My post What We’re Really Doing When We Think We’re Raising Kids seems to have hit a nerve! Apparently, raising independent kids is on a lot of our radars, and becoming a high priority. As I see this among Christian parents, I’m convinced the Spirit is preparing the next generation for some big challenges and some big wins. Isn’t that encouraging?
I wanted to follow that post up with this one, where we’re going to talk about raising kids who are independent–and responsible–in their relationships. You may be a relationship wizard, but if you’re “doing for” your kids all the time instead of teaching them to handle their own business, they’re going to fail. That’s a guarantee. They are GOING TO FAIL. Yikes!
This is a hard area because it requires maturity. At the same time, they don’t mature if they never have to forge ahead for themselves. So, you have to let them fail now small-scale so they don’t later fail large-scale. The first time they ever talk to a teacher on their own can’t be when there’s a grade discrepancy that affects college applications, right?
We’re going to look at five areas, and I’m going to include a lot of personal stories. (If you just want the basics, you can skip the stories!)
In His goodness and grace, God puts kids in families where they learn life among people who love them and look out for them. Your home is the training ground for raising independent kids who can manage relationships. Almost certainly, there will come a day when your child is little and wants you to go to the other parent on their behalf. “Will you ask Dad if he’ll take me to the park?” “Mom is mad at me. Will you make her like me again?” That kind of thing.
I remember when my daughter was little (maybe five?), and she wanted my husband to do something that he wouldn’t do. She came to me and asked me if I would get him to do it (no), and then if I would tell her how to get him to do it. Whoa! I’m not raising a girl who manipulates men! She had to learn that she’d made her case with her dad, and even though she didn’t like the answer, she had to respect his decision.
If there’s a conflict with another member of the family, don’t just fix it. If your child is old enough to have the conflict, he’s old enough to handle the conflict.
Coach, advise, suggest, and send him on to handle it. Here’s what that looks like down the road: Instead of your child feeling helpless and overwhelmed in the face of relational problems and expecting you to make it all better, that same child comes to you for advice before handling it on his own. It’s called “adulting”!
If there are siblings, boy, will you have a vibrant training ground for teaching interpersonal skills! Unless the crime is egregious or physical, keep being the coach and advisor and have them work it out on their own.
(A word of caution: A common dynamic is for an older sibling to blatantly take advantage of a younger sibling’s desire to be included. If one child is mistreating another child who doesn’t see the problem in it, step in. It’s not good for either one of them to let that go on.)
Kids are able to find playmates early, but it won’t be until about elementary school that you’ll start seeing problems with friends. Or difficulties making friends, or choosing good friends, or learning to be a good friend. Just be ready when they start school for these issues to pop up.
It’s critically important that you have the kind of relationship with your child where they tell you about their lives. If you want to have that, start early by showing interest in things that may not interest you! If you want your teenager to tell you about a friend who’s being a jerk all of a sudden, you have to be interested in hearing about the kid in kindergarten who never shares his blue crayon. Or about all the different Shopkins and why this one is her favorite.
You don’t get to be suddenly relevant when the stakes get higher as your child gets older. You’re relevant then because you’ve been reliable all along.
Okay, so when those issues do pop up, as much as possible, maintain the advisor role. There may be times when the problem is bigger than your child and you need to step in. Just use good judgment. I’ll give you four examples from my daughter’s life–two when I stayed out of it, one when I stepped in, and one when I stepped way in.
(Note: Since my kids aren’t dating age yet, I’m not addressing that. But if you have wisdom on this topic PLEASE share it in the comments! I don’t even care if anyone else needs it–I do!)
A Time I Stayed out of It
In first grade, my daughter had a Dinosaur Club at recess. They had a great time until a “rival” group arose and started poaching members. It got contentious, and I heard about it every day. I kept track of what was going on and advised my daughter how to be a good friend. It got a bit out of hand when things got physical. One of the boys grabbed my daughter and tried to take her over to their side. I asked her if she wanted me to take care of it, but she still felt like she could handle it.
