From the Parenting Coach's Desk

G-H-I: Guide His/Her Independence (ABC's of Parenting)

Children can imagine incredible possibilities long before they can handle the reality. Whether it is a 2-year-old contemplating a huge flight of concrete stairs with the thought of climbing them all alone, or a 12-year-old contemplating the same steps with the thought of jumping down them on a bicycle, the impulse for challenge, growth and independence is natural. So is the parental response to protect and safeguard the child. Balancing protection with a healthy dose of guidance is essential to nurture the child’s need for exploration.

Because the world of a child is very small – just what s/he can see, feel touch and hear – parents need to guide his/her independence to ensure that the child pushes the limits safely. For part of the wonder of childhood is that tender confidence that all within his/her control is possible and safe. But parents know better. Accidents happen. Our children will be hurt sometimes as they experiment in the world. Our job is to protect them when we can, and to help them soothe the disappointment of limitations and pain when they inevitably come.

When the child is very young the need for guidance is nearly constant. Even infants can easily hurt themselves as they learn to control their arms and hands, if there is something in the immediate environment they might accidentally pick up. We must make sure that infants are placed only in safe spaces with safe surroundings where they cannot roll or slide into trouble.

As the child begins to move on his or her own the need for protection, including restriction of movement or access, increases dramatically. At the same time the need for stimulation and exploration is vital to healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Guiding the toddler’s independence starts with accurately assessing the world from his or her point of view. Cover or remove sharp corners. Stay close and observant when in an unfamiliar environment. Stay ahead of the child visually as s/he explores so you can anticipate and structure successful exploration.

Once the child is competent on wheels – low, stable, three-wheelers – a whole new world opens up. Hopefully the parent has been practicing the art of limit setting and natural consequences to teach self-control. If so, the wheel phase is much easier. Establish clear time and distance parameters appropriate to the age of the child. Set clear consequences for violations of either time or distance rules and then stick with it.

The easiest consequence is a loss of the wheels for a period of time. The amount of loss time depends on the child’s age and personality. Periodically check up on your child to make sure s/he is within the distance parameter. You might start with just the back or front yard patio, for example.

Seek opportunities for your child to make his/her own decisions. Watch for signs that your child has preferences and help him/her express them. Clothing choices are one of the easiest places to allow and encourage the expression and exploration of personal choice. Second is room organization and decoration. We can guide his/her independence in these areas most effectively by offering appropriate, but limited, choices.

For example, parents can select two or three outfits appropriate to the weather and activities for the day and allow the child to choose. Parents with a very high tolerance for creative clothing choices may be able to provide even wider choices, as long as the choices are consistent with adequate protection related to the weather.

One of the most important and difficult are of guidance for any parent is allowing our children their angry feelings. That’s because the ability to control impulses and have strong feelings, contain them, and direct them appropriately starts with the opposite behaviors; impulsive action, overwhelming feelings, acting out and lashing out at the closest target – parents.

If parents can support their children through approximately 2,000 of these difficult moments in the first five years of life, the adolescent years will be much easier. That’s because the skills of independent thinking and mature action develop over time. Parents lay the groundwork during the first five years of a child’s life by consistently and loving guiding his/her independence.