Moving Towards Autonomy
By Jeannette Webb
I have to admit that one of the highlights of homeschooling was living life with my children. We participated together in activities and I learned right along with them. In music lessons, I took notes to help with practice sessions at home. On field trips, I loved being in the middle of the experience with my kids. When the Boy Scout hiked up a mountain, I was there with boots and backpack.
But there is a delicate balance required for the involved parent. While living life in tandem is the best way to train and educate our children, it is too easy to get caught up in the fun and forget that we are in a training situation. Absolutely we want to participate in all aspects of life with our kids, but we need to be constantly moving them toward autonomy. This means gently stepping into the background as our children develop skills and confidence.
We can begin slowly, but we need to start early. When our children learn to talk, it is time to begin letting them speak for themselves rather then stepping in to explain what they want or tell the tale better. To strengthen their decision-making abilities, we give them acceptable choices with limits, “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the yellow striped one? When they are toddlers, it is too large a question to ask, “What do you want to wear today? It’s cold outside.”
At a very young age I was asking their opinion on things and giving them small jobs that mattered to our family – gardening, helping to organize and staple agendas for meetings, packing their own suitcase (one time of forgetting something important and they won’t make that mistake again).
By the time they were 8 or 9 they were making phone calls as appropriate and taking responsibility for their school work and music practice time. I still remember the day we arrived at a photography studio for Natalie’s nine-year-old pictures. We were early and needed to leave her violin at the studio so we could run other errands. I sent her in with her instrument to make the request. The photographer, whom she had never met before, was completely blown away when she marched in with a smile, extended her hand to shake his, and made her request.
By early teens they should be assuming increasing responsibility for their world. Certainly we can oversee. If needed, we can practice with them ahead of time or familiarize them with the situation they are getting ready to walk into. We should debrief with them after the fact. But we need to step out of the way in order for them to learn the incredible lessons that can only be achieved by depending on themselves and their wits.
By the time they are old enough to pursue major leadership, job-shadowing opportunities, college visits, and college interviews, parents need to be invisible. If we’ve done our job well, they no longer really need us to be successful in these endeavors.
Here’s the crux of the issue – we have to be willing to allow them fail early if we want them to succeed later.
When they are little you can rest assured that some things will be botched entirely or not done as well as you would have liked. Phone calls could be awkward. Public speaking events can be painful. Leadership attempts can backfire. You WILL be embarrassed at some point. Even when they have reached the teen years, if you are stretching them enough, there is always the risk of public disappointment, even disaster. But treat these as learning situations. Every experience, success or failure, leads to future competence.
When they are young, most mess-ups are private or only involve a few people. As they enter the teens, we up the ante. I remember sitting at the back of the room when my 16-year-old daughter made a proposal to a board of directors. They didn’t know her or what she was going to propose (organizing a fundraising event for them) and she had never done anything like this. She joyfully launched into her idea, but missed the fact that they weren’t following her. Instead of rescuing her, I simply asked her to clarify a few points for the members. She understood her mistake and quickly corrected it.
In the months following, she marched into offices of radio owners, business owners, newspaper editors, print shops, and explained who she was and what she needed. The night of the fundraiser, she was not only working with set up crews and emceeing the event, but also performing with two college music professors. The stress and fatigue could easily have caused a misstep in front of a large group of people. While it would have been tempting to stay behind the curtain to troubleshoot throughout the evening, I sat with the audience at the back of the auditorium praying and trusting my daughter. She would have to deal with this thing alone.
Because I wasn’t there to lean on, the success of that night belonged entirely to her. She earned the standing ovation all by herself. Mama didn’t make it happen. Can you imagine a better confidence builder?
I’ll be frank that it can be terrifying to have your life’s work showcased in front of the world with the distinct possibility of failure or at least major mistakes. While it shouldn’t have been, the thought was never very far away that my parenting and homeschooling in general was on trial in front of a group of people that might not be supportive or sympathetic. Every time I took a major risk with one of my kids, it felt a bit like I was throwing them into the lion’s den.
It is true that that when we choose to groom our children to be independent, we open ourselves up to being humbled. Yet, the flip side is that we also throw open the door for our kids to develop in amazing ways. It’s worth the risk. I promise!
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