult to read; we sometimes overreact to their behavior, to their greater physicality, their roughhousing and their impulsivity. We forget that they too have fears, hopes, yearnings and tender feelings. Treat your sons as if they have the full palette of human feelings, use them as consults on their own inner life, and most especially allow them to play the games they want to play. Play is the greatest expression of the human soul. Constantly harping on little boys about their play simply alienates them from adults.
What can we teach our daughters about our sons—and vice versa?
We need to teach our children that we’re all more human than we are different. We all need love, families, friendship, challenge, care and support. We all feel pain, we all grieve, we all die. You can actually teach children those things over the course of their childhoods, that in spite of the bodily differences between boys and girls, their spirits (or souls, if that’s the word you prefer) are completely human. As for the differences in hormones and reproductive systems, in play and conversation, and sometimes in adult roles and work—well, that’s what makes life interesting. As the French used to say, "Vive la difference!"