This next part, you may not agree with, but I know I was right. Since she wanted to handle it on her own, I told her that I never want her to start a physical fight, but if someone else does, she has all of my permission to respond physically. Don’t start it, but if someone else does, win it. (Winning, by the way, means getting to a point where you can get away.)
And I told her I’d take care of it with the school. I couldn’t have her not defend herself because she was afraid of getting in trouble. Since she’s a girl, she needed to learn this at some point, anyway. The whole thing fizzled out, and her real friends came out as still being her friends. In some ways, this story sounds silly, but in some ways it got serious. The takeaway? I allowed her to stay in charge of when to call in the big guns and when to handle herself. She made good decisions, so I followed her lead.
A Time My Heart Broke as I Stayed out of It
In seventh grade, my daughter’s very best friend had some health issues that changed her behavior. I was good friends with her mom, so I understood that she was in almost constant pain. My daughter is an introvert, so she only has a few friends, but they’re close. So this whole thing was hard on her. And the worse her friend felt, the worse she treated my daughter. It actually got to the point where the friend had to step back and not see my daughter anymore. If this sounds like a break-up, let me assure you, that’s exactly how it felt. My daughter was devastated. She was broken–the way she felt and the things she said were exactly like a first break-up.
She was so hurt, and all I could do is comfort her and try to give her perspective. But there really wasn’t anything else I could do. Eventually, the health issue was resolved, and the friendship warmed back up. But it was never the same for my daughter. And as much as it hurt, it was a good lesson. She came away wiser for it, but man, was that a tough time.
A Time I Stepped In
When my daughter was in fourth grade, there was an incident at school. One of the boys pulled the neckline of her shirt out to look down her shirt.
I was so glad she told me. That can be so embarrassing, a lot of girls would just want to wish it away. I made sure she knew how proud I was of her, and how she didn’t do anything wrong at all. He should be embarrassed, not her. And then I took it out of her hands and went straight to the principal. And that was the end of it for my daughter; the school took it from there. I stepped in because I knew this wasn’t something my fourth-grade daughter needed to take up with some fourth-grade boy.
A Time I Stepped WAY In
Big surprise, when my daughter got her own phone, she started texting her friends. A lot. I checked (and still check) her texts from time to time to make sure everything is what I think it is. In middle school, she had a new friend that made my Mom Spidey Sense tingle. She was fun, usually, but she was also a wild card. She lashed out once and borderline bullied my daughter, so I kept an even closer watch.
Because my intuition put me on high alert, I checked texts more regularly. The Spirit was keeping me on this, and for good reason. I read a series of group texts where the friend said she’d been raped by an older guy. She told her friends not to tell anyone, and my daughter tried to get her to tell a school counselor or her grandparents she lived with. She refused, and that was it for me. No way was I leaving my preteen in this situation. She needed me to airlift her right out of it because she didn’t have the tools or maturity to handle that.
I knew the grandmother, so I called her. She was so grateful. We both knew that the story could be true or could be a made-up story for attention. So she took it from there. I wish my daughter had told me, but she didn’t. How could she know what the right thing to do was? Moral of the story: Encourage independence in your teens, but keep an eye on those private conversations.
You may have heard the stories about moms filling out college applications for their kids, going to job interviews with them, and so on. Blech. Listen, if your kid can’t fill out his own college application–for whatever reason–he isn’t ready to go to college. Seems like a pretty expensive Responsibility Camp. And if you think tagging along on a job interview is going to help your kid’s chances of getting that job…honey, please.
As questions or problems arise at school, encourage your child to take the lead in talking to teachers or coaches. Think a test grade is unfair? I’ll take you early to talk to your teacher before school. You need to sit somewhere else in class? Go talk to the teacher or stop complaining and using it as an excuse for bad grades. Wanna make the varsity team next year? Stay after to ask the coach what you need to do, and I’ll be happy to pick you up later than usual.
