I’ve often wondered why they call them the “terrible twos.” I mean, at two, a child is still learning right from wrong. It’s much more terrible at three when the child knows right from wrong and chooses to do wrong anyway. This is one of the first exertions of independence made by a child. It is often followed by control struggles over bathroom functions, and before you know it, you’ve been thrust headfirst into a battle of wills between you and your child.
In reflection, one sees that it is not a continuous battle, though. There are peaks and plateaus. After potty-training and learning to share, things go pretty smoothly until third grade. At third grade, children desire independence in choosing what to wear, doing their homework without being under a “watchful eye,” and choosing their own hairstyles. This coincides with our desire, as teachers, to have more independent learners. At a third grade level, we expect our students to master cursive (yes, we still teach cursive) and their multiplication tables through the twelves, and we give them cubbies or lockers in which we expect them to manage their own items, remembering which ones to bring to which class and which to not.
The next major exertion of independence comes at or around sixth grade. This one is accompanied by a hormone-induced brain fog, so sometimes the need for independence masks itself as just a smart-alack attitude. The pre-teen is experimenting with that most dangerous of areas: his/her own opinion. Major conflicts occur when the exercising of his/her opinion comes with a barrage of insults for your way.
I deal with the last major peak annually. This peak occurs in the senior year of school when the pre-college student “can’t wait to get away,” presumably from school and younger kids and from home. This is when kids swear they will never be like their parents. (Newsflash, Kids: you’re doomed!) I have often told exasperated kids that this is how it is supposed to be during the senior year. Parents are trying to get the last bit of mentoring in before their children become adults, and they’re not in the advice-giving circle anymore. If God didn’t make it uncomfortable, teens would never leave!
And therein, to me, is where a new problem has arisen over recent years. I see at least one parent a year crippling his/her children so that they won’t leave. But I digress…
I like the way our secondary math teacher explained it in regards to Cub/Boy Scouts. I’ve borrowed it and applied it to school. If your child were learning to swim, this is the way independence should grow:
In preschool and early elementary, you should be right by his/her side. Water wings and pool alarms are not abnormal, but at all times, that young swimmer is looking to you for almost every move. You are the hand that stays under his/her belly as he/she tries out this new adventure.
By the time your child reaches late elementary and middle school, you have put him/her on a swim team and you allow the coach to do much of the training. In turn, you become somewhat of a coach to your child as well… guiding, reprimanding, fixing.
Once your child reaches high school, you become a lifeguard. Your job is to make sure your child knows the dangers out there and then rescue if /when he/she inevitably gets caught in the undertow. This lifeguarding position continues, in lessening amounts, until your little one has a little one of his/her own. Then you get to move to the “gloating” and “spoiling” phases of your life, and your child gets to battle his own little independence-seeker.
There’s a fine line between “establishing independence” and flat-out ignoring. If you have trained your child to be independent, when he actually reaches the age at which he declares his independence, he will be ready. If not, your teen will kick and scream as if you’re trying to push him off the high dive when he’s still sporting XL water wings. Then he will cling all the harder to you the next time you try. I know it’s hard, Mom, but let your little boy grow up. Dad, I know she’s your baby, but I want to teach her to roar. How your child expresses independence is directly a reflection on you, so do a good job! A lot of futures depend on the leadership of strong, independent young adults.