There are all these debates popping up about which parenting style is best. Whether helicopter parenting is damaging to college students, or free range parents should be arrested for neglect, etc. etc. The truth is, most of us do not really ascribe to either party. We do things our way, a way I like to describe as “balanced parenting”.
So what does this look like? Well, you’re probably doing it already. Balanced parenting means making decisions about how much involvement to have in your child’s activities based on factors that change, including situation factors, and the individual needs of your child.
Take a regular, every-day situation. Your kid is playing at the park. Do you sit back on a bench and let your kid run? Do you follow her around from slide to swing set? For most families, it isn’t always so clear cut. I think about lots of factors when I make that decision.
How old is my child? Does she have hand-eye coordination well developed enough to handle the equipment here? Is this a park she has been to before? Is it a park in an area with a high crime rate? Are other parents over on the equipment?
Most of all, and something that trumps all else: does my child want me to be there helping her, or does she want to run and play. Kids know when they are comfortable and ready for independence.
By guiding them and stepping back when we see that they are ready to try something on their own, we empower our children to succeed independently. If we offer no early assistance, they may feel abandoned, struggle to learn, or feel discouraged by the number of things they are unable to do. If we offer too much assistance, we inhibit our children’s ability to fly and form self trust.
How would you introduce a friend to a park if they had never seen it before? You would not sit on a bench and say “go figure it out”, you would show them some ways that you enjoy playing with the park, and once they felt comfortable, you might sit back and let them explore and discover on their own. You would take safety into consideration and teach your friend about safe vs. unsafe situations.
If there was something preventing your friend from understanding how to be safe — a language barrier, a cultural gap, or an age too young to understand, you would stick around and advocate for your friend as was needed until he knew the language and the culture well enough to advocate for himself.
Some say that consistence is the key, but I think that consistence without cause leads to a controlling kind of parenting where kids and parents battle over arbitrary rules.
To that end, the physical distance and the general independence of activity level that I set for my children is based on factors that change. I don’t make arbitrary rules. I give my kid as much freedom as she wants within what I feel is safe.
She wants to use the toaster unsupervised at age two. I do not trust that she understands that she could be burned or start a fire if she uses it incorrectly, so I choose to supervise her toaster usage until she knows those things. Her freedom is not age-dependent or rule-dependent, it is based on her level of desired independence, and her whether she is capable of understanding safety factors that she needs to consider when doing whatever activity she is doing.
Child centered and Child-led
As I mentioned before, independence should be child centered and child led. Child centered means that each child is an individual whose particular needs and abilities should come into play when choosing how involved to be.
Child led means that if your child is asking for independence in a particular area, you give her as much as you can taking into account the above factors. If your child does not want independence or is asking for more guidance, you lovingly provide. Balanced parents do not force their children into “sink or swim” situations.
Sometimes, we can’t understand all the factors affecting our child. Recently my almost-two-year old wanted to nurse MUCH more than usual, and it was really challenging for me. I didn’t know what was going on, but then she got sick, or popped a tooth, or both. If I had forced her to be more independent, I wouldn’t have understood that she was hurting and in need of extra comfort and pain relief. By not forcing or disallowing independence, we give our children the tools they need to take care of themselves, even if taking care of themselves means turning to us for support.
Sometimes kids have a day where they just need Mom and Dad to stick closer to them, or play with them more, and that’s okay too. I bet you’ve had days like that with your partner or spouse. Don’t sweat it, it could be something upset them, or they’re getting sick, or another change they are going through. We aren’t going to always be able to understand our children’s motives, but we can trust them to know what they need.
If a child seems to not be forming healthy independence, talk with your child, talk with their doctors. Don’t accuse, don’t compare. Forcing a child to be independent or telling him that he should be more independent only damages his self esteem further, it does not bolster it or provide the skills necessary to succeed independently. Note the places where your children struggle and let them ask for your help. Empower them to succeed in areas they struggle in by being nearby, not pushy, but being available to help them achieve their goals.
After all, the end goal as parents is to help our children achieve their own goals, so if we put ourselves in role of “facilitator, encourager, support crew” early on, they will carry that with them through life.