When your teen wants to get a job, talk through that decision. If it’s a “go,” she needs to be the one to pick up applications, fill them out, and talk to you about the interview schedule (if she needs a ride). Then she can fill out her own paperwork, work out scheduling with the new boss, and be in charge of getting there on time. At tax time, teach her how to do her own paperwork. If issues arise in the workplace (a difficult coworker, the schedule is more demanding than she thought, the work isn’t what she was told, etc.), you’re back to advisory role unless it’s egregious or illegal.
Band Geeks, Doin’ it for Themselves
Both of my kids are total band geeks. And the music world runs on auditions. The nature of the beast is that you practice and work your butt off, and you get one audition. You may have an “on” day, or you may have an “off” day. You don’t get to pick. Consequently, the audition may or may not go your way. When my daughter got audition results for high school band placement, she was not where she expected to be. Such a blow. But I was not about to go to the band directors and complain or ask for the audition results. There was some character-building we could do, and I also didn’t want my daughter’s first impression in the program to be “the kid with that mom.”
Instead, I told her to work hard and show them she could do more, and when it came time for spring auditions, go to the band directors herself (who she would actually know by then) and ask what she needed to do to move up. It made for a tough fall semester, but the pay-off was huge. She worked hard, kicked butt, moved up, and even got an award at the end of the year. And she did that without me, so she owned all of it. Get it, girl!
In related news, my son (who’s in middle school) is a great clarinet player. But he recently got third part and was very discouraged. His clarinet needed a repair, so we figured that was part of it. But my husband told him he should go to the band directors and ask if that’s what’s going on, or if he needed to work on something. He actually did that! And he found out that it was partly the clarinet, but mostly some things he needed to do better. He didn’t love going in and having that conversation, but he came out feeling better about handling it on his own and knowing what he needs to do. And to his credit, he’s having a good attitude about playing the part he was given.
Kids are busy with extracurricular activities, and one of the many ways they are great handling relationships with authority. Don’t be that parent driving the basketball coach crazy because you’re telling him how he should playing your kid. Don’t be that parent emailing the choir director about why your child should have the next solo. If you find yourself in a situation where you really feel like the person in charge is mishandling things, change teams/groups if you can. Otherwise, let your kid handle it as much as possible. And if we’re being honest, a lot of “handling it” is really working harder to prove himself. Keep this in perspective–If your kid can make it through a season or even four years of high school with a coach he doesn’t love, think how much better an employee he’ll be when he can perform well regardless of his boss.
Relationships among the team or group are like other peer relationships. Just keep the focus on teamwork and working together. You may not get along at all with that guy, but he’s your goalie, so on the field, you’re a team, buddy.
Quitting an Activity–Another Story
My daughter did taekwondo for years. She enjoyed it for a long time, but she reached a point where she wanted to quit. When we decided to let her, we required her to tell her instructor. She was a fifth-grader, but she had years of relationship with her instructor and needed to respect him enough to tell him herself. Plus, I knew him well enough to know how that was going to go. I wasn’t setting her up for a harsh or guilt-ridden conversation.
She did it. I hung back while she helped him pick up after class and talk to him, and it went like I thought it would. He appreciated it and wished her the best. My son stayed in the program for years after she left, and my daughter was able to maintain a nice relationship with the instructor. What did she learn? When you make a decision, see it through on your own. You can have difficult conversations…and survive!
Here’s a tricky one. You want your kids to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), which at some point means they have to learn the “shrewd” for themselves. Kids need to realize the world isn’t all friendly, but not to the point that they are overly fearful.
I would say the big picture on raising independent kids to handle stranger relationships is to teach them two things:
- be cautious in engaging strangers,
- and recognize warning signs.
As far as initiating contact with strangers, teach them to avoid it and never give personal information. Kids are friendly and are pretty willing to tell someone new all about themselves. Explain that it’s against your rules to give that information, and that safe people don’t ask those questions. I’d make it stronger than, “You really shouldn’t tell a stranger where you go to school,” and make it as hardline as your other house rules.
Warning signs are harder to teach. It requires discernment, sensitivity, and a degree of worldliness to realize that they are warning signs. Look for opportunities to show this in movies, on TV, or in real life. If you keep this all in the abstract, they’ll never get it. Role playing might be a good way to do it, or puppets for younger kids.
Examples of warning signs:
- Not respecting your boundaries
From the very start. This is a one-strike-and-you’re-out deal. If you say, “No, I want to play by myself,” and someone of ANY age tries to change your mind or push through, that’s not okay. If someone offers help with something (“Let me help you put your groceries in your car,” or “Let me help you walk your excited dog”) and you say no, that should be the end of it. Even if it looks helpful, ignoring your boundaries or decisions is a warning. It can be an attempt to take control in a disarming way. Bad guys are good at not looking like bad guys.
- Wanting to have secrets
Kids should not have secrets with adults, period. Unless it’s a parent. Kids need to know this because secrets can be fun and exciting. Adults shouldn’t suggest having a secret, and kids shouldn’t suggest it, either.
- Asking seemingly innocent questions
If a stranger is asking a kid a lot of questions, that is a warning. I always tell my kids that safe people don’t ask kids for information about themselves. That’s pretty black and white.
An Example of My Son Killin’ It
My son has had to fly by himself a few times. We review the rules every time. Usually, the person next to him strikes up a conversation with him. But when they ask his name, he tells them his mom says he can’t tell that. They always respect that. That’s a safe person. And that’s the point–A safe person won’t be offended or push back. They get it. Wouldn’t you? If someone pushes it, they’re not a safe adult. It really is that simple. (By the way, there’s always at least one flight attendant who is aware of my son’s flying alone.)
- Trying to make the kid feel more grown up
This is big-time kid currency. But it also brings the kid into unfamiliar territory, making them vulnerable. It’s a warning sign. The seedy underbelly of that is introducing kids to alcohol, drugs, porn, and even sexuality. Nope.
- An uneasy feeling
Let your kid know that if someone ever makes him feel uncomfortable for no reason, respect that feeling. I’m going to say this is especially true for girls because we still have a cultural expectation for girls to be nice and not ruffle feathers. It gets a lot of girls into trouble because they’re so busy trying to be nice and not hurt anyone’s feelings that they go along when they shouldn’t.
God gives us intuition about things. It’s not about reason and evidence; it’s deeper than that. Intuition may not always right, but that’s okay. Again, safe people get it and back off.
If you just feel uncomfortable around someone, that’s enough to get away from them for good.
When my son was in elementary school, I talked to him about going into bathrooms on his own. They reach an age where it feels weird for them to go into the women’s room. That was a tough transition to me because I can be overly protective and paranoid. Once, he came back to me and told me he had done exactly what I told him to do, and I was so proud. He was washing his hands, and a man said something to him and put his hand on my son’s head. In all likelihood, it was totally innocent. But without saying a word, my son took off running out of the restroom. Perfect. I loved that he didn’t care about the man’s feelings.
To Wrap it Up
If this seems like a lot of work, it is. But that’s your job. And take a second to imagine raising a child who, when he graduates high school and goes on to the next phase of life, can manage his own relationships. What if you knew your daughter could handle her school and work relationships on her own, for the most part? What if you knew your son was wise in friendships and around strangers?
Now, imagine that none of that is true. Wouldn’t you wish you had done the work when they were whatever ages your kids are today? It’s not too much work!
For even more on this topic, check out this Free Resource List I put together. It’s chock full of ideas and links to make your life easier.
I’d love to hear from you about what your parents did to prepare you for real-life relationships. How did they equip you to be a better adult? And how would your life be different if they hadn’t done that? After you text or email them a big “thanks for being awesome parents”, tell us about it in the comments!