Raising Kids Who Can Fend For Themselves
August 16, 2011by Alexis Hauk
Cape Cod Times
If anyone's job has changed through the years, it's Richard Grant's.
Associate dean of academic achievement and director of academic services at Stonehill College in Easton, Grant began advising students in 1969, the year of Woodstock, a time when students were "certainly on their own," he says. Back then, freshmen would arrive on campus with minimal interest in contacting their parents, and with the express desire to keep the college from doing so.
"Only with a severe difficulty (personal or academic) would we talk to parents. Even then, it was unlikely. So there was a tremendous amount of privacy. People were doing their own thing. We did have a relationship with the students, (and) we respected their privacy."
Now, things are different.
College costs more, so often families are helping to pay the bulk of tuition and housing. But there has also been a trend of increased parental involvement, starting with day care, that has created a kind of co-dependency between children and their parents, bleeding into early adulthood and perhaps beyond.
Grant has observed students who call their parents sometimes five or six times a day. He says, "It is very possible to prevent your sons and daughters from growing very much at all if you have that amount of contact."
A Time magazine cover article about the issue of "over-parenting," written by Nancy Gibbs in 2009, stated that "the percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2001" and that "free playtime dropped 25 percent" from 1981 to 1997.
Cindy Horgan, family support coordinator at Cape Cod Children's Place and co-founder of the Parenting Station, says a drawback to over-involvement in a child's life (or "helicopter parenting," as in hovering overhead) is that children and teens never learn from trial-and-error.
"There's a basic mantra, that a mistake is a wonderful opportunity to learn," she says. "So if I was trying to teach my child the responsibility of going to a friend's house, remembering directions, safety skills and keeping an eye on time ... If you forget to call me and I have to call you, you lose that privilege. That's a teachable moment."
The imperative of raising children who can fend for themselves came into sharp focus last month, when a 9-year-old Barnstable boy sought help from a Dighton resident after bolting from the rented minivan of off-duty Barnstable police Detective, Edmund Scipione, who was allegedly driving drunk while taking the boy to a Little League game. That 9-year-old's actions were an impressive display of assertiveness in the midst of a nightmare situation. And yet, it's the threat of such a situation that often prevents parents from preparing their children to be self-sufficient. Horgan says the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, full of kidnappings, murders and heartbreaking natural disasters, has created a climate of paranoia and overprotection.
"We live in a society that promotes fear. And you can't turn on the radio, you can't turn on the computer, without hearing some tragedy that's happened," she says.
In 2008, journalist Lenore Skenazy wrote a column for The New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old take the subway by himself, which resulted in nationwide frenzy over how crazy she must be. Skenazy, however, made the argument that "overprotectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't." She now runs a blog, Free Range Kids (freerangekids.wordpress.com), which dispenses advice on "how to raise safe, self-reliant children (without going nuts with worry)."
"Depending on the family's design and circumstances, if you're a single parent and have three teenagers, those teens will often have higher skills, because they have to be responsible," says Horgan.
Of course, kids who don't have any guiding adult in their lives can really suffer. Mike Valler, teen center coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater New Bedford, says, "Those kids that don't have any of those other people to turn to are the ones we're having the most issues with."
Valler works with kids ages 8-17 on a regular basis - not just through the Boys & Girls Club but also in youth development work with the RAPPP Program (Responsible Attitudes toward Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention). He says the idea isn't to just sit back and let your children go, but to listen to them and empower them.
According to author Laura E. Berk in thestudy guide "Child Development, sixth edition," the most successful method of parenting is known as "authoritative child rearing" - blending sensitivity and responsiveness along with "reasonable demands for maturity." Here, local child experts weigh in on ways to set boundaries and encourage confidence and independence.
Joe Dowick, a counselor at Common Ground Counseling and Personal Growth Center in Mashpee, says the first line of action for older kids and adolescents is to trust them, and show that you believe they can succeed. Overprotective parents often "struggle to allow their children to be OK," he says. Trust that you have already instilled the necessary skills and give your child a chance to use those skills.
Dowick advises parents to inform their children of what is OK to do in case something comes up; they should know that they can call 911 if in doubt and whom to approach (or not approach) if they need help.
Horgan, who has five children between the ages of 17 and 24, says you should give your children tasks that are suited to their daily environment and routine - so, living in coastal Massachusetts, that may not be about taking the subway, but instead about learning to bike over to a friend's house and back, including wearing a helmet, calling to check in and biking back in time to eat dinner together. Think of it as a cooking recipe: a larger idea broken into small, manageable steps.
Those steps should also be age-appropriate, based on how a child's peers are doing. When parents have realistic expectations and goals, young people will feel bolstered by every success, experts say.
And, while cellphones may aid peace of mind, in terms of knowing where your child is at all times, these kinds of technical advances have also become a double-edged sword, preventing parents and children from really talking with one another. As Horgan puts it, "I don't want this technology to be our only communication."
Dowick recommends that families try to eat at least one meal together at home every week, without any distractions, just to keep up.
"The thing that I hear the most from adolescents is 'My parents don't listen to me,'" he says. "I'm very much a believer that the kids are trying to tell the parents what's going on, but the parents don't always hear it. Part of that is because of the financial pressures. A lot of parents are just trying to stay afloat."
Another part is information overload. When at all possible, parents should slow down and take the time to simply listen - holding off on the automatic barrage of questions when the child or teen walks through the door - Dowick points out, noting the need for time to transition from school to home.
All of this has to do with setting clear boundaries and expectations, according to Horgan. "To be an effective parent, it's not a popularity contest."
Giving a specific list of tasks and then holding your kids accountable also involves parents practicing what they preach, according to New Bedford family psychologist David Fentress. "Assertiveness is like any other social skill or physical skill like riding a bike. Parents should first model it. This is the way kids learn everything."
So if you stick up for yourself and have confidence in what you do, your kids will too - if you expect them to do the same. "I've found that kids always live up to your expectations, and that's a good thing and a bad thing," says Valler. He explains that whereas low expectations can almost guarantee failure, high expectations lead to more consistent follow-through.
"It's about empowering them. If you're going to value what they say, they will surprise you."
As an extra precaution, you can always enlist the help of friends and neighbors to keep an eye out for your kid. "People are willing to help; it's learning to ask," Dowick says.
Horgan says, "At the end of the day, what I hope I've done for our children is (that) we've given them the tools and it's their responsibility to build the house."
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