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Flying Solo: Raise an Independent Kid

Kids looking at map

Fancy Photography/Veer

For the last decade, I've worked as a consulting psychologist for a canoe-tripping camp in Canada. Every summer, I listen to kids tell horror stories about their first five-day canoe trip -- getting stuck in mud, caught in thunderstorms, or attacked by mosquitoes. Having completed one of the scariest trips of their life, they look triumphant. But they also talk about having felt overwhelmed and unsure whether they'd be able to do it.

I always have two strong and contradictory thoughts: "I wish their parents could see them now so they could see their remarkable growth," and "I'm so glad their parents aren't here." Because I believe that the developmental leaps these children achieve in a week probably would not take place with their parents around.

Wonderful things can happen for children when they are away from their parents. This remains true despite the fact that today's moms and dads are spending more hours with their children than ever before.

For years, I've been asking audiences of parents a deceptively simple question: "What was the sweetest moment of your childhood?" I wait so they can come up with a memory, and then I say, "Please raise your hand if your parents were present when that sweetest memory took place." I have done this with thousands of people and the result never varies much: Around 20 percent say their parents were part of their sweetest memory and 80 percent say their parents weren't. When audience members turn in their chairs to see the result, they laugh self-consciously. As parents, we hope that we're laying a foundation of happy memories for our children. When we're confronted with the fact that our own best memories of childhood took place away from our parents, we're a bit confused. That's a slap in the face to dedicated moms and dads. Or is it?

When I ask those who said their parents were present to talk about their memories, they cite the kinds of moments parents work pretty hard to create: opening presents on Christmas morning, cooking Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by relatives, being together at the beach, having Mom or Dad read a favorite book at bedtime, playing cards or Monopoly, a family road trip. When I ask for the sweetest moments without parents, most people tell a variation on a similar story: They were away from adult supervision, outdoors, with friends, facing a challenge and doing something a bit risky.

At many points in our children's lives, we need to step aside, ask other adults to take over, and even send our children away in order to help them become loving, productive, moral, and independent young adults. For me, these four adjectives capture the universal goals of parenting. However, I have spoken with many parents who, out of the deepest love for their children, want to do more, not less, for them. They believe that the more time, energy, attention, and money they can devote to their children, the better.

During my parenting talks, I try to make parents laugh at their tendency to over-parent. I frantically rush around the stage snatching invisible items off the floor, doing an impression of a mother picking up her kids' clothes while complaining, "My children are so sloppy! I don't know why they never pick anything up." The audience laughs because they immediately recognize why the kids don't pick up their clothes. Mom always will.

Parents ask me questions about how they can help their child get over fears, learn to take risks, or become more responsible. No matter how loving the parents, it often seems to me that they are not going to be able to help their child through this challenge. Perhaps the child's friends or an uncle will give him the courage he needs. Here's a paradox: A 19-year-old camp counselor -- a stranger -- is often better at getting a kid to pick up his clothes than the child's 39-year-old parent is.

In the final analysis, there are important things that we can't do for our children, as much as we might want to. In order to grow in the ways they need to grow, children have to take the lead, and usually away from us.

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girl climbing tree

Henrik Sorensen/Cultura/Corbis

We are biologically programmed to empathize with our children. When they cry, we run to see if they are in danger; when they look sad, we wrap our arms around them. We want to protect our kids from all bad feelings, but struggle and suffering are part of life and children need to learn to manage their own emotions. As a child, you don't know exactly what you feel when you're with your parents because you interpret your experiences through their reactions. Away from home, it's easier for children to learn what they hate and what they love, what makes them miserable and what makes them happy, because they are having experiences on their own.

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After promoting self-esteem for two decades, we are seeing more depression and anxiety in young people, not higher levels of self-confidence. It turns out that telling kids they are great all the time doesn't help them that much; instead, it makes them suspicious of adults because they can see that they're not as good at doing some things as other kids are. Self-esteem comes from building skills and mastering challenging tasks on their own. Your child's greatest sense of achievement may come from succeeding in a situation where he had tasted defeat, had been really upset, and then had come back to triumph.

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Even when they're babies, certain children are powerfully attracted to each other. Although we can arrange playdates, kids teach each other how to be friends. I would argue that the best friendships are the ones a child makes on her own with someone she's met at school or in an after-school activity. "Mom, I made a new friend," is one of the signature shouts of a child's independence. You can support your child's friendships, give the kids a place to hang out, and order the pizza, but you can't control her relationships.

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When you and your child share a natural gift -- be it for sports, music, or math -- it may seem logical to play coach. Managing the peewee soccer team is one thing, but few parents can guide their child's career to a high level without damaging their relationship. Parents already have so much power in their children's lives, to add the role of coach tips the balance in a way that puts a child's mental health at risk. I'll never forget the boy I knew who quit the varsity basketball team in his senior year just to punish his sports-mad father. "That's all he cares about in my life," the boy said. Wise parents turn the job of coaching over to someone else they trust.

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We are living in the midst of a technological revolution that is dramatically changing family life. Parents ask me all the time about how they can limit their child's use of electronic devices. However, all of us are spending equal amounts of time in front of screens -- and children will do what we do, not what we say. In the last five years, the only place I haven't seen children using cell phones is sleepaway camp, and they thrive. The lesson of living simply is one that children need to learn, and one that parents with a house full of gadgets are having trouble teaching.

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We watch the news and worry about all the terrible things that can happen to our kids. One mother of three children, ages 11, 8, and 7, told me that they live only three blocks from school. "I know I should let my kids walk, but I just can't," she said. She believed she's depriving them of an important childhood experience, but she's only doing what most American parents are doing. Forty years ago, 41 percent of children walked to school; now only 13 percent do. Kids have also lost ten to 12 hours of free play per week. Many aren't allowed to roam in the woods or even play in their own backyard; instead, they sit indoors near their parents, watching TV or using the computer. Parents are trying to do a good job of raising their children, but our constant focus on safety is making us anxious and suffocating our kids' capacity for independence.

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A high-school swimming coach told me that her tenth-graders show up at meets without their goggles and say, "My mom must not have put them in my gym bag." When 15-year-olds can't remember their goggles, is it because they are disorganized or because their mother is doing their remembering for them? Every child needs to practice being independent, and every parent needs to practice letting her child be independent. Independence is like high jumping: You have to run and jump and sometimes fail, and then put the bar back up and run and jump again. As a parent, you'll wince when your kids hit that bar, but you can't jump for them. Ultimately, they'll have a lot of sweet moments without you there to see them. But if you believe that your job is to raise your children so they will be ready to leave you, you need to be able to let them go and watch from a distance.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

From the book Homesick and Happy, by Michael Thompson, published by Ballantine Books, May 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Thompson. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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