Fostering Independence In Your Child

What does a drive to the airport and a peanut butter & jelly sandwich have in common?

It turns out, everything.

I remember the day like it was yesterday, well, mostly the anxiety. Okay, let me begin by revealing my secret up front. I’ve never loved driving. It always just seemed stressful to get behind the wheel, and I wasn’t all that excited when I learned how to drive. I think my parents expected me to beg to get behind the wheel like most sixteen-year-olds, but I was ambivalent at most. I failed the written portion of the driving test because I was nervous the moment I walked into the DMV. I received a pity pass from my driving instructor because I cried the entire exam. My parents were perfectly relaxed in the car when they took me out for practice drives, and I was always shaking with fear that I was going to cause a giant pileup in our quiet, suburban neighborhood.

So, naturally, they asked me to take my cousin to the airport less than six months after I received my license. Between frustrated drivers, confusing signs, and streets leading to nowhere, a drive to the airport was stressful enough as it is, so why were they making me endure it? They could easily take him. I mean, like most Indian parents, they were always in the process of dropping off and picking up relatives from the airport. This should have been a no-brainer.

I remember my sweating palms, my grandma speed, my cursing under my breath as my cousin rolled his eyes at me. I also remember getting to the parking garage, helping my cousin with his bags, giving him a goodbye hug, and sending him off. All in all, I survived. My attitude toward driving had just become a little more positive. I came home beaming with pride that day.

Fast forward to 2017, and I am standing in the doorway looking horrified into the kitchen.

I open my mouth to stop, to scold, to fix, to intervene somehow, but I stop.

Our 7-year-old has dragged a stool to the kitchen counter. There is peanut butter smeared on the cabinets and counter. His small hands are tinted in purple jelly. He reaches into the bread bag with his sticky child hands (there goes my toast for tomorrow). There is more peanut butter and jelly on his clothes, hair, and the kitchen than on the actual slices of bread. He is humming to himself without a care in the world, and I am wondering how to possibly clean this epic mess.

He hops from his little stool with his sandwich in hand, proudly smiling as he takes it to the kitchen table. He might have left a giant, sticky mess in his wake, but this boy just learned how to make a pb&j.

It would have been easier for my parents to drive my cousin to the airport. It certainly would have been easier for me to just make him the sandwich. What these lessons teach us, however, is to strive toward independence and autonomy, and to trust our own skills. When we intervene so often for the sake of saving time or saving a mess, we are essentially telling our kids to remain completely dependent on us. Of course, we want our kids to lean on us and trust us, but in those moments when we over-correct for the sake of convenience, we may as well say, “I don’t have patience for your learning, and you just can’t do it.”

They need to figure it out. They need to make mistakes. They need to take forever and make a huge mess in the process. They also deserve the opportunity to feel proud completely on their own. The satisfaction of doing something with help is nice, but we all know that figuring something out on our own leads to a magical feeling. We beam with pride. We feel capable and unstoppable.

Scaffolding, as the name suggests, refers to the framework we set up to help our children grow. We begin with a lot of support—think back to the first time you taught your child to complete a task and how hands on you needed to be! Over time, however, we slowly remove the structure. We give our child a chance to master the task independently, while still offering support along the way.

In those moments when you just want to kneel down and quickly tie the shoes because you’re running late and you just can’t afford to spend three minutes sitting through the “bunny ear song”, hold yourself back. When your little one wants to make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, support their sticky, sloppy endeavor and offer some room to explore. Avoid punishing your child for attempts and imperfection, and instead, view the experience as a step in the right direction.

In fact, try to encourage the independence, even if it is met with some resistance. Growth is uncomfortable and change is hard, but it gets easier over time. Search for moments to show your kids that you trust them, and that will only help them learn to trust themselves.

About the Author
Megha Pulianda

Megha Pulianda

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I am a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern (LPC-I) under the supervision of Cory Montfort, MS, LPC-S. I research trauma psychology while pursuing my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Texas Woman’s University. Additionally, I enjoy being a regular blog contributor for Psychology Today where I write about the different experiences of millennials in therapy. I received my B.A. in Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and my M.S. in Counseling at Southern Methodist University. I have worked in private practice, community mental health, and hospital settings. I have experience in individual, couples, group, and family therapy.

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