Education

Four Steps to Coax Young Adults (and Their Parents) to Greater Independence

Parents also should do all they can to encourage self-reliance. This comes naturally at first: when a toddler begins to walk, most parents stand back and clap, applauding those early independent steps. The trick is to maintain that attitude as children age. Lythcott-Haims identifies three natural domains in which parents can press for greater independence: At home, children and teenagers should be expected to contribute to regular chores; at school, kids must do their own work; and in outside activities, children and teenagers should be learning how to advocate respectfully for themselves with authority figures.

What can parents do who’ve been too enmeshed so far, but who now want to claw back their own lives and spur some independence in their teenagers? Talk to them about the coming change, Lythcott-Haims said. Acknowledge you’ve done too much, and that you recognize it’s time to get out of the way.

“Say it with enthusiasm, not anger,” she added. “It’s a natural part of life.” Then coax them to greater independence by teaching them through these four steps:

Step one: do it for them.
Step two: do it with them.
Step three: watch them do it.
Step four: they can do it alone.

Another tip for parents: “Get a hobby, a friend, a book club,” she said. “Spend some hours every day not focused on your child,” she advised. It will be better for the child and the parent in the long run.

Teachers and coaches have similar roles. Like parents, these adults should help kids become the best versions of themselves. And the way to do that is to focus on building kids’ agency, resilience and accountability.

“It’s not about getting A’s,” Lythcott-Haims said, while lamenting the absence of these developmental ends from report cards. Learning how to read, write and compute is important, but as vital is figuring out how to function independently and to carry on when adversity hits. Schools can help teachers and coaches work toward these larger goals by putting a hard stop on parental overinvolvement—like delivering forgotten items during the day and “helping” with homework. Lythcott-Haims suggests that teachers share “do’s and don’ts” slides at back-to-school night, delineating what kinds of participation by parents is acceptable and what’s out of bounds.

Lythcott-Haims reflected on the strange, unintended shift in perspectives on adulthood between her generation and the current one. “We looked at adults and thought they had freedom and fun,” she said. She longed to grow up, to be free from the restrictions of childhood and the master of her own destiny. “That phase of life between childhood and death used to be called ‘living,’” she added. Getting back to such an outlook won’t be quick. Said Lythcott-Haims, “a major mind shift is required.”

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