A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Letting Go and Fostering Independence

We hear a lot these days about "helicopter parents" and the younger generation that take their parents with them on their adult job interviews. Although I don't tend toward helicopter parenting myself, I can easily identify with these parents because, well, I love my kids. I like being around them, and I even enjoy taking care of them (most of the time, that is). I admit I get sentimental when I give away a bag of my kids' outgrown clothes or review old baby photos. I'm constantly telling my kids that they do NOT have my permission to grow up.

But they keep doing it anyway. An obviously important part of parenting is to foster independence in our children: "to give them wings," as my mom always said. The risk of giving our kids wings is that they may fly away. But let's not forget that this is ultimately what we want. We want them to exercise their freedom well, to grow in responsibility, maturity, and sanctity, even if that means they do fly away from us.

Fostering independence and letting go may not seem at first glance to be a parenting mortification in the way that things like sleep deprivation or getting insulted by our children certainly constitute real parenting challenges. Nonetheless, fostering independence and letting go require the same sort of sacrifice in that they demand a constant supernatural narration that looks at a bigger picture than simply the moment at hand.

Let's get practical here and talk about young children. They start off as babies and need you to do everything for them. Then they start to get older and want to do things for themselves. It may sound great, but anyone who has been running late and waiting waiting waiting for a child to put on his own shoes know that it's not always a great thing for a child to exercise independence. Patience is certainly a key virtue to exercise when we seek to foster our children's independence. The fact is that it is easier, faster, and much less messy to bake cookies without the help from a 2-year old and a 4-year old (see photo above). It is easier to toss a child's socks in a clothes hamper than to track him down and encourage him to do it. It is simpler to clean up their messes, and when company is arriving in five minutes, perfectly advisable.

The rest of the time, however, we have to be willing to address our own impatience at children's ability (or lack thereof) to help in the way we want them to do. It is a mortification, a death to self, to delay the timeliness of our own tasks in order to involve kids in a way that fosters their independence. Especially in a busy household, the extra minutes it takes can seem to last much longer than they actually do.

From a natural perspective, however, the results of parental impatience are easily seen in our culture today. There are parents who complain that their middle school children take no responsibility for their homework; these are sometimes the same children who turned in perfect school projects in elementary school because their parents had taken control and done it all for them. There are busy parents who find it faster to throw their toddler's dirty clothes into the hamper for them, only to realize when the child is eight that she now expects the parents to do it all for her.

If we want to foster independence in our children, we have to encourage and accept their help even when it is really not all that helpful...and often even when it is an inconvenience. Embracing this sacrifice helps our children in multiple ways. It allows them to take responsibility for their actions and belongings. It helps them to feel that they can contribute to a household. It enables them to express their freedom and individuality rather than feeling constantly constrained by controlling adults. It forms them in good habits as regards work ethics. All of these skills will aid children to grow in virtue and holiness because really, we parents can't do that all for them.

When we think about letting go and fostering independence from a supernatural perspective, we see that it certainly can be a beneficial parenting mortification. If we can accept letting go and fostering independence as a sacrifice, we can die to self by relinquishing our own desires to control our children as extensions of ourselves. We admit to ourselves that we don't really choose their talents, their interests, or their future careers. We can't predict or dictate every parenting situation that might arise.

This simple act of letting go can be a great reminder that ultimately we are not in charge, we are not in control; God guides us and challenges us. We respond in the most loving way that we can in order to serve God, even if that means letting a daughter put up homemade (dumb) "Halloween decorations" in the front yard or letting a son "clean up" his spilled smoothie by smearing it in a six foot radius. At the moment these things may be an embarrassment or an inconvenience, but in the bigger picture, the larger supernatural narrative, they contribute to the child's growth and our own growth that comes from making the sacrifice.

We can thank God for opportunities to work on our impatience with our kids as they seek and struggle to learn how to do things on their own. We can thank God for using our children to remind us that growth is a continual process, for us as well as for them. We can ask God to help us give our kids wings, so that they can fly to God in whatever they do...even if that means they fly away from us.

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