We live in an age where parenting and family life look far different than they did not only several decades ago, but even just a few years past. There was a time (ask someone who grew up in the 1950s or 60s) where large families with several children were commonplace throughout society. I have often wondered what it might have been like to have 5 or 6 siblings, rather than the 3 I have in real life; would we have all got along, how would my mother have coped, and most of all, in what ways would I have turned out differently as an adult based upon that upbringing? One idea seems certain – there is no way my mother would have been able to meet the needs of a large number of children without some of them taking on some significant personal and household responsibilities; in short, some of us would have had to “grow up” a bit faster than might be expected today.
Today, parents are far less concerned about having all their children survive their early years (quite literally), and much more interested in what sort of lessons and legacy they will be leaving with each child. For example, at one time a developing sense of independence might have come from helping with chores on the farm, or looking after one’s younger siblings, since the mother and father were often preoccupied with earning income and family duties. Personally speaking, I can remember when seemingly every paper route was run by an enterprising young person that I probably knew in middle school. Not anymore of course – this urban opportunity for youth independence disappeared 20+ years ago, and now requires adulthood, a vehicle and a willingness to be up at 5:00am!
In the 21st century, pre-teens and teens appear to have fewer clear opportunities to fill their natural need for independence than has been true in the past. Let me add one further challenge in getting this need met: more parents than ever are unwilling to allow their children to experience meaningful responsibility, the kind that allows a natural growth of independence, and where the young person is depended upon in healthy ways to complete the jobs required of them. In addition, many are also unprepared to allow them to “fail” in meeting a responsibility, and will go to great lengths (and aggravation) in preventing a fail from occurring. This can include personally ensuring all a child’s homework is done and tests studied for, or regularly driving a teen to work after he/she has chosen to sleep in and miss the last bus providing a ride there.
All young people, in my opinion, are actually enriched through being allowed to fail in various ways from time to time. How could this be? First, it sends a clear (and loving) message from one’s parents that it is important to be in control of one’s own affairs. Failure to do so will not result in immediate and consistent emergency actions on the part of parents or guardians to prevent lateness at work, to use this common example. Rather, this message in fact invites any young person to plan for success! Instead of being okay with failing to catch the bus to get to work on time, knowing that the cavalry (i.e. a parent) will reliably ride in to help, he/she must plan for a positive result: “How late can I arrive at the bus stop, but still know I can catch the bus almost every time?”
When we, as parents, choose to allow for the possibility of failure, we also send a critical message that every young person needs to hear: “I trust you”. When a sense of independence is honoured, it means that we feel the confidence of others important to us that we can and will meet our responsibilities. It is still possible to fail repeatedly and lessen this degree of trust of course, but through years of working with youth, I can tell you that very few truly wish to disappoint others, while being willing to sacrifice an authentic sense of trust with a parent or guardian in order to do so. Rather, most will gravitate toward those who treat them with respect, and challenge them to show personal ownership and responsibility while still leaving the choice to succeed or fail in young hands. This is intimidating for many parents, and I understand this.
Parents and guardians of today seldom have the time and emotional energy required to ensure homework is all done, events and work shifts are arrived at in a punctual manner, and chores around the home completed, and all on a daily basis! It is a frustrating endeavor to embark upon, and is likely to result in frustration and hurt feelings with all involved. Done with love, allowing our children to fail at an activity but still supporting them with connection and investment is ironically one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Not only does it free up some time and energy for other important endeavours (including enjoying a warm Okanagan evening on the patio!), but it honours a critical need for independence that each growing child or teen has, through standing on their own two feet, and doing so with the confidence that only authentic experience can bring.