Raising independent children

In the light of this Namibian Independence month, we thought to delve a bit deeper into
what nurtures an authentic, independent spirit in children who then grow into confident,
independent and resilient adults.

All parents want their children to be happy, well-balanced, confident and content within
themselves. As adults who have grown up working hard on having those attributes
ourselves, the age old question of “how do I do this?” often raises its head and a lot of
parents just try to figure it out as they go along.

We have so much more information available to us today on child attachment styles, brain
and psychological development than our parents’ generation ever had. The line “well that is
how I was raised and I am fine” just cannot be justified anymore, now that science and
research show us other pathways.

In this post, in order to illustrate my points, I will be using the act of a family meal around
the dinner table as a common example of a social setting in which a plethora of skills and
human needs can be fulfilled and cultivated in children to build their confidence and

Conversation skills

Do you as parents talk about your day and encourage your children to participate in
conversations? More and more we see children who do not feel safe to speak their mind or
voice their opinions. They feel timid in social situations and do not feel that they deserve to
be there. Engaging children in conversations around the dinner table or other family events
makes them feel a sense of belonging and builds self-esteem. Their well gets filled up with
the attention and curiosity that parents and siblings show in them. In such a setting,
children also learn a lot from observation in things like listening skills, waiting their turn and
respectful communication. This does not mean that a family always need to agree on a
topic, but are you able to respect the person while disagreeing with their viewpoint? Our
children learn 90% of how to be in the world from what they see us do, not what we tell
them to do.

In confrontations where children are upset, a very useful tool to use is to acknowledge our
children’s feelings, regardless of how we feel about the situation. “I can see that Micky’s
shouting upset you.” Or “Johnny taking the last potato really made you feel angry.” An
acknowledgement can be followed by a statement that lets your child know how you feel
about the situation and that reiterates the rules. For example, “In our house we need to
speak to each other with respect.”

Another useful phrase to use when children are upset is to ask the question “what is it that
you need right now?” This offers children the opportunity of becoming aware of their
feelings and looking inwards as to what their nervous system needs to calm down. The
answer may be as simple as “I need a hug” or, “I need us to have alternate turn-taking.”
Initially, children may need some guidance to recognize what it is that they need, but with support, they very quickly start to develop these skills themselves. Children treated in this
manner develop a capacity for empathy and understanding of self and others and they carry
these skills into adulthood. Adults who have well-developed social and emotional
intelligence fare far better in their careers and life in general.

Responsibility and cooperation

Parents often underestimate the innate capacity that children have for enjoying and
successfully completing chores from a very young age. Even very young children can be
taught basic skills like helping to prepare food, setting the table, dishing their own food,
helping to pack the dishwasher or wash the dishes. For young children work is play and play
is work and they are far more capable than society assumes. Children as young as two years
old can do simple tasks such as carrying, sorting, stirring, wiping, packing etc. A child who is
building a sand castle experiences the same type of engagement when they are stirring a
pot. To us, we look at cooking differently because we do it for the outcome: we need to
prepare a meal. When a child does it, it is for the sake of process: I wonder how this works,
and I want to find out!

This drive towards meaningful engagement is why the novelty of a pretend kitchen typically
wears off quickly, but the joy of getting to cook real food fosters much longer-lasting

At the root of this is an overarching belief that young children cannot yet be trusted to learn
processes that come with risk, like carrying something that could break, moving where they
could fall, or using a knife to slice vegetables that could hurt their fingers. This is rooted in
love. Our protection instincts ring true, but often this leads us to overreach in how much we
allow them to do. If we overreach perpetually, we become helicopter parents and the driver
of their learning, creating dependencies that boomerang back to us as they get older.
So much of the child is formed by age six, and we need to question our interventions
because our interventions become their inner voice. Demonstrating our trust in their own
desire to try for themselves solidifies a foundation of curiosity, motivation, and confidence
that will boost independence for a lifetime. Too many “Be carefuls,” could become “I cannot
be trusted to try this.”

Encouraging children to be an active part of the family affair of preparing food, setting the
table, washing hands before we eat, dishing for themselves, washing and cleaning up
afterwards, creates a sense of collaboration and belonging, confidence and pride.
Autonomy and delayed gratification
When children are involved in the preparation of food, their curiosity in and feeling a part of
the process encourages their sense of food interest and exploration. Allowing children to
manage their own meal portions with healthy guidelines also sets them up with a sense of
bodily autonomy and responsibility that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their life. This could even encourage purposeful conversations about growth of the body,
nutrition and what the body needs to be healthy.

Part of being healthy is the realisation of the natural rhythms of the body and mind. We live
in a culture of instant gratification in all areas of life. Therefore, an immensely crucial life
skill in the preparation of meals with children, particularly desserts or snacks, teaches them
that good things take time. Learning to put in the work and wait is an invaluable life skill
that not only makes children more resilient but also lessens frustration levels in their life.

Adults who can make the decision to forgo a big purchase in order to save for their dream
holiday, or take on a job that they are not crazy about but would help them tremendously
on their career path, set themselves up for success.

Connection instead of distraction

There is an epidemic in the world today of children being exposed to way too much screen
time. Passive stimulation and entertainment in front of the television, iPad or PlayStation
means that children do not have to use their minds to create, synthesise, analyse or
converse. In the long term, this is detrimental to a child’s ability to relate and connect with
other people in a meaningful way that releases healthy amounts of dopamine and a sense
of well-being and belonging. We have all been in the situation where eating a meal in front
of the TV is just so much easier than the whole affair of setting a table and making
conversation, but even though a TV dinner as a treat is a wonderful thing, keep in mind that
if it is the norm, children really do miss out on the enriching, multi-faceted benefits of a
family dinner. There is a lot of research available on the detrimental effects of screen time
on children’s and teenager’s development. Human connection, family games, nature time,
music, reading, sports etc. is recommended over screen time every single time.
The social / familiar context of a family meal is just one example of how these approaches
and communication strategies can help to foster independence. In the spirit of this month I
challenge you to come up with your own scenarios or situations in which to apply these
skills and strategies to co-create a nurturing yet dynamic environment for which children
thrive and grow into resilient, self-sufficient adults.

I will end this post with a quote from the writer Denis Waitley:
“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of

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