Giving Your Child Some Independence This Summer

Can being an overprotective parent be a bad thing?

It's summer time in the Hudson Valley. How much independence do we give our kids, and how can we raise kids who are capable of using their unstructured summertime days to further their autonomy and growth as self-directed independent individuals?

We all want to keep our children safe and protected, sheltered from painful experiences and feelings. We want them to live a stress-free, pain-free, even frustration-free life. Is this really a good idea? Can our children thrive in a stress-free overprotective environment? Of course not. Children don’t learn to become competent, independent adults by parents who continually baby them.

The development of independence in our children can often be a daunting balancing act for parents. Too much independence can be construed by them as rejection, thereby producing unwanted negative effects. By not giving them enough independence, and overprotecting them, we may inadvertently produce negative side effects — most prominently curtailing a child’s ability to become independent. 

READ MORE: 5 habits to break if you want independent kids!

Children need to learn by trial and error

We all want to protect our children and it’s painful for us to see them become frustrated to the point of tears. But such is the currency of independence. Nothing prompts growth and confidence within a child than tackling a difficult task and persevering without adult help. Watch a toddler learn to walk. She can crawl as fast as a rabbit but that’s not enough, she stands up falls down, takes another step falls down, but keeps getting up and falling down until she achieves mastery. She needs no praise or rewards to continue the process: achievement and competence is her own reward. Developmental theorists believe we have an internal mechanism that catapults us forward, continuously driving us to greater achievement and autonomy, so when the time comes to literally be on our own, we can do so with ease.

Overprotectiveness can harm a child’s growth

The overprotected, overdependent child may become enveloped in a vicious cycle. He may begin to perpetuate this cycle of dependence. He begins to see himself as helpless, even develop a “helpless orientation” and the accompanying “I can’t do it” attitude when confronted with new or difficult tasks. Overprotected children become ill-equipped to deal with conflict or frustration. They may have difficulty in relationships with others as well as being incapable of negotiating the interpersonal demands that arise when children play. 

In addition to his lack of skills in conflict resolution, his lack of confidence makes him more likely to be rejected by peers and even a target for bullying. He might also underachieve academically feeling anxious about taking risks, always looking to avoid frustration or failure at any cost. 

Most practitioners in the child development field urge parents to stand back and let children do for themselves. This position doesn’t advocate letting children continuously fall on their faces, quite the converse. It’s a position trying to help parents recognize that there’s a big difference between encouraging and rewarding a child’s effort for persevering with a difficult or frustrating task, and doing it for them.

READ MORE: Avoid the summer brain drain.  Tips from Dr. Schwartz.

I realize how easy it is for me to say to parents “let your child face a level of frustration,” when as parents want to rescue them from this experience. I often stop myself from rushing in with my youngest to help her before she becomes frustrated, even knowing I should wait longer, giving her the opportunity to “do it herself.” A parent’s overwhelming desire to rush in and help their children can actually curtail their child’s’ natural inclination to enhance their sense of self-mastery and independence. Just as we let our toddlers fall repeatedly until they walked, we need to let our children fall down and get up to develop their independence.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.