Graduating to Independence

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The parents, grandparents, and relatives are all sitting in the bleachers watching with pride as the young woman walks across the stage to accept her high school diploma. As the graduation speaker begins the keynote address, many parents reflect on the job they have done in helping their children grow up and become adults. They may also wonder what the future has in store for their children.

One of the main goals for parents is to make sure their children develop into healthy adults who are capable of making their way in the world. In order to do this, children must receive an education and be able to do things independently. Graduating from high school is our society’s way of acknowledging that the child has grown up and is ready for independence. Our society even gives young adults privileges such as being able to vote, serve on juries, and enlist in the armed forces.

In order for parents to make sure that the new graduates are ready for their independence, they have to start laying the groundwork for that independence early on. Bad things can happen when independence is thrust upon a young adult before they have been adequately prepared for it. A classic cautionary tale is of the college freshman who turns all of his clothes pink because he has never been taught to wash his own clothes.

Parents should start early in encouraging children’s independence. Many times children will let parents know when they want to do something by themselves. The key is for parents to listen and let the children try, even if they fail. Independence can be encouraged in toddlers by letting them try to get dressed or eat by themselves. As they become preschoolers, children can be encouraged to tie their own shoes.

Once parents start looking, there are opportunities every day to encourage children to become more independent. One day it might be ordering their own meal at a restaurant which requires them to raise their voice loud enough to be heard and also be able to answer any follow-up questions. Another day it might be preparing a meal for the family.

Each time children are able to do something themselves, they become more independent. The feeling of becoming independent is incredibly empowering for children. It gives them the confidence to tackle new problems by themselves and to persist when thing don’t go their way.

By the beginning of high school, adolescents are actively asking for chances to become more independent. This includes going out on dates, learning to drive a car, and going on trips by themselves. Parents should gradually give adolescents permission to pursue these opportunities. The goal is that when the high school graduation ceremony begins, parents can look on their new graduates with pride knowing they have prepared them well for the real world.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on June 1, 2014.

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