Raise your children to be independent: It’s OK if its hard

Written by Lisa Tyson

The Fourth of July is a day to celebrate our nation’s hard fought victory over Great Britain, ultimately allowing us the freedoms we enjoy today. The Revolutionary War lasted for seven long years. It’s end result, after victories and defeats on both sides, was complete independence for the colonists.

A personal war

It’s about eighteen years from the day our kids are born to the day they graduate from high school. These years represent our own personal “revolutionary war.” 

It looks different in every family, but the end goal is the same. After victories and defeats on both sides, our children are launched from the nest to experience complete independence. 

Some battles are more like little skirmishes and are easily resolved with a bit of understanding and a lot of grace. Other battles feel like full on wars, leaving both sides weary and wounded. 

We think we have done everything to prepare our children for the real world. But the reality is that the only thing that will prepare them is the real world itself. 

Control in a sanitized world

We too often present our children with a sanitized version of the world.

We do everything we can to set them up for success. We take them to church. We help them with school. We help them choose their friends. We prepare their food. We provide them with clothes and a place to sleep. 

We set up apps to know where they are and who they are with. Depending on the app, we can even see how fast they are driving in the car that we have provided for their use. We watch them make choices and experience consequences—both good and bad. 

We think we are letting them be independent, but we still maintain all of the control

A triangle for success

When my son left for his freshman year of college, my husband and I quickly realized the inadequacy of our efforts to prepare him for independence. And we realized that independence is only one piece of the puzzle for success.

If I gave you three popsicle sticks and asked you to make a shape with them, what shape would you be able to make? 

Clearly, a triangle. 

If I gave you one or two popsicle sticks and asked you to make a triangle, you would never be successful. 

Imagine that independence is one piece of the triangle. The other two pieces are freedom and responsibility. If you have complete independence, but lack the freedom to exercise that independence, your independence does not matter. 

Think of a child who can go anywhere he wants to go by himself—as long as he doesn’t leave the neighborhood. That is independence without freedom. 

Perhaps you think that your child is responsible enough to go anywhere he wants to go, as long as you are along for the ride. Or, let’s say you allow that child to have the independence to go anywhere he wants to go without limitation (freedom). Then imagine that child, with independence and freedom, lacks responsibility. The end result will likely be disaster. 

Just like a triangle has three sides, success in the “real world” requires: independence, responsibility, and freedom

It’s okay if it’s hard

As parents, we want to believe that we are instilling these qualities in our kids. (I know I thought I did!) The lessons my son learned are his story and not mine to tell. But I can tell you what I learned from watching him. 

As parents, we start when our children are little, allowing them to be responsible for their things. As they are responsible with small things, we allow them to be responsible with larger things. As they are responsible with larger things (under our watchful eye), we allow them to experiment with greater independence. 

This is when we have to fight the urge to make sure they are doing it right (our way). If they fail—they fail. 

Or maybe, they will find a way that works for them! 

This is where the element of freedom comes in. Freedom allows them to choose the way that they want to do things. And as their parents, it is okay if offering freedom feels hard. Let me say that again for those who missed it: it is okay if it’s hard. 

No one wants to watch their child struggle, fail, flounder, or make dumb decisions. It would be so much easier if we just stepped in and helped. The thing is, help is only help if it is helpful. Fixing our kid’s problems helps us—but it does not help them

The consequences of freedom

Some of the most difficult conversations during my son’s first year of college were the ones that ended like this: “I love you. Let me know how it works out.” 

I knew full well that he was sitting right in the middle of his own mess. And I could have easily fixed it if I had chosen to do so. But my husband and I decided not to intervene. We prayed fervently, but we never stepped in to clean up his mess. We loved him while he figured out how to do it himself. 

Some days it was not pretty. 

Oh! The tears I cried as I watched my child come to grips with the responsibilities that accompanied freedom and independence. 

To reach “old”

Those colonists in 1776 declared their independence long before they actually were able to live in it. 

We go through the same process as parents watching our children declare their independence, knowing that it could be a while before they live functionally in their choices and decisions. 

In Proverbs 22:6, God calls us to: “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). 

I am here to tell you that none of my children have yet reached “old.” But then again, neither have I.  

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