This was one of the most informative lessons I learned and valued in my parenting journey.
As we know, when a baby is born, he is completely, 100% dependent on someone else. What I didn’t realize, until I was talking with one of my sons, was that from that very first day of life, the parent, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to help that child become independent, the state of being able to act responsibly on his own.
With each little cry, the baby communicates to his mother a need. The need may be that he’s hungry, or hurt, or tired, or his diaper needs to be changed. It's almost as if each need has a different sound and the mother comes to recognize which need is being expressed by the sound of the cry. As his mother responds to his cry and meets his needs, he not only learns how to communicate, but comes to trust that his need will be met. Interestingly, communication and trust are key principles of independence.
Over time, the baby grows; he begins to use body language (smiles, arm waving) and responds to body language expressed to him (caresses, hugs, kisses, snuggles, and pats.) He can hold toys or a bottle with his own hands. He learns to sit, roll over, crawl, and finally walk. Each step is one of progress towards independence.
By the age of eight each child is considered by the Lord to be accountable, able to understand right from wrong and to choose accordingly. From the time our children were about eight to fourteen, we had tried to teach and promote independent thinking. We would try and help them see the outcomes of their choices by asking them questions. We would encourage the best choice with an explanation of why. Unbeknownst to us, we were teaching them how to think ahead; how to see their options and make an educated decision.
One day, I was talking with another friend about the process of letting our children go, and helping them become independent. Daina shared with me her thoughts of “interdependent” relationships.
She explained that this state is when someone is fully able and capable of being independent, but chooses to counsel with parents, priesthood leaders, Heavenly Father, and others like specialists, if needed, about choices and options to gain any information they may not be aware of before they make their own decision. Then when they decide, they take complete responsibility for their choice! Boy did this ring true to me. I was ecstatic about applying this concept.
Imagine, teaching your teenager about this philosophy before they date or drive. As a family, we talked about the average teenager. They make all kinds of decisions, some down the road of rebellion, just to prove they are independent.
Youth vs Teenager
We shared with our children that we felt there was a difference between a “youth” and a “teenager.” That in their teenage years, they would decide how they were going to act: as a confident, independent youth or as a rebellious teenager seeking to prove their independence.
We explained that without knowing, we had been helping them become independent from the day of their birth. We let them know that truly, they were already independent and there was no real need for rebellion, because we recognized their independence and honored it. (You should have seen them light up.)
We then shared with them that it was now in their power as a youth, to shift into a more mature way of thinking, by developing an “interdependent” relationship. As we verbally explained these different states, it was easy to let them know how they had grownup; it was easy to validate they did know how to make right choices; it was incredible to watch their confidence grow as we expressed our trust in them and their ability to direct their own lives.
We then encouraged them to counsel with those more mature, who had expertise in the concerns which they were having, and who truly had their best interest at heart. We shared our desire to be among those chosen for counsel, before making their decision.
Finally, as we stressed the importance of taking responsibility for their choices, their heads nodded in the affirmative. They understood and were ready to accept responsibility for their lives. With that came an underlying appreciation that we really did consider them mature enough to move into this “interdependent” state. Our relationships continued to grow in love and respect. This was a treasured conversation. Feelings that developed, on both sides, were amazing.
Roles of: Adult / Parent / Child
Our youngest son had another unique way of understanding this concept. He had watched an educational show on Teens and came into my room saying, “Now I get it. If I act like a child, you have to be the parent. If I act like an adult, you, too, can be an adult. We can choose from these three roles how we’re going to act, and others around us adjust accordingly.”
I thought this was very profound for his twelve years of life. Apparently, this show taught him that, in life, if someone chooses to play the role of a child, then someone else has to take the role of parent. The role a person chose was evident by the behavior they exhibited. For example:
An adult would be considerate, respectful, and act responsibly.
A child would exhibit characteristics that were more needy, whiny, selfish, demanding, and out of control.
This made the parent more controlling; if someone chooses not to control themselves, the parent is the one to take control.
Amazing! I, too, could see that when our children acted responsibly and considerately, like adults, I did not have to “parent” them and could step into my "adult" role. Only when they took the role of “child” did I need to step into the role of “parent.”
It was beautiful to watch him catch and share this vision. He now understood when I’m in the parent’s role, it’s because he chose the child’s role. He could choose to remain in the state of the child, through his behavior, or he could change his behavior and act more like an adult; in which case, I would automatically shift from acting like a parent to acting like an adult. How powerful to discuss with our children that their behavior as a child determines the role of the parent. They choose when they want to grow up.