Choices about our kids are always tough, and we happen to be operating in an era that makes them even tougher. We tend to think that every moment, decision, success, and failure is critical, but what’s critical over time is that our children become loyal friends, good partners, honest and reliable workers with a strong moral center
While there are many ways for parents to encourage independence and confidence in their children, five of the most impactful parenting behaviors are: setting a good example, asking questions, instilling optimism, giving age-appropriate control, and assessing risks. Here’s a look at each.
1. Set A Good Example. It takes a fearless family to raise a fearless child. If facing uncertainty makes us panicky and overprotective, our first task is to regroup and fortify ourselves. Our goal as parents is to be courageous enough to give our kids the time and opportunities they need to cultivate these qualities and to model them ourselves.
Love, support, curiosity, and emphasis on “doing the right thing,” and the ability to tolerate our children’s missteps and disappointments are what matter most. When we shield children from failure or choreograph successes for them, we’re distorting the experiences they need in order to grow.
2. Ask Questions. Renowned psychologist Carol Dweck found that children approach problems in one of two ways, with either a fixed or a growth mindset. Kids with a growth mindset believe it’s possible to get smarter if they work at it; they regard false starts and unsuccessful attempts as opportunities. Children with a fixed mindset try to avoid mistakes; they think that if they can’t do something right the first time, improvement is impossible.
Shifting children from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset needs to be a family affair, and the dinner table is a good place to start. To encourage a growth mindset, I urge parents to move away from judging children on performance alone and instead praise their openness to risk-taking and willingness to try new things. A good dinnertime question might be, “What was something new you learned today?” Instead of asking about test grades or athletic wins, parents can ask, “What did you learn?”
3. Instill Optimism. We each have an explanatory style—the manner in which we explain to ourselves why things happen and what they mean. A pessimistic explanatory style generally leads to learned helplessness, and a hallmark of learned helplessness is the belief that we can’t do anything to change our circumstances. I believe there’s a genetic component to our inherent explanatory style; many of the pessimistic kids I see have one parent or both with the same bent.
People with an optimistic explanatory style may get discouraged and give up temporarily, but those with a negative, pessimistic explanatory style give up permanently. High-performing kids with an optimistic explanatory style may still get depressed, but in spite of this, they become more determined to keep up with their studies so that when their depression lifts they aren’t behind in their work.
People with optimistic explanatory styles are more likely to blame circumstances (externalizing). When bad things happen, people with a pessimistic explanatory style consider the problem personal, blaming themselves (internalizing). Extended periods of internalizing can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety among kids (and adults) alike.
4. Give Kids Age-Appropriate Control. As our children gain proficiency in meeting diverse people, experiencing new environments, and making transitions, we can simultaneously give them more control over their lives. The trick is not to shield our kids from activities and responsibilities, as long as they are age-appropriate (or just slightly beyond). If we encourage our children and offer nonjudgmental feedback along the way, they’ll get increasingly adept at managing their time, completing tasks even if they’re boring, setting ambitious goals for themselves, making mistakes and recovering, and inventing new ways to solve problems.
Each task a child masters builds competency and self-assurance, and if chores evolve into routine responsibilities, they also teach what it means to be a contributing member of a community. That’s foundational to our kids’ growing into good team players, classmates, colleagues, friends, partners, and citizens. Kids who learn early in life that they’re capable of mastering activities that at first feel a little stressful grow up better able to handle the stress of all kinds. This is how they grow, develop an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and cultivate the self-efficacy that keeps them from feeling helpless.
In contrast, when children are given little control over their environment and activities, it lowers their motivation and inhibits their forward growth. Establishing inquisitiveness, enthusiasm about learning, and having an open, playful, and agile mind is much more important than always being comfortable.
5. Assess Risks. An essential part of building children’s self-efficacy and independence is helping them venture out on their own. It can start with crossing the street alone and progress to walking to school with a friend, riding a bike or skateboard around the neighborhood, taking public transportation, going to the mall, learning to drive, and taking a trip with a class, club, or group of friends.
The problem is not only how do we know if an activity is too risky, but just as important, how do we train our children and teenagers to think about risk? Your first job is to calm your own nerves一most of us know when we’re catastrophizing. Second, take a look at their previous behavior and use it to determine how you think they’ll apply that to a greater level of freedom. Finally, talk to your child and set some appropriate next-step limits. This rule of thumb is helpful for everything from when to allow your toddler to go down the steeper slide to when to allow your teenager to drive on the highway. The ability to organize oneself and assess risk has always been important, and it will be a signature skill during turbulent times.