My husband and I have two children. We have tried to raise them both to be independent kids—to rise to the occasion and take care of themselves at an age-appropriate level. We have only succeeded, however, with one of them. Sigh. Parenting is hard sometimes.
Exhibit A—Our son, age 16.
At 16, my son now towers above us all at six foot one—probably six foot two by the time you finish reading this sentence. But we still remember him as the wee little toddler who used to think he couldn’t get out of his bed without our assistance. “Mommy, Daddy, I’m up!” he’d call out in his sing-song voice down the hallway. “Come and get me!”
We’d exchange exhausted looks. Should we tell him?
We told him. And he’s been getting out of bed on his own ever since.
Now of course it’s so much more than that. This is a kid who started his own business at age 11, helping little kids build their very complicated, parental-headache-inducing LEGO kits for a few dollars an hour.
When he was about 12, he told me, very seriously, that if there was something important happening in our extended family, he wanted to know about it. “Tell me about it like I’m an adult,” he requested. I have done so. It was like he was teaching us how to parent him.
He cooks, not just for himself but for all of us, or his friends, or even my friends. He’ll do the associated shopping too, asking only to be bankrolled, which is perfectly reasonable.
At his last yearly check-up, he took the doctor up on her offer to have me leave the room for a few minutes so they could talk. Afterwards he told me that he didn’t really have anything private to discuss with her but that he thought it would be a good time to practice dealing with the doctor without me. “On my own,” he said, “like a man.”
Exhibit B—My daughter, age 12.
“What time is it?”
“Will you get me a glass of water?”
“What should I have for a snack?”
“How does this thing work?”
“Will you do it?”
This is just a small sampling of the kinds of questions we get regularly from my 12-year-old daughter, who is able-bodied, extremely intelligent, and braver than I was at her age by a long shot. This girl, who plays softball (thankfully having not adopted my childhood terror of sports), tells someone she likes them when she likes them, and speaks up for her trans friends at school, resists independence at every single step. She simply doesn’t want to know how to do things.
A few weeks ago, she asked if one of us would make her macaroni and cheese—from a box. We told her it was not much more complicated than boiling water, and my husband offered to stay in the kitchen while she made it, back-seat driving as much or as little as she liked. “Then you’ll know how to make it the next time,” he offered as an incentive. Oops. She grudgingly started the process, struggled with every simple step, and then left half of it uneaten, empty package on the counter, pot unwashed.
I used to wonder if this was a gender issue. Sure, it's 2020, but is my daughter embracing old-school stereotypes and acting helpless because she thinks it's what girls are supposed to do? I confess I considered it. But that's not it. Our girl is nothing if not her own unique person.
Suspecting she might just want to stay a kid as long as possible, I’ve tried to show her that figuring things out on her own won’t take away from my squishiest love for her or snuggle time on the couch as we watch TV together. It didn’t change anything.
Can we blame the babysitters?
My son had the benefit of having babysitters around longer than he needed them, since my daughter is four years younger than he is. He could’ve kicked back and let them do everything for him, since they were there, technically, to look after both of them. He didn’t.
So the sitters, one after another, doted on our daughter, because she was (and is) adorable and loving–and she let them. She had each of them wrapped around her little finger as they jumped to bring her snacks and clear her plates, even after we told them to stop being so indulgent. So yeah, I’d like to blame them. Curse those loving, efficient twentysomethings!
But you can’t really blame babysitters for the way your kids turn out. Parenting is hard in general. Yet you can't help but wonder, Is it something we’re doing?
I go over this and over this, and the answer is, I have no idea.
There are studies on how birth order dictates kids’ attitudes toward responsibility, the cornerstone of independence. For the oldest child, the experts suggest, taking on more responsibility leads to the reward of both positive attention and more freedom, so a lot of oldest kids tend to follow that pattern.
As the youngest, my daughter (as the experts warned) has embraced being helpless, with no interest in the long game. She clearly wants to stay free of responsibility for as long as possible, and if that means not doing things on her own, she’s fine with it. We have tried to discourage this, but so far, it’s been a losing battle.
But that’s just too easy. Plus, there are lots of examples of the birth order theories not really panning out. There has to be more to it.
So, again, is it our fault?
If it is, why are they so different? Why is parenting so hard in these moments?
It has been our philosophy to let our kids make their own mistakes, so they can learn from them. We don’t police their homework—unless a teacher reaches out with a problem. This is because we believe the best way for them to learn is to suffer the consequences of their neglect and fully own their personal success.
While my son is bustling about, making dinner or setting up for his D&D club, my daughter lies on the couch, asking me to fetch her things. I don’t do it, but she keeps asking. She doesn’t learn from the results of these efforts. She just tries again.
Parenting is hard, but where does that leave us?
I don’t have a clear answer yet. Whatever we’ve done with our son to foster his independence is clearly working, but it doesn't have the same effect on our daughter.
My mom, tragically, is not around anymore to offer advice. So instead I go to my father and sister, who was a teacher and worked with youth for years. They gave me the same advice: Keep trying. You may feel like she’s not listening, they both told me, but she is.
I remember all the things I had to hear 17 times before they stuck, and I think they're right. In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep encouraging her to do things on her own. And I'll keep refusing to do them for her. Yes, parenting is hard, and you wonder if they're hearing you sometimes. Maybe, eventually, it’ll catch